Dooley brings a new day for men’s basketball
In April, ECU’s new head men’s basketball coach Joe Dooley met with his players and asked them a question: Did they know their ring sizes? He was referring, of course, to the big bling players get after a championship has been won and the confetti cleaned up.
It was a bold question for a team that doesn’t have room for much besides improvement. But Dooley wants to be aggressive and ambitious from the get-go.
The Pirates finished 10-20 last season under the direction of interim head coach Michael Perry, who took over after Jeff Lebo resigned six games into the season.
Dooley, by contrast, led Florida Gulf Coast University to five consecutive 20-win seasons and five conference titles. He was ECU’s head coach from 1995 to 1999 and has returned having agreed to a five-year contract. He says he’s happy to be back in a college town, back where his parents live, and happy to see what’s possible in Greenville the second time around.
On a hot June morning a few months into his post, he takes a seat behind the desk in his sparsely decorated yet spacious second-floor office with a crow’s nest view of the team’s practice court. It’s the same desk where he’ll map out a new era of Pirate basketball. But for now, he stashes his breakfast and speaks candidly about how things are going so far.
“Anytime you take a new job, there’s an adjustment period. We’re making some progress,” he says, adding, “there’s a lot of work to do.” He has a saying: Anytime you move into a new house, there’s bound to be dust under the rug. You just have to figure out how big the pile of dust is.
Dooley is ready to do some sweeping.
Building a reputation
Dooley, 52, is a native of West Orange, New Jersey, and a graduate of George Washington University, where he was a four-year basketball letter-winner and team captain his senior year. He has a thin frame, light blue eyes, slicked back hair and a matter-of-fact way of speaking. He and his wife, Tanya, have a son named Max. His coaching career started in 1988 as an assistant for the University of South Carolina Gamecocks under George Felton.
He worked there alongside Eddie Payne and three-time national coach-of-the-year Tubby Smith before accompanying Payne to Greenville. He took over from Payne as ECU’s head coach in 1995. At 29, he was the youngest head coach in NCAA Division I men’s basketball. He led the Pirates to their only top-three finish during their 15-year membership in the Colonial Athletic Association. After ECU, he spent three years at the University of New Mexico (1999-2002), a year at Wyoming (2002-2003) and 10 seasons with Bill Self at Kansas University. He won a national championship as an assistant coach at KU in 2008 and helped the Jayhawks earn another Final Four berth in 2012. He also earned a reputation as a talented recruiter, having recruited or coached 14 NBA draft picks in his time at KU, including nine first-round selections.
“There are a lot of factors that go into recruiting that you have to consider,” Dooley says. For ECU, one of the factors is perception. “We’ve got good facilities, we’ve got a good alumni base, we’ve just got to get guys on campus,” and show them the Pirates’ potential, he adds.
Si Seymour, who has been the broadcast analyst for ECU men’s basketball for 20 years, says Dooley is synonymous with finding good players all over the country. “He has a good eye for talent. He’s been successful where he’s been. I think he’s in the prime of his career,” Seymour says. “He understands what we are, and we are fortunate to have him.”
There’s a recruiting misconception that the ACC owns the state, Seymour says.
“The ACC is a top basketball conference in the country, but that means they recruit all over the country,” he says. “There are a lot of good players in this state that are going elsewhere that could be a major factor in ECU’s success. Joe will be recruiting North Carolina extremely hard,” Seymour says.
Reaction to Dooley’s hiring among fans, players and students has been positive. Dave Hart, athletics director from 1987 to 1995 and special athletics advisor to Chancellor Cecil Staton, says Dooley was absolutely the best fit for the job. “He knows ECU, he knows eastern North Carolina, he knows the fan base,” Hart says, adding the caveat, “Joe’s task is much greater than the norm in that we simply do not have a basketball tradition at ECU.”
Season ticket holder Reid Tyler ’80 drives from Raleigh to attend most games and says he’s noticed a subdued atmosphere in the last few years. He – and everyone interviewed for this story – says Minges Coliseum is an electric and intimidating place for opponents when it’s full, but that hasn’t been happening in recent seasons.
“To me, Dooley looks like our best hire in a long time,” Tyler says. “I think the early enthusiasm will hopefully beget more enthusiasm.”
One of the goals for student body president Jordan Koonts is to get students to show up and stay at games. “If students show up in force, it will
set an example for alumni and other fans. If the students are behind the team, it says others should back them as well,” Koonts says.Hart says another problem is that fans might not realize how competitive the American Athletic Conference is. Three programs – Cincinnati, Houston and Wichita State – earned NCAA tournament bids this year. Houston has been to five Final Fours. Memphis is considered a traditional power. And Temple is the fifth winningest program in the country.Dooley calls it a “big-boy conference.”“We’re in a great league, and we’ve got to help ourselves, and our fans have to help us, too,” he says.“We’ve got to put a product on the court that our fans are proud of. We’ve got to create some interest in our program and get our fans in here.”Part of the plan is to play more aggressive basketball. Houston, Cincinnati and Wichita State – the likely teams to beat for next year’s conference title – are playing with highly skilled, athletic players, and when the Pirates meet them on the court, “we need to not back down,” Dooley says.
A successful basketball program can have a positive ripple effect on the whole university. There’s even a term for it: basketball bump. According to a recent education data analysis by Bloomberg, schools that perform well or better than expected during the NCAA tournament receive an increase in public awareness, applications and donations. Wichita State University saw a 29 percent application increase after its Final Four appearance in 2013. When Florida Gulf Coast upset Georgetown that same year, Google searches for the school spiked to about triple the norm. And a trip to the 2018 Final Four for Loyola-Chicago resulted in a 660 percent increase in donations as compared to the previous year, the report says.
The last time ECU was in the NCAA tournament was 1993.
“When you have a clean, successful, well managed program, it helps the whole university,” Hart says. “And when that program wins consistently, it helps enrollment and it helps shape people’s attitudes.
Joe Dooley has his players working hard to compete against the best that college basketball has to offer.
Doing the work
It’s the early afternoon in the Smith-Williams Center, and players filter onto the court for practice. They run through quick cuts and drives to the hoop as Dooley watches from center court, his assistants orbiting. Dooley leans forward as if to better see every move, occasionally stopping the action to correct a player, with the exasperated additive, “It’s not that hard!” They do pushups whenever they miss a shot.
Returning players include guards Isaac Fleming, Shawn Williams and K.J. Davis, wing Seth LeDay and forwards Dimitrije Spasojevic and Justin Whatley.
Davis, a 6-6 forward from Portsmouth, Virginia, says he never considered leaving ECU after the coaching change. “It’s been a great transition. I think everybody likes (Dooley). We’re still getting to know him, and he’s still getting to know us, but we’re learning a lot from him,” Davis says.
Williams, a 6-0 guard from Little Rock, Arkansas, who led all conference freshmen in scoring last season, adds that Dooley’s effort to make them more confident is working. “We’re all buying into the plan. He’s telling us to work hard, and that’s what we’re doing,” Williams says. “Next season, I want to make the tournament, win our conference and make history at ECU.”
Both players are looking forward to more wins next season. Dooley is, too. Probably more than most people expect.
“I’ve been to 19 straight postseason tournaments. I don’t want that streak to break,” he says frankly. While others advise patience with the program’s transition, Dooley contends that patience “isn’t a virtue” with him. “If you don’t think big, how are you going to end up big? Isn’t that why we play?” he asks. “If you don’t talk about going to the NCAA tournament, you probably shouldn’t play or coach. I think our fans deserve good basketball. We’re going to work every day to give it to them.”