It may be hard to imagine, but ECU has been here before. Today’s ECU football program and its current situation, while arguably bigger in magnitude, are not much different from what we faced two years into the John Thompson disaster.
It wasn’t just JT’s inability as a Head Coach, but the overall state of college football was in major flux, the university was dealing with fundraising issues, and the fan base was wobbling on the edge of the abyss.
The result was a new A.D. in Terry Holland and a decisive plan emerging from the chaos of the times. The result also was the firing of JT (and Bill Herrion for hoops), the hiring of Skip Holtz, the stabilization of the football program and what followed was a pair of Conference USA championships, entrance into the Big East (which rapidly converted into the American), and an influx of donations and bolstering of season ticket sales.
What was in the balance, then, if anyone can remember was really ECU’s football survival. Had we not made the jump to the AAC when we did, we could very well be talking about even bigger financial concerns and falling through the bottom of top division football. We survived.
ECU’s past indicates a propensity to overcome and do so with less. But, that doesn’t mean that this time, ECU will overcome. And the stakes, IMO, are the biggest we have ever come up against. The ECU program failed miserably to deliver on the promise we all felt when we got into the AAC. I remember the mantra…”all we need is an opportunity and we will grow in leaps and bounds” or the “bigger money and exposure is all we need to explode like Virginia Tech did.” And, yes, granted, the money while much better isn’t anywhere near what the P5 are getting (and getting incrementally more of each passing season), but hey, UCF, Houston, Memphis, Temple – all teams we regularly trounced in C-USA – have all flourished in the AAC. ECU has not.
At least not in the money sports. The optics of the failure to compete for the AAC East championship in football has been a fat black eye for ECU and Pirate Nation exacerbated by the fact that Central Florida – a program that ECU historically owned – has not only thrived, but also has frankly earned the right to argue that they have outgrown the AAC in football and need to be considered to move up again.
What do they have that we don’t have?
If UCF, Memphis, Houston, South Florida, Navy, and Temple can thrive in the new league then there is no reason ECU cannot.
Since joining the AAC, ECU’s football winning percentage has been dismal (34%), while others (teams we used to dominate sans Navy) have thrived. The table below demonstrates the stark change from C-USA to AAC for ECU. How is it that UCF, Memphis and Houston could make the jump and florish and we could not?So it comes down to tactical decision-making and leadership. In the wake of Terry Holland’s departure, we have spiraled downward as far as leadership and decision-making relative to how to succeed in the AAC. Failure to capitalize on the opportunity is our worst mistake in the program’s history and now when leadership is needed the MOST, we sit without an Athletics Director.
We have a football coach that has not been able to recover from a horrid start to his tenure and a fan base that has become beaten down and is now rightfully apathetic. And for those who believe that coaching isn’t a major issue (and I agree it is not the whole issue), remember that UCF went from 0-12 in 2015, to 6-7 in 2016, to 13-0 in 2017 and continue to roll in 2018. The AD and the coach MATTER…it matters. Scott Frost took all of one season to take a roster that went winless in 2015 to generate 6 wins (Coach Mo’s total in 2 years) in 2016 and year later had a legitimate argument that his undefeated team was screwed by the P5 cartel.
In Coach Mo’s defense, his A.D. put himself on the hot seat with his own decisions virtually sealing the coach’s fate, short of a Frost-like turnaround. That Coach Mo was the hire, speaks volumes to the mindset in the athletics office about what was needed. Everyone on the planet expected a big announcement – surely you wouldn’t fire a liked coach with a winning record coming off a hard-luck 5-7 season without some huge hire to take you to the next level. Instead, we got what we have and the on-field results that most of us expected have followed
Back to leadership.
That our leadership made public a plan to raise student fees to offset athletic department failures and mismanagement is a pile of salt in the open wound that is ECU football. Not saying that a fee increase is not part of an overall growth solution, but boy this is not the time to talk about that. Those students (and their paying families) deserve better from the fees they already have charged to them like it or not.
And the college football winds of change are blowing again – just like the last time around. There is more and more talk of an expanded playoff system. There will be more P5 shuffling. And…ECU is not positioned at all this time around. We played our “potential” card and played it miserably. Now all we have is our body of work which is not deserved of consideration. We have nothing to parlay this time around. All we have is whatever time the next rounds of change afford us to course correct. But the clocking is ticking again for ECU.
Is our leadership ready or can we get ready?
We’ve lost energy and innovation in our leadership. Love what Dave Hart gave to ECU all those years and as a consultant, he was helpful, but we need an A.D. and preferably one who has some fire, some ideas, and maybe some blood and sweat connection to ECU. And, whether delusional or not, needs to not be resigned to “what ECU is.” The minute our athletics leadership talks about needing to understand that we are not a “Power 5” program or we can’t be an SEC-like program because of “realities” then we need to shut it down right then. Ingenuity. Creativity. Will to get there. These are the ingredients we have to have because we aren’t a P5 or an SEC program but we want to compete at the highest level.
So, we are at a familiar fork in the road. Make the right choice and ECU surges back stronger than ever. Make the wrong choice, ECU may never recover – at least not to any recognizable level of football again.
Coach Mo may have had his J.T.-like contribution to the program…the signing of Holton Ahlers, which could be akin to J.T.’s signing of Chris Johnson. And, it is probably prudent to keep our coach until a new A.D. is hired (yes, I am saying give coach Mo year number 4). It is clear, crystal clear, that we are not of the same ilk as the top half of the East or West divisions of the AAC and that hurts to know but it is our reality for now.
The AAC revenue bum up is frankly not showing anything in terms of fueling our rise, perhaps because it has been mismanaged or maybe simply because it isn’t enough. The league footprint has not opened up (or we have not exploited) an expanded recruiting area (into NJ, PA, TN, and TX). Our football brand has gone from upstart with top end potential to has-been with proclivity for failure.
What is the recovery plan?
Beyond a new A.D., it has to start with determining what it takes – what it really takes – to compete in the AAC in football. What type of HC is needed? What type of Staff? What kind of budget is needed to succeed? Our coach’s salary (meaning budget to hire a new one) is ~ 60% of the top of the league and our budget for total assistant salaries is around half that of the top teams in the AAC. What will it take to trend back to a full-stadium? Is really just Ws and Ls or is there more that brings the fans in?
We have fought a valiant facilities battle, but maybe we need to take a step back and focus on rebuilding our core brand and re-defining who we are, where we want to be, and viable path to get there. Once that is defined and we analyze what is needed to get there and if we can meet those needs, then we can at least make informed decisions.
It could very well end up that we realize that the big-time college football landscape has moved beyond our grasp…that is possible. That maybe the AAC was too big a leap for our program…that certainly looks to be our current reality. Or maybe, just maybe, we learn that there is a way to get there, identify the right persons to execute that plan, and steadfastly follow it. I like that last scenario best.
Block one on the path forward starts with the AD. If ECU’s leadership effs that one up, ECU won’t get to block 2.
Very very eager to hear anyone’s thoughts on this topic. I am trying so hard to find positives and not be a negatives guy. Share with me an alternative reality if you have one.