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Training table a complex issue for Pirates

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The ball is ready to be snapped for a play during the East Carolina football spring game on Saturday.

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BY RONNIE WOODWARD
The Daily Reflector

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

How student-athletes spend their monthly scholarship money, their freedoms when living off campus and East Carolina University’s facilities all are factors as the school plans to implement an athletic-specific dining area in the future.

ECU student-athletes who are on full scholarship and live off campus receive monthly checks to pay for their housing and for meals, which brings about natural freedom and even temptation to either eat cheap or spend as they wish. Athletics director Jon Gilbert said during last week’s university Board of Trustees meetings that ECU will have to adjust the money amount for food in those checks when offering more meals on campus.

A dining area for student-athletes only, commonly referred to as a training table, is becoming the norm in college sports. Gilbert said the process of getting one also can be a complex undertaking.

“We’re trying to determine how much money to take out of their checks when we start that process and the capital investment into the training table,” Gilbert said. “It is an important issue and at the top of our list for what we want to complete. I just want to make sure that we are diligent in how we pull this off.”

Gilbert added that research has showed that even some ECU athletes who live on campus, who are required to have a full meal plan, are not using all of their meal card swipes as desired.

Coaches and administrators want as much regulation as possible with their players’ diets, but the Pirates also have an athletics budget that ranks near the bottom of the American Athletic Conference, according to Gilbert and the USA Today’s national database on NCAA team’s revenue and expenses.

ECU coaches long have pushed for a training table and it was identified as a primary need last year during special athletics adviser Dave Hart’s “deep dive” into athletics, which led to a $20 million designation in university reserve money going to athletics to settle a budget deficit and make significant capital improvements to athletics facilities.

As full details on a training table are still being worked out, accountability and communication about food choices between players and coaches remain vital.

“If we have a guy who is struggling with how he eats, then I’ll have him send a picture text of his meal at lunch and his meal for breakfast,” head football coach Mike Houston said.

Another key piece for the Pirates is being in the process of hiring a full-time nutritionist, which Gilbert made a priority when he left his AD post at Southern Miss in December for the Pirates. Southern Miss became the first Conference USA school to hire a full-time nutritionist when Gilbert made that decision for the Golden Eagles.

Houston and Pirate basketball coach Joe Dooley both came from schools last year that had some version of a training table — Houston at James Madison from the second-tier Football Championship Subdivision at Dooley at Florida Gulf Coast that out of the Atlantic Sun Conference.

“This whole training table and fueling station and nutritionist component is something that really we are behind here,” Houston said. “We have to make sure that by the fall, we look at it and say that we are not behind anymore and we’re able to function at a high level. We have to develop our players to the best that they can be.”

Gilbert said another factor is non-scholarship walk-ons and players on partial scholarships who do not have meals covered as part of their scholarships would have to pay on their own to gain access to food at a training table. Baseball, for example, is a sport limited by the NCAA to 11.7 scholarships. The ECU roster this year has 31 players.

Some schools in the most lucrative Power Five conferences that do not have the same budget restraints as the Pirates or other AAC teams have training table buildings will full kitchens and employ chefs cooking high-quality, athlete-specific meals to complement their workouts and physical goals. ECU is likely to implement a training table into a current facility, with the Murphy Center connected to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium as a lead option, compared to immediately building a standalone facility.

“It may be something that we wade into at a very shallow point, building to a full-fledged training table at some point,” Gilbert said. “We’ve worked with campus on what those options will be, and continue to work with them on the complexity of making that real.”

Contact Ronnie Woodward at rwoodward@reflector.com, 252-329-9592 and follow @RonnieW11 on Twitter.

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