NEW ORLEANS — A left-out school in a left-out area.
When you’re off the beaten path — or at least an hour away from the nearest interstate — and your ambitions of being a major player in college football have been thwarted despite on-the-field success and in-the-stands support, you tend to approach things with a chip on your shoulder.
At least that’s the case for East Carolina, which meets Louisiana-Lafayette in Saturday’s New Orleans Bowl in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
“A lot of people overlook us as a school and as a football team,” sophomore receiver Justin Hardy said Thursday. “So basically we look on ourselves as underdogs. We may be in a small city, but our fan support is great, and that’s what makes us good.”
This season, when the Pirates went 8-4 and played no marquee nonconference opponents at home, they averaged 47,013, near capacity in 50,000-seat Dowdy-Ficklin Stadium, which was expanded by 7,000 in 2010 to meet fan demand.
That number is the most of any school from the six non-AQ conferences by almost 12,000 over Boise State. (Independent BYU averaged 61,940.) Fellow Conference USA and future Big East colleague Central Florida is third at 34,608.
“You go around Conference USA, and you don’t see anything like what we have,” junior linebacker Derrell Johnson said. “If we have a 7 p.m. game, our fans are out tailgating by noon. We just have a great atmosphere at our games. That and winning ought to put us more on the map.”
And therein lies part of East Carolina’s inferiority complex.
Despite a long campaign for Big East membership — the ACC wasn’t going to happen for a number of reasons — the school had to watch as Central Florida, Memphis, Houston and SMU received Big East invites a year ago before its finally came through last month.
And that was only a partial offer: football only. Tulane, whose membership was announced on the same day, was given a full ride.
The reason? All of the aforementioned schools are in major metropolitan areas.
Greenville, N.C., home of the Pirates, has a population of 84,554 — certainly not insignificant but far less than the Big East’s big city image, one that likely will change now that the seven Catholic non-football schools have announced their intentions to leave by 2015.
That could result in East Carolina’s other sports eventually being included in the Big East. As of now, the school has no home in other sports after next year.
“We can hold our own in basketball,” said football coach Ruffin McNeill, pointing out that ECU recently lost by six points at North Carolina. “But we understand why the things were the way they were. We can only do our part by being the best we can in football.”
The Pirates do that. This is their fifth bowl appearance in the past six years.
McNeill is a native of Lumberton, N.C., about 100 miles southeast of Greenville but still east of Interstate 95, the highway that separates Greenville from the state’s more populous regions.
“We’re the only major school east of I-95,” McNeill said. “That’s why we have the kind of support we do. And we’re expanding our influence over to the western side and into Virginia, too. The Big East membership can only help with that.”
The Pirates, who have traditionally recruited Florida well, have branched out into other areas. Quarterback Shane Carden is from Houston but had connections to some of the staff when they were assistants at Texas Tech.
“I didn’t know where East Carolina was,” he said. “But I liked the offense because it was what they ran at Texas Tech and, when I took my official visit, I really liked the school and the area.
“The whole town revolves around the team. You’re not going to get the chance to play at many places like that.”