Jeff Lebo officially left the position as ECU basketball coach Wednesday afternoon, but unofficially he was dismissed on the day in July 2014 when ECU entered the American Athletic Conference.
Whoever was in charge of ECU hoops at that point was doomed, and it happened to be Lebo.
East Carolina is a fine university where my dear niece attends school. Its athletic department features a popular and historically successful football program that has appeared in 17 bowl games, most recently performing respectably in a 28-20 loss to Florida in the 2014 Birmingham Bowl. Even during a second consecutive 3-9 season, the Pirates drew nearly 37,000 fans per game.
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ECU is located in one of the most passionate college basketball states in America, but is far more oriented toward the gridiron. That is its prerogative, but every conference move the university has made to better the football program has increased the improbability of basketball success.
“As a coach, you pour your heart and your soul and everything that you have into coaching, into your players, your program,” Lebo said at a press conference announcing his departure. “Sometimes, there comes a time where you want to focus a little bit more on some areas that you might have fallen short in over the course of the past 36 years.”
Now that Lebo is out, we already are seeing the “never made the NCAA Tournament” business applied to him. It’s a lazy method of analyzing his value as a coach, or his accomplishments. That ECU eventually would try with a different coach is by no means unjust, but let’s be honest about his career.
Lebo has, for whatever reason, made a habit of accepting some of the more challenging jobs available in Division I.
Actually, there might have been good reasons. It’s likely he saw Eddie Fogler pondering his exit from coaching while serving as his assistant coach at South Carolina. Instead of the sort of attractive job that seemed likely for someone with Dean Smith and Fogler on his side, Lebo chose to take his first head coaching position at Tennessee Tech. When he arrived, the Eagles had enjoyed three winning seasons in 13 years. In his third season, they won 20, and in his fourth they went 15-1 in the Ohio Valley Conference. Tech lost in the OVC finals by a single point. They then won three NIT games, two of them on the road, finishing with a 27-7 mark.
But sure, no NCAA Tournament.
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Accepting the job at Chattanooga after that was logical, and there he averaged 20 wins in two seasons, before jumping at an offer from Auburn. Maybe that one made sense, too, for the reason most people accept jobs: money. But Lebo was a curious fit in the SEC, and Auburn had not yet begun spending its football largesse on hoops. It never worked, and Auburn was justified in moving on.
So taking the East Carolina job made sense in context, also: The Pirates were willing to hire him.
ECU, though, has done less with more quality basketball coaches than just about anywhere.
They had Joe Dooley in the late 1990s and opted for a change following a 13-14 season. They hired Bill Herrion away from Drexel at that point, then moved his program from the Colonial Athletic Association into Conference USA in 2001, where it had no chance against Memphis, Cincinnati and Louisville. After the latter two moved on (and John Calipari left U of M), Lebo was able to elevate ECU to being reasonably competitive in C-USA, with four seasons of 15 or more wins and a 23-12 team in 2013-14.
And then ECU stepped up again, this time to the American Athletic Association. The 16 combined league wins over the next three seasons were entirely predictable, as was the announcement Lebo was resigning from his position. It simply was a matter of picking a day.
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Some pertinent passages from the school’s release:
“Lebo compiled 116 victories during his seven-plus seasons at the helm of the ECU program making him the winningest coach during the school’s NCAA Division I era, which dates back to 1965 …”
“Under his guidance, the Pirates recorded their first-ever 20-win season as a Division I institution …”
“Lebo is one of only three ECU coaches to have recorded multiple winning seasons in the school’s Division I history.”
This is what ECU might have said, briefly: It’s not him, it’s us.