Christian Smallwood and Cliff Godwin - 2020

Redshirt junior outfielder Christian Smallwood (left) and head coach Cliff Godwin (right) stand on the field during the Keith LeClair Classic.

What feels like a lifetime ago has actually been less than three weeks. Junior left-handed pitcher/first baseman Alec Burleson belted a home run and sophomore infielder Connor Norby plated the go-ahead RBI in the fourth inning of an East Carolina University win over the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

The Pirates’ 12th win of a shortened 17-game season, the victory alone meant so much more than just completing a sweep over an in-state rival. When redshirt senior right-handed pitcher Matt Bridges logged the final out, head coach Cliff Godwin became the third all-time winningest baseball coach in school history, passing Keith LeClair with his 213th win as skipper.

“I had no idea,” Godwin said. “We won in Charlotte on that Sunday and I think (Pirates’ play-by-play broadcaster) Corey Gloor and (ECU Sports Information Director) Malcolm (Gray) kind of told me together and I was pretty emotional to be honest with you.”

Emotional not for the career achievement but for reflecting upon his former coach who passed away in 2006 after a battle with ALS, Godwin has carried on LeClair’s legacy while donning his iconic No. 23 purple and gold jersey for every game.

Driven by the goal of getting the Pirates to Omaha to play in a College World Series, LeClair took his club to four consecutive regionals, advancing to the Super Regionals in 2001. Just short of the ultimate goal, however, LeClair’s message that his team will make it to Omaha is still played prior to every ECU home game as part of the video package played in center field.

Like LeClair, Godwin has helmed his Pirates to four Regionals, including in 2019, while guiding his club to two Super Regional appearances.

“That’s never been something I’ve set out to do,” Godwin said in regards to passing LeClair on the wins list. “I just want to make coach proud, I wanna make our teammates proud that I played with. It’s a great honor, I just hope coach is proud of what we’re doing here.”

Watch an ECU practice, scrimmage or game, and it is quite clear just how much this program means to Godwin. As a former player from 1998-2001, and a native of nearby Snow Hill, Godwin has said how coming to ECU was the best decision of his life, a choice that allowed him to be molded by a man that expected his best on the diamond.

“He (LeClair) was always honest with us and it wasn’t always what we wanted to hear individually,” Godwin said. “He was very consistent in he demanded a blue collar, hard-working approach every single day and never wavered from that.”

That hard-working attitude allowed the Pirates to garner three conference Player-of-the-Year awards, seven freshman All-American selections and three Regional No. 1 during LeClair’s tenure. Four players under LeClair are now in the ECU Hall of Fame, with names like John Williamson, Chad Tracy, Tommy Eason and Sam Narron joining their coach in that honor.

Much more than just a coach, LeClair motivated individuals to give everything they had and believe they were part of the best team on the diamond each time they took the field.

“He made a group of guys that might not have been the most talented believe that when they stepped on the field, they could beat anybody because of the work they had put in,” Godwin said.

Fast forward nearly 20 years and Godwin is still implementing that philosophy with his own players. A focus on themselves as a team, and a belief that any opponent can be beat through sound, fundamental baseball, is part of the reason for the program’s success.

When LeClair stepped down as head coach in 2002, not long after the Pirates’ fourth straight regional appearance, he was the second all-time winningest coach in program history with 212 on his ledger. Since passed by Billy Godwin, LeClair still holds the second-best winningest percentage (.688) in school history.

Like LeClair, it has taken the current Godwin five seasons to reach the low-200 range in wins.

LeClair’s mark on ECU, however, goes much deeper than wins alone. To honor LeClair and remember his impact on the Pirate community, the baseball team participates in Mustache March to help raise money for ALS research while hosting the Keith LeClair Classic tournament each season since 2004.

This year, ECU donned special throwback uniforms for the LeClair Classic. Representative of the purple and gold jerseys with the “Pirates” script, every player wore the No. 23 for the weekend, joining Godwin in paying respect to LeClair.

No doubt proud of the winning tradition Godwin has carried on in Greenville, North Carolina, LeClair’s mark on ECU’s current top man shines through every day. Impacted by the messages and motivation of a man who wanted nothing but the best for his players and team, Godwin learned much that is still put into practice.

“I have taken all those and that is a piece of who I am now and I really appreciate him teaching me some great coaching lessons when I played here at East Carolina,” Godwin said.

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