When John Thompson was shown the door at ECU back during the darkest of days for ECU football, there were few detractors. There was little nuance to the JT story. Bad hire, bad execution, bad…bad…bad all the way around. The firing was roundly applauded and it ushered in a period of recovery for the ECU football program.
Not so much a crossroads, but rather, a bounce from hitting rock bottom…there was nowhere to go but up for ECU which turned to Skip Holtz to captain the resurrection which culminated with back-to-back C-USA championships before Holtz went off into his ill-fated good night down in South Florida.
This time, in the wake of the firing of a beloved coach in Ruffin McNeill, a former standout player and Pirate-loving alumni, the ECU football program finds itself at a true crossroads.
In his press conference, ECU Athletics Director Jeff Compher used all of the right words…he spoke of AAC championships, prominent bowl games and hints of a program aimed at national prominence…something greater down the road. He talked about academic standards and players flourishing on the field and in the classroom.
What Pirates fan doesn’t love those words?
Compher reiterated the goals during his introduction of new ECU football coach Scottie Montgomery – a former Duke football star who returned home to coach with growing football coaching legend David Cutcliffe over in Durham.
Mongomery is as a good a hire as anyone and will most likely be successful by ECU’s traditional standards, but I can’t get off of Compher’s stressing of ECU’s objectives in this hire and for the football program all the way around.
That crossroads we are at, IMO, is tantamount to a battle for ECU’s football soul.
There is a line that many schools in the P5 crossed long ago but that many below P5 level have not yet crossed – either because of lack of financial resources or by virtue of a sense of somehow maintaining a now antiquated notion of collegiate athletics being a reflection of the student body…amateur.
Like many of the American families held in highest regards – Kennedy, Rockefeller, Morgan, Carnegie, Ford, Edison – many of college football’s most esteemed and envied programs, sold their souls a long time ago and now are ballyhooed by fan bases who conveniently forget that their school’s success is rooted in anything but fair play. Winning without virtue seems to be acceptable to all who participate in the college football machine. I suppose it is part of a “gonna get mine” and “bling is all that matters” society but I have personally never found it satisfying to win when I know things were rigged for that outcome.
Can ECU be a football powerhouse? Without a doubt. That is not the operative question, though. The real question is, Is ECU (meaning all of us, the alumni donor base, corporate sponsors and the school administration) willing to step over that line?
See, UNC failed in its effort to become a powerhouse not because they didn’t cheat enough – God knows they rewrote the book on cheating – but they failed because they also felt a need to maintain a counter charade – the Carolina Way…the Southern Ivy…the, we are good people who don’t cheat (that cheat to win in sports) notion. Can’t have both. Had UNC simply jettisoned the notion of the Carolina Way and went all in…say like, Kentucky in hoops or Alabama in football, there would hardly have been a mention of the scandals. They simply outed themselves by their own arrogance.
But ECU, could, if it wanted to, take already minimal entrance requirements for athletes and bend them a little more. They could funnel alumni cash into the hands of incoming players. Market to the mentality of the kids. Promise playing time, offer parents of top prospects jobs. Spend money on the play toys that the 18 and 19 year olds most cherish and call it needed football facility improvements. In short, we could sellout for victory.
Of course, we would have go with the long play because ECU would be very late to the win-at-all-costs game which most of the P5 has been playing at for decades upon decades, and we know that the Good Ole Boy NCAA don’t take kindly to upstarts trying to get a piece of the ill-gotten pie. Slowly, but surely, we could wedge our way in.
Just got to be willing to cross that line.
I know…we don’t have the resources (i.e., money) to cheat with the big boys…and that is true, the scale at first would need to be modest. But you would be surprised how far a couple of million dollars can go, if spent correctly. Say, on a QB (ask Auburn for guidance on that one) or on a top-notch running back (anybody know the USC hotline number). Those two players came in at under $1m and imagine a few ECU seasons with that ilk in the backfield. Small price for brand expansion, no? Gotta think with a $1m you could get yourself a pretty strong O Line if that is what you are seeking…another $1m for one or two stud D-linemen and all the sudden, for far less than a capital campaign, you got yourself a team that ESPN is talking about.
