One of the most notable things coming out of ECU football’s preseason is how the Pirates are distancing themselves from the negative perception that has surrounded them in the last few years.
You may have seen ESPN’s Stanford Steve picking ECU on The Daily Wager as a smart pick to bet the over on 5 wins this season.
“First-year head coach comes in Mike Houston, who won a national championship at James Madison. In three years he went 37-6 there. ECU was not great on offense last year but they started a true freshman Holton Ahlers halfway through the season, got the numbers up a little bit. He’s one of my favorite players in college football. He’s 6’3, he’s 236 (pounds). He’s a lefty, he runs all over the place. He’s like a mini (Tim) Tebow playing for a smaller school. He’s got six of his eight pass catchers back. He only completed 48% of his passes last year so I expect him to be way better this year. They have seven starters back on defense. They don’t play Houston or Memphis from the other side in the American. You know you gotta score points in this conference to be successful, so they’re number is five, I like East Carolina a lot here.
I think they definitely go to a bowl game this year.”
That’s not something anybody was thinking about ECU the last three or four years. ESPN has them favored in five games; Gardner-Webb, William & Mary, Old Dominion, UConn, and Tulsa.
That analysis on ECU wasn’t a one-off either. College football guru Phil Steele also likes ECU this year. Steele talked about the Pirates on Pirate Radio, saying:
“East Carolina just missed out of my ‘Most Improved List’ at the front of the magazine, but I wouldn’t doubt that they could make it there. From talking with Coach Houston this spring, very impressed. I think he’s going to get this ship righted in a very short time. You look at the schedule this year and East Carolina should be favored against Gardner-Webb, William & Mary, the Old Dominion game is probably a toss-up. Then you’ve got USF at home. If you watched that East Carolina-USF game last year, I thought East Carolina was the better team. Now they get that game at home. That’s a possible win there. And then at the end of the schedule, at Connecticut, Tulsa, those are a couple more wins. I think East Carolina’s going to be favored in 4-5 games this year, meaning they will need to pull one upset, maybe two, to get to a bowl. The possibility is definitely there.
I think that potential is there to get to that UCF level. Coach Houston has got a plan and I think he’s going to get his plan. What he wants he’s going to get, and I like that a lot. He’s determined, he’s a no-nonsense type of coach, and I’m all about no-nonsense.”
The bad perception ECU football had the last few years was well warranted too. It wasn’t just a problem of doing everything right and coming out on the wrong end of football games. Houston has made multiple references to the way things were in the previous regime:
“There isn’t going to be any tapping out or not practicing and then playing. All of those habits that have been here for the last several years, they are not going to be here and they are going to understand that.
When you’re trying to change a program from what has been a very finesse, pass-first, perception is a soft football team, to be what we want to be, you can’t let your foot off the gas. You’ve got to stay on them. That’s why it’s so important right now that we cannot let up. We’ve got to stay on it and overcome mental weakness. We’ve got to overcome all the things that have haunted our program in the past. We cannot be distracted, we can’t look back, we’ve got to keep pushing forward.”
It’s not just a commitment from the coaching staff, but from athletics administration as well. ECU had to get out from the ugly end to the Jeff Compher era, one which included constant calls from the fans for both he and Scottie Montgomery to be out of their jobs. It even helped hurt former chancellor Cecil Staton’s rep.
Now the Jon Gilbert-led athletics staff is doing everything right. He’s more transparent and has been making several much-needed facilities upgrades. There’s the $60 million stadium renovation to Dowdy-Ficklen to create TowneBank Tower (which, to be fair, was kick-started by Compher). The new press box seats 102 media members, comparable to Alabama’s 120. It’s a 51,000 capacity in the stadium. Stephen Igoe of Hoist the Colours even referred to some of it as “SEC quality”. Again, not something you ever thought of being associated with ECU in the past. Not to mention the nice, new practice football field.
It doesn’t stop at football either. While Cliff Godwin has had the national respect in college baseball for a few years, this offseason has also included an upgrade to Minges Coliseum and Joe Dooley flipping the entire basketball roster. Dooley bringing in 11 new players to the roster, keeping only Jayden Gardner and the injured Seth LeDay caught some national attention, and he is a respected coach who is getting the benefit of the doubt so far on a long-term rebuild.
All of this is said with the understanding that exactly zero football games have been played in the Houston era and the 2019 season could go a number of different ways, both positive and negative. But give credit where it’s due, and ECU is being looked at optimistically for the first time in a while.