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ECU athletics challenges story of 2017

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A young fan cheers on the Pirates during the ECU-Cincinnati football game at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Nov. 18, 2017.

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Sunday, December 31, 2017

2017 saw Greenville elect a new mayor and City Council and continue uncharted growth and development. An opioid epidemic wrecked more lives as family and friends of its victims along with community leaders made efforts to stem its deadly tide.

Vidant Health and East Carolina University this year struck an unprecedented public-private agreement to consolidate their medical practices, Pitt County Schools relaxed a decade-old uniform policy and cameras began spying red-light runners at major Greenville intersections.

Heinous crimes and human tragedy like the death of a Grimesland girl on her way to school dominated the news many days, but they were balanced by brighter headlines like the Greenville North State baseball team’s run to the Little League World Series.

These are just a few of the events and issues that grabbed the attention of readers of The Daily Reflector in 2017, but a review of the most highly read stories on reflector.com showed that none of them captivated more readers than the challenges facing ECU’s athletics department, especially its football program.

Of the 30 most-read stories on the website this year, eight of them covered low attendance at ECU games, fan protests over decisions made by Athletic Director Jeff Compher and the university’s renewal of his contract, and ECU’s ability to compete in the American Athletic Conference. In fact, three of the top five stories on the website dealt with the topics.

East Carolina is in the midst of a fundraising campaign to pay for a $55 million renovation and expansion of seating on the south side of Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium as well as improvements in the west end zone. The project will include a new press box, suites with premium seating and upgrades to athletic facilities in the Scales Field House and Ward Sports Medicine Building. 

But the Pirate football team has struggled since Compher fired popular head football coach Ruffin McNiell and replaced him with Scottie Montgomery. Montgomery has won just five games in two years with the Pirates. 

Attendance reached its lowest level in decades this year, raising concerns among Pirate faithful that fundraising will falter and that ticket sales will fail to fill seats once the expansion is complete. Construction started this month and originally was to be finished in time for the 2018 season. The university announced in August that the timeline had been extended until the start of the 2019 season.

A report to trustees by administrators in November showed that ECU’s athletic program receives about $17 million less in direct institutional support than most other AAC schools. That’s because North Carolina does not allow its public universities to fund athletics through tuition and other state appropriations like other conference members.

The longstanding directive by the state to ensure tuition is used for academics rather than athletics is appropriate, even if it does make it harder for the Pirates to compete. Still, the Pirates in the past have shown they can compete with the best of them, and we suspect they will again in the future.

While a high level of interest in ECU athletics demonstrates the importance Pirate football holds as an economic engine and social and cultural center, we suspect it will not diminish the community’s commitment to stay informed about other important topics of the day in 2018.

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