Imagine…being on the phone with our buddies from UNC and N.C. State talking about how dominant our boys are out there on the field. Salivating at the thought of it. Coming off the 10th straight year of beating them…again and again. Will it be the SEC or the ACC? Oh geez, I don’t know. Maybe we should go independent…don’t want our brand to be held back nationally. Sounds very satisfying…to me at least.
Of course, the flipside kind of sucks – if you can’t ignore for your own ego.
Imagine being in Ficklen watching a dominating team but having to know that not a single kid – save the walk-ons – could give a damn about ECU? How would that sit in the craw? Or that only 60% are actually passing their classes on their own? Or that when you walk across campus or come near the team, your only connection with the players (and the coaches for that matter) would be determined by how much cash you funnel into the program?
Or, how rewarding would it be to pick up the paper on days other than Sunday morning to read about how another member of the ECU football team was arrested for punching a woman in the face, but no worries, he will be able to play on Saturday?
For me … and I am being honest here … each season I feel my passion for college football deteriorating. And the only thing that keeps me coming back is the notion that ECU is somehow a family and one that would rather lose putting up a valiant effort against a rigged system than to become part of that system. I want to win, but not enough to cross that line.
So, I am hopeful that Coach Mo can continue the family-first program we have here and that he can bring in talented kids and take them to a new level. But I am not expecting more than his predecessors because I don’t think glass ceiling can be broken without selling the proverbial soul.
What cost Glory?
And, where do others stand on this?
Very thought provoking article, sir. You have picked around at places a lot of us do not think about in depth. Somehow we want to have a great record, top players, good academic reputation, and be a regional power. Who has that now? Even the top P5 schools have lowered their standards to get better in football. I am not sure what I want to see anymore at ECU. I want to win, but I do not want to see us in the news for pulling women down the stairs by their hair, assault other students or rob stores.
Another great column. Thank you, Ron. I’m excited about our future. And, yes, ethics do matter.
This article seems a bit negative to me. We have a bright future at ECU. I would hope it is time to look forward in a positive light with some good vibe and support from the media. We now have the players in place and hopefully a coach who can win the fourth quarter.
Thanks for commenting OBX Pirate.
Yeah I can see how it engenders some negatives. More of a riff on college football itself and my wish that ECU remains a special place where we fight the good fight wit less resources and integrity and understand that to have sustained high level success at the P5 level, you may have to do more than do things the right way.
What is it about this hire that makes you think we’re on the threshold of some transformative change in our culture? I liked just about everything that Coach Mo said. I also like that Compher expects results. We all loved Ruff the man but you don’t have to look too far in the past of your blog site to see all the familiar complaints about Ruff the coach…historic collapses, terrible time management, questionable in-game decision making. The proof is in the pudding but all indications are that this new Coach is a step in the right direction.
I like the hire…this wasn’t about the coach at all. I think he will do well. More of a reflection on the state of college football and expectations for success. The AD had a lot to say about championship caliber play and winning and it got me thinking about how to breakthrough what I believe to be a rigged system.
I think Coach Mo will be a good coach.
Always great to hear from you Ed. Hope 2016 is off to a great start for you and your family!
Ron, Sure missed your work most of this season as there were plenty of things to discuss.
They say the greatest power the media has in this country is the power to ignore. What better example of that do we have than the creation of the so called power 5. It seemed this concept was thrust upon us with zero debate and accepted by everyone in the blink of an eye. The schools left out should have been screaming from the heavens and there should have been stories on a daily basis about how corrupt both the NCAA and ESPN have been in creating this mess.
If you had the best 64 teams I get it, but clearly you do not. How do you tell a young man who attends a service academy that you are good enough to die for your country, protect our freedoms but not worthy enough to compete on a level football field. This is today’s college game and everyone remains silent.
Wow Alabama with all of its money and 5 star recruits wins another national championship. They loose one game to Ole Miss who got their butts handed to them by Memphis. So are we then to conclude that Memphis is better than Alabama? Likely no, but how do you tell these teams that your wins don’t count because you are not part of the fraternity? Why then do we bother playing the games if your results do not matter.
