ARTICLE OF THE DAY

Memories of Coach LeClair
by Brian North
7/19/06

Keith LeClair and I were not great friends. In fact, I think we had one conversation away from a diamond, but it still had to do with baseball. You could even say our working relationship was antagonistic. When I first covered an ECU baseball game in 1998, I went into the dugout to get a good shot of Coach LeClair while the game was going on (something I had done hundreds of times at other college and high school games). I got my shot and left. A few weeks later a mandate from the sports information office came down that no one was allowed in the dugout during games.

And that was the way our relationship worked. I would push the limits, Coach LeClair would re-draw the line. Keith wouldn't do live shots for the six o'clock news if the Pirates had a night game. So I started lining up assistant coach Tommy Eason for my live guest. That was soon nipped in the bud. I once traveled to Wilmington to get hi-lites of a game between ECU and UNC Wilmington. WWAY (an ABC affiliate) was supposed to provide me hi-lites after I made the hour and forty-five minute drive south, then I would turn around with tape in hand and come back in time for the 11 o'clock news. But when I arrived at Brooks Field, WWAY was nowhere to be found, it was the bottom of the 9th and ECU had a 3-0 lead. So I started rolling to get what ever I could. Then John Williamson made a diving catch in right field to end the game, the one hi-lite I had, so I sprinted onto the field, grabbed a quick interview with John, then scrambled to get back to our station to barely  make it on the air. I was proud of my effort, but the next day the word came down from Coach LeClair to never interview players before his team meeting after a game. I was upset at the time, because I thought that I had gone above and beyond the call of duty, and it was his program that benefited from my hustle, yet he wanted to limit me.

What I later understood was that Coach LeClair wanted things to be done in a professional way. Winning programs are built by doing things the right way, and that includes rules for the media. I didn't always agree with it, but I certainly respected it and understood where he was coming from. It made sense, perfect practice makes perfect. Professional environments create a classy atmosphere which helps create a winning environment. We may not have been close friends, but I hope that he respected my effort as much as I respected his professionalism.

I have heard hundreds of stories about his spiritual and uplifting e-mails to friends going through less difficult times than his. I have heard about his words of wisdom that have helped others make tough decisions. In fact WITN sports anchor Brian Meador and I lamented about having to film coach in his wheel chair during ceremonies like his induction into the ECU Hall of Fame, and the Clark-LeClair Stadium dedication. Meador, a close friend of Keith's, apologized to him for having to exploit him in those situations, and he told Brian, no problem, he understood we had a job to do. And any awareness of his disease would hopefully create educational and fund raising opportunities to help find a cure.

I have always had a fear of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. When I was in second grade, I did a report on Lou Gehrig and learned of his tough break with the affliction that would bear his name. I was lucky enough to meet Catfish Hunter after he was diagnosed with ALS in 1999 at his inaugural fund raiser in his home town of Hertford. He hoped to raise money for research. He died shortly after. That's the cruel thing about this incurable disease. It takes bright, vibrant people who have so much to offer, and takes them away too soon.

Keith and I may not have been close, but I am reminded of him every time I hear the Pirates break a huddle with the chant of Omaha. He brought that idea to Greenville with him. He never got to realize the dream, but my favorite story about Keith has to do with college baseball's mecca. In 2002, Coach LeClair's condition worsened to where he couldn't be in the dugout. He had to watch the games from a van. His Pirates lost to Clemson in the regionals that season. One of his best friends, Jack Leggette, coached the Tigers. Clemson made it to the College World Series that year, and after his team was eliminated, Leggette went to the mound at Rosenblatt Stadium and filled a jar full of the dirt and brought it back to Keith. If he couldn't make it to Omaha, part of Omaha would make it to him. When Keith got the jar of dirt, he asked his wife to put his hand in it so he could touch part of his dream.

I went to Omaha for the first time in 2003, and the first person I thought of when I walked into Rosenblatt Stadium was Keith LeClair. I thought about that dirt and took some pictures of the full stadium. I eventually gave the pictures to his wife to put next to that jar of dirt, so that he could put a scene to his dreams. I hope some day the Pirates actually get to play on that dirt in Omaha, because it will allow all of us to bring back all of our memories of Coach LeClair and watch his dream become reality. It's the least that could happen for a man who tried to do things the right way.
 
Brian North
bnorth@wcti12.com