Soon after taking over as the new head coach, Joe Dooley told the 215-pound rising senior Isaac Fleming that he needed to lose 20 pounds or he wasn’t going to be the starting point guard anymore.
At East Carolina University men’s basketball media day last Thursday, a slim and refreshed 195-pound version of Fleming stood in front of reporters and talked about how good he feels.
Last season Fleming became the first Pirate to record a triple double, notching two at the end of the season. It isn’t clear exactly how the difference will show up in Fleming’s game this season. What is clear is that Fleming meeting Dooley’s challenge represented hard work. Fleming illustrates what Dooley thinks the team’s identity is at this point.
“I think one thing we are is a bunch of guys who do give good effort. Who are we, remains to be seen,” Dooley said.
Fleming’s offseason transformation also comes with part of the culture Dooley has set early on in his second tenure as head coach of the Pirates. Dooley has hammered the Pirate players on conditioning since taking over, making them run at every mistake and slip-up during drills in practice.
So far returning players, a part of last season’s 10-20 team which endured former head coach Jeff Lebo resigning and Michael Perry serving as the interim head coach, are buying in to the discipline Dooley is instilling.
"I feel like we lacked discipline last year. Coach Dooley has been on us from the start and hasn't allowed any of us to get away with anything. With that on top of just being back in shape, knowing that we can compete the whole 40 minutes it's going to be interesting this year,” Fleming said.
ECU scrimmaged against North Carolina State University and Wake Forest University recently before the season. Players are noting immediate returns on the court stemming from a culture change, competing with two Atlantic Coast Conference teams in large part due to their conditioning.
“We know we can compete at that level and not only compete, but do damage at that level,” Fleming said. “We knew how much more in shape we were than them, just seeing them gassed out and we still wanted to go more and more.”
Fleming isn’t the only player buying in to the new culture established by Dooley, as he is joined by sophomore guard Shawn Williams. Williams won the American Athletic Conference Rookie-of-the-Year last season as he averaged just over 12 points per game and shot over 35 percent from three, the only Pirate to shoot over 30 percent from behind the three-point line.
Williams agreed the Pirates hard work is paying off in the long term and is excited to see the difference it makes on the floor this season. Williams reflects Dooley’s comments that ECU is “going to try and win every game, every night,” and will focus on playing basketball the right way, regardless of when some games inevitably end in a loss.
“The first thing Coach Dooley said when he came in is even if we don’t win, the team is going to know we were there. We are always going to play hard from the beginning until the end. We’ll leave no doubt,” Williams said.
Building a new culture like this is difficult, as noted by Dooley. He said at media day things like this can’t be “microwaved” and they take time. While players are buying in, it still requires an adjustment period, especially for developing a new system and playbook.
Justin Whatley, who appeared in 22 games last season but has been often injured, noted the adjustment period but still expresses sentiments similar to his teammates’ that the results are showing up from the Pirates effort.
"Everybody works hard," Whatley said. "We mix well together. Coach Dooley has a lot of plays that we had to learn. His system is pretty strict. A lot of people had to get used to more strict rules, but we started working out a lot better and got a new motor that we didn't have before."
Not only is it an adjustment to a new culture for the players, but an adjustment for Dooley himself in building that culture. Dooley noted he has a learning curve too, as he tries to develop patience with his young roster.
When Dooley became head coach at Florida Gulf Coast University, the team had already appeared in the NCAA Tournament the year prior and had experience. Dooley said this Pirate team is much younger, with nine learning freshmen and sophomores and Fleming as the lone senior.
“It was easy for (FGC players) to pick things up. These guys will pick it up, it’s just a little slower because they are younger,” Dooley said.
Another emphasis of the new Dooley culture is fan engagement. ECU drew fewer than 3,300 fans per game last season, the first time since the 1991-92 season.
Dooley said many other coaches, including Wichita State head coach Greg Marshall, have noted the atmosphere inside of Minges being great when enough fans show up. Dooley experienced big fan support during his stints as an assistant at Kansas and as head coach at Florida Gulf Coast. Dooley wants that type of home court advantage at Minges Coliseum.
“Our fans are worth about 10 points a game. We need to make sure we put a good product out there. Pirate fans want a good program and need their help and support. We've got to get this program up and going and we want them to be a part of it,” Dooley said.
Dooley said the fan engagement aspect is important to him. Dooley was on the staff for the last time ECU reached the NCAA tournament and his parents have lived in Greenville ever since he left.
That is what makes fans optimistic about Dooley leading the basketball program. It is what makes his culture easier to buy in to for players such as Fleming, who enjoys feeling the “best he ever has” now with the improved conditioning. Dooley, in his own words, understands where ECU’s culture needs to be, and that’s what he’s building.
"I know what our fans stand for,” Dooley said. “I say it all the time, I'm not one of those people who has a famous last name, I wasn't a great player. I'm like a regular Pirate. You've got to line up every day and get behind this program. Our community is hard working. We need to be hard working and reflect what the Pirate Nation is about."