In today’s game its going to take bold moves to make a non P5 program stand out. In addition you must be honest with who and what you are as a program. I have always compared our program to that of Virginia Tech and said the only difference was they got a break by getting an invite to join a league along with a loyal coach who would not leave.
You could say we finally got our coach Beamer with the hiring of Ruff and all was going to be right in the world of Pirate Football. As each season went bye you saw our teams not getting better but worse as the seasons went on. You saw horrible clock management, the inability to gain a yard when needed, a team ranked 112th in penalties, a man who played against the option in his college days but could never stop it as a coach. In addition the man who guided his offense had moved on to a better situation.
I admire Jeff Compher for making a tough decision but a correct one. Many of the faithful would be happy with maxing out at 8 win seasons but some of us think its worth rolling the bones and doing what schools like UCF, Houston and Boise have done in getting to a Big Bowl. Coach Ruff would never have made that happen.
In Coach Mo we get a younger more energetic version of Ruff with NFL experience to boot. Just look at the number of players we have sent to the NFL under Ruff as compared to other Pirate coaches. Today we are lucky if a kid is even drafted.
I always stated that positions should recruit themselves and what QB prospect would not want to go to a program that puts it in the air 40 times a game? Well our QB gets hurt and plan B is a kid out of a community college? Not a D2, D3, or JUCO but a community College. You have 30,000 high schools in this country and 129 schools playing D1 football and this is the best you can do? Let me give 1000% credit though to Blake Kemp who was the least of our problems but we had no plan B.
Coach Mo comes out and states if you do not have a desire to play a the next level then we do not want you here. This is the attitude and new approach needed The man went to Duke and hires an assistant from Vandy. We will now be targeting not only kids that can get it done on the field but the class room as well.
Hi DCP28…I always can count on you for a solid, thoughtful post.
I agree with what you say.
My post was not a hack at Coach Mo or Compher but at a system that only respects ruthlessness and corruption.
I am pulling for him to succeed and for Compher to be seen in the light you have described in your post.
Best to you and your family.
It should really be called the P-15 schools not P-5 conferences. The shame is that about 10% of the P-5 schools have any real chance of getting into the so-called playoff. An occasional interloper will come along in a given season but any reasonable observer of college football could name the teams most likely to be in next year’s 4-team facade. The Vegas crowd can give you the numbers right now. But make no mistake about it—this is the American way. Bluster and hot air about opportunity and a fair playing field so that hard work will ultimately produce a winner while the truth is pretty much like Ron has described.
Like many, I am struggling with the issue of so-called big time college football/athletics. I have even thought of simply giving my financial support (modest as it is) to the academic side, Honors College, EC Scholars, etc. But something pulls me back–maybe it is the underdog mentality that I have always had. Our athlete’s as well as the other G-5 kids work as hard if not harder just to be dismissed as not worth of the same prize as the high and mighty. Like Leona Helmsly said: “Taxes are for the little people.”
For now, I will continue to support both sides as best I can. I must admit that Ron’s piece raises the question: Why not cheat in big way, get caught, suffer the consequences and move on? And just think, that strategy might get us to the “Access Bowl”. What price glory, indeed?
Hi Ray…thanks for taking the time to post thoughts.
Your comment about something at ECU pulling you back resonates with me. I don’t want to lose whatever that thing is.
I question whether the “quality” athletes coming out of high school, or their most recent academy, really give a crap about whichever school they attend. They grow up with a sports first, EVERYTHING else a distant second mentality. So, if most of the athletes we need to target in order to be competitive only care about what a school can do for their professional athletic dreams, then where does that leave us? In my opinion, it leaves us at the exact crossroads you mention above. However, I don’t think that jumping all the way in to cheating like UNC is a necessity in order to attract those athletes to ECU. We definitely would need to step closer to that blurry line, though.
Here’s an honest question: how many of our recent star players give back to ECU? I hate assuming things but I would be willing to bet that very few to none of them do. Is the “ECU is a special place” mentality that we as fans feel our athletes should have a figment of our imagination? I know I love ECU and Greenville. You can bet that I owe way more than I give back to the school and community but I just can’t shake the feeling that most of these athletes don’t share the same impression of ECU that we(fans) do. I guess what I’m trying to say here is, “Have we already crossed that line you speak of but just haven’t realized it yet”?
