Among the Nations Elite
Sept. 17, 2013
By Malcolm Gray,
Following a 7-4 season under third-year head coach Ed Emory, East Carolina entered the 1983 season with 41 returning letterwinners (16 starters) and were primed to take the next step on to the national stage. But a tough schedule that included just four home games and road contests against in-state foe NC State, Southern Miss and all three Florida schools would be challenging to say the least.
Anchoring an offensive unit that returned 10 starters was honorable mention All-American Terry Long, an Outland Trophy Candidate (top offensive lineman) and the strongest man in college football. Senior running back Earnest Byner and sophomore tailback Tony Baker combined for over 1,600 yards and nine touchdowns a year earlier and quarterback Kevin Ingram completed 41 of 87 passes for 605 yards with two touchdowns and seven interceptions.
The 1983 campaign got underway in Tallahassee, Fla. where the Pirates stood toe-to-toe with No. 7 Florida State dropping a 47-46 heartbreaker. The Pirates opened up a 17-13 lead after one quarter as the offense moved the ball down the field at will all night. Thirteen more second-quarter points had the Pirates sitting on a 30-27 halftime lead as ECU rolled up 233 yards of total offense in the first 30 minutes. Junior Henry Williams kept the momentum going on the opening play of the third quarter returning a kickoff 99 yards to pay dirt extending the Pirates' lead to 37-27. Williams had returned a punt 56 yards for a score just before the half ended.
But three Seminole touchdowns in the final two quarters proved to be the difference. After leading much of the game, ECU found themselves down by one, 47-46, with 4:36 remaining. On a third-and-three from their own 30-yards line, Ingram broke loose for a 48-yard gain to the Seminole 32, but fumbled the ball as he was hit from behind. Florida State recovered and ran the clock out narrowly escaping with a win. Both teams combined to set then-NCAA records for total yards (980) and touchdowns (13).
The Pirates schedule didn't get any easier the following week as they traveled to face arch-rival NC State. Before the largest crowd to witness a football game in the state of North Carolina (57,000), ECU snapped a five-game losing streak to the Wolfpack, 22-16, for its first win of the season. ECU rolled off four more wins (Murray State, at Missouri, Southwestern Louisiana and at Temple) before heading back to the sunshine state to face No. 6 Florida in Gainesville.
Just like their first trip to Tallahassee in early September, the Pirates came out on the short side of the scoreboard dropping a 24-17 contest. The Gators needed a six-yard touchdown run by Neal Anderson with 6:23 to play and a defensive stand late in the game to preserve a Homecoming victory in front of a Florida Field record crowd of 73,943.
As was the case against Florida State in the season opener, the Pirates jumped out to a quick lead by virtue of an 80-yard, 10-play drive. The 13-yard run by Byner gave ECU a 7-0 lead, but more importantly it was the first touchdown allowed by Florida in the first quarter all season. The Pirates took a 10-7 lead into the locker room at half, but the Gators exploded for 10 third-quarter points, while the Florida defense shutdown the Pirate offense. Jimmy Walden knotted the game at 17-all on a 15-yard scamper early in the fourth quarter, but Anderson answered with his own six-yard run with time running out.
After a record Ficklen Stadium crowd watched ECU cruise to a 21-9 win over East Tennessee State on Homecoming, the Pirates made their third trip to Florida, this time to take on No. 5 Miami. ECU reaped the same results as the previous two trips, but once again the Pirates did not leave the Sunshine State without leaving an impression falling 12-7.
The Pirates had the fifth-ranked Hurricanes down 7-6 late in the fourth quarter in the Orange Bowl. ECU had taken the ball to the Miami three-yard line, the drive stalled and Jeff Heath came on to attempt a 21-yard field goal that would give the Pirates some breathing room. But as Heath approached the ball, a cannon was fired behind the goal posts Heath was kicking towards and his effort sailed wide right.
Miami, the eventual national champions, seized the opportunity on the next series when they drove the length of the field, with quarterback Bernie Kosar going the final yard for a 12-7 lead. ECU had one last chance when a Hail Mary pass from Ingram found its way to Stefon Adams' hands. But a streaking Norwood Vann collided with his teammate Adams at the Miami goal line, knocking the ball loose and preserving the Hurricane victory.
The loss was the third for the Pirates in the state of Florida in 1983, with only 13 points separating them from three victories.
ECU closed out its home schedule with a 40-6 victory over William & Mary on Senior Day. Byner rushed for 129 yards and two touchdowns, while Baker added 135 yards and a pair of scores. The Pirates' final game of the season was on the road at Southern Miss, where they skirted out of town with a 10-6 win inside a soggy Roberts Stadium.
Playing one of the toughest schedules in the country, the Pirates finished the 1983 season with an 8-3 record, a No. 20 ranking in the Associated Press Poll (a program first) and just missed making their first post-season appearance since 1978 when the then Pat Dye-coached Pirates went 9-3, including an Independence Bowl victory over Louisiana Tech.
Post-season honors rolled in for the Pirates at the conclusion of the season. Long became the schools first Consensus All-American, while Byner, Clint Harris (FS), John Robertson (OL) and Jeff Pegues (DE) each garnered Honorable Mention All-America honors.