December 3, 2018 is a day ECU head football coach Mike Houston says he will remember vividly for the rest of his life. It’s a day he says he would call “ground zero” for ECU football.
ECU had just ended its season with an embarrassing 58-3 loss to NC State on December 1. Former head coach Scottie Montgomery was fired days before the game on November 29 and defensive coordinator David Blackwell stood in as interim head coach for the game. Needless to say, the Pirates were in transition. Houston was hired on December 2 by newly-hired Athletics Director Jon Gilbert. Then came “ground zero”.
“I’ll never forget the faces of the young men in our program and looking in their eyes. To be honest, they were lost at that point in time,” Houston told reporters, according to ecupirates.com.
ECU football is set to begin spring practice Friday morning and has a ways to go in order to improve a program coming off of three consecutive 3-9 seasons. But a lot has already happened in the three-plus months Houston has been on the job.
What Houston must do with the football program is similar to what ECU men’s basketball head coach Joe Dooley had to do when taking over that program, which has been mired in mediocrity for years, almost a year ago. Dooley had to reset everything about the program and needed to instill a new culture and way of going about things on a day-to-day basis.
Houston has already seen many improvements to the ECU football facilities, on top of the big renovations being done to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium that are set to be finished this summer. Many will remember how Dooley added to the men’s basketball practice gym, notably putting in a banner in the rafters that says “Are you next?” hanging next to banners marking ECU NCAA Tournament appearances along with phrases of the program.
For Houston and the football team there are several culture-setting phrases around the facilities. There is the wall that reads “Core Values” in gold letters, followed by a list that reads; high character, inspirational work ethic, mental and physical toughness, fundamentally sound & disciplined, passion and intensity, relentless pursuit of perfection. It ends with “your last name is ECU” in gold letters at the bottom.
Another wall marked with “Men of genius are admired, men of wealth are envied, men of power are feared, men of character are remembered and trusted!” There is “Today I will give my all to ECU” and “Your last name is ECU”. There is another decorated wall but this one with an image of the AAC football championship trophy accompanied by a quote from legendary NFL coach Chuck Noll, saying “Champions are champions not because they do anything extraordinary but because they do the ordinary things better than anyone else.”
Another wall reads “A champions checklist: commitment, consistency, accountability, positive attitude, healthy lifestyle, be coachable, no shortcuts, great teammate: bring one with me, self-motivated: inspirational work ethic. Apply this list daily.” Finally, a team goal board with ECU’s 2019 opponents and several boxes to check, including “win: score more points than the opponent, fewer penalties than our opponent, win the kicking game, win the field position battle, win the p.o.c., and win the turnover battle.”
Houston said that just as things look better physically inside the facilities, things with the program are in a much better place than on December 3.
“As we start tomorrow preparing for the 2019 season, there is a bright future ahead for East Carolina football. Is it going to be an easy road? Absolutely not. There are going to be tough times. There is no doubt. But you have a group that is committed to making sure we get the task done, that we accomplish the goals that we set out. Some of those we have already accomplished. But there is still a lot of work to do. Now is it going to translate overnight to exactly what we want? No. It is going to take time.
“But I can promise you that as I stand here today, I could not be more excited about anything as I am about this program, the young men in this program, the support that we have from the athletic administration, the support we have from campus. Jon Gilbert has been everything that you could ever want in an athletics director as far as how he has treated me and how he has supported our program since we’ve started. I’m ready to get out there and start practicing,” Houston said.
Luckily, Houston has experience with this. Houston has had success stepping in at every stop along the way, from Lenoir-Rhyne, The Citadel, and James Madison, he’s done this before.
Resetting the culture is an interesting practice that involves Houston getting everyone to do things in a new way, while respecting tradition and trying to raise the program to past success and glory.
That begins in spring practice with a new touch by removing the logos from helmets for spring practice.
“All of our players will earn the right to have the Jolly Roger on side of their helmet this spring. They will earn the right to represent our program. Because it is a privilege and an honor to be a member of this football program and to represent East Carolina University. It’s very important to me that our players understand that and they embrace that. We need to get back to establishing what that’s going to represent.” Houston said.
- Houston said ECU has not yet received word from the NCAA on Nate Harvey. Harvey is attempting to get an extra year of eligibility. The Pirates would surely welcome Harvey, the AAC defensive player-of-the-year. Houston said Harvey is preparing to play football next season regardless, just not sure where that will be at yet.
- Houston said he will know closer to the Purple-Gold spring game on April 13 how the format of the game will work. Houston is not sure yet if it will be a true game or just offense versus defense, but there will definitely be competition and a winner and loser.
- Houston’s starting from scratch goes as far as saying that every position has a competition this spring (probably not counting Holton Ahlers spot at quarterback), from giving young players a chance to telling program returners that their
spotsstill must be earned. No depth chart set in stone right now.
- The players have been hard-at-work during the offseason in the weight room with coach John Williams. The coaches have prepared the players for the much more intense and physical style of play Houston wants to see on the field in the fall. The Pirates will really get introduced to their new style of physicality at around 8:45 a.m. on Monday morning according to coach Houston, when they incorporate a new drill called “Inside Run.”
“Inside Run is a drill that is going to be the backbone of our program and it is not going to be for the faint of heart. We are going to be a physical football team on both sides of the ball. We’re going to practice in a manner to prepare ourselves to play on game day,”