Former Tar Heel Lebo takes reins at East Carolina

Mar 24, 2010 - 9:24 AM By AARON BEARD AP Basketball Writer

GREENVILLE, N.C.(AP) -- Jeff Lebo knows what he's walking into at East Carolina: A program that hasn't had a winning season in 13 years and hasn't been to the NCAA tournament in even longer.

Yet Lebo also believes that he can reverse the Pirates' feeble basketball fortunes.

"It can happen," the new East Carolina coach said Tuesday. "I told our players, 'You watch Butler, you watch Northern Iowa play in the NCAA tournament. So why can't that be East Carolina?"'

It's a question that has been asked here repeatedly over the years. And Lebo - who met with reporters and Pirates fans at his introductory news conference - has been successful in rebuilding efforts at Tennessee Tech and Chattanooga. But East Carolina offers a unique set of challenges outside of the obvious oncourt struggles.

It's a school with a fan base that's passionate and turns out in droves for football, yet is often disengaged and leaves plenty of empty seats in Minges Coliseum when it comes to basketball. Not to mention there's the challenge of building a successful program in the shadows of spotlight-hogging Atlantic Coast Conference programs like Duke, North Carolina and North Carolina State.

Lebo, 43, knows all about the dynamics here. He played for Dean Smith at North Carolina in the 1980s and his wife is a North Carolina native with family less than an hour's drive from campus in Williamston.

"We've got to understand what it takes for a good team to win and win consistently," Lebo said. "The first thing is getting that fan base back out. I've seen the passionate Pirate fans at the football games. I know it can happen here in basketball. This state loves basketball. I know that certainly firsthand."

Lebo spent the past six seasons at Auburn before he was fired earlier this month after compiling a 96-93 record at the school, though he was hampered by an outdated coliseum then let go with the Tigers preparing to open a $90 million arena next season. He received a six-year deal at East Carolina worth about $3.4 million, excluding performance incentives.

Lebo replaces Mack McCarthy, who spent three seasons on the sideline for the Pirates before stepping down to take a a fundraising job in the school's athletics department.

Lebo is the 11th coach at the program during a stretch in which the Pirates have had 28 losing seasons in 35 years. East Carolina hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since 1993 and its last winning record came in the 1996-97 season. In the years since, East Carolina has reached .500 once and compiled a 141-230 record.

"It's not going to happen overnight," said athletics director Terry Holland, who coached Ralph Sampson at Virginia in the early 1980s. "He's going to have to get his own kids in here as well and gradually build what he wants to do and how he wants to play. It's not a matter of whether the players are good, it's whether or not they fit the way he feels most comfortable playing.

"He's very flexible. That's one of the things that's impressive. He doesn't coach a system, he coaches the players."

At the least, Holland finally managed to pull a successful recruiting job on Lebo this time around. Holland recalled his days of trying to recruit Lebo to play for him at Virginia, even remembering a time when someone broke a car window to steal his stereo while he was inside a gym watching Lebo play.

Lebo said Virginia made his final list before he opted to play for Smith and the Tar Heels. There wasn't much hesitation to join Holland's team this time around.

"This is a perfect place for me," Lebo said. "When he offered the job to me, I didn't even have to think about it for more than one second."

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