I wish Coach Mo all the luck in the world but Ruff had that connection that we as fans always talk about wanting, even in down seasons. I truly believe that our coaching staff needs to tilt our focus more to the recruiting side than to coaching up. Coach Mo is going to need athletes to be successful, not just good kids who happen to play football.
I am hoping for the best with the upcoming season(s), but I do feel like I lost a loved one with Ruff’s departure.
Welcome Jamestown Pirate…thanks for the thoughtful commentary.
I think you hit on a very huge piece of the puzzle. Ruff was one of those star athletes who gave back to ECU and was a true tangible example of success that could foster the “family atmosphere” that we are all so connected to at ECU.
I think his Xs and Os were not his biggest asset nor was his management acumen. But he was a true gateway into the ECU mentality and his players loved him.
I think Coach Mo has the hunger needed to succeed at ECU and his pro focused connections will probably take us to that blurry line and he will get kids who really only care about pro prospects. How many? Tough gig in an area with a zillion D1 schools.
I would love to have high-level success, but not if it is going to change the personality of the program and its connection to the fanbase (perceived or real).
Thanks again for the thoughtful response. Please drop by any time JP.
First time poster but long time reader. Just reading about the sorry situation at Baylor makes your article even more prescient than ever. I graduated from ECU, my father graduated from ECC and I have been a Pirate since the early seventies. I hear a lot of “saber rattling” especially from the younger fan base who feel that, in spite of Ruff’s and ECU accomplishments, hell even Logan and Holtz’s– ECU should be winning more. To hear some tell it now days, Ruff was little more than a John Thompson with an ECU degree. It’s baffling really. Sure, we’d all like to win more, but as we approach the 8 win mark a strange thing happens, it gets mighty crowded at that juncture–
I agree with you; we are pressed up against the glass ceiling and breaking through is going to take a lot more than a superior knowledge of X’s and O’s. Our fan base is still steeped in the underdog mentality; superior will and preparation can overcome superior talent– it can’t. At least not often enough to matter. College football is now little more than a farm league for the NFL and talent wins. There is no draft and the “best’ teams routinely and quite literally buy the best players– then gloat about how many they put in the league, when, of course they ARE the league for practical purposes.
ECU has yet another coach and by all appearances he talks-the-talk and walks-the-walk. But in my opinion, even with outstanding discipline and an inordinate knowledge of the game, he will suffer the same fate those Pirates who have come before him have suffered. He will lack the necessary depth and overall talent to win consistently. And it will manifest itself in the strangest of ways; losses by inches, missed field goals, Hail Mary’s, you name it. And our fan base will eat their own, turn on the coach like they did those that came before him. Calling him an idiot who lacks game management skills, undisciplined, too hard on the players, too soft on the players and on and on– As a long time Pirate I’ve heard it all. But the fact is, historically, we more often than not, lose based on the deficiencies in our roster. This will not change as it is now. And yes, we truly are at that cross roads– We are still referred to as Eastern Carolina and most high level recruits admit they have never even heard of us. But Benjamin’s have a way of “broadening one’s Pirate horizons”. The question is, are we going to go down that Baylor road? And at what cost? I love football the game, played the game and have two daughters. There is not a championship in the world worth harming even one hair on their heads. I was at ECU during the Emory days. I knew a lot of players, many outstanding individuals. But I also witnessed things so violent and reprehensible that it was beyond me how those individuals were not in prison much less able to play on Saturdays. It was so bad that I stopped watching ECU football for a decade. Maybe that’s why I liked Ruff. Unless I had him all wrong, it seemed to me he was one of the good guys, and I was happy, even proud to have him as a coach at ECU. Maybe he’s not what he seems, I don’t know. But that’s all history now. The question you asked is spot on, “Where do we go from here?” Can we reasonably expect to compete for Championships with our current resources and under our current circumstances? And when our AD speaks of our expectation of Championships and little else, I think it’s telling. I hope Mo is successful at ECU, but I am cautiously optimistic. Some would accuse me of being satisfied with mediocrity– and I suppose I am fine with it as it relates to a game played for little more than a weekend’s worth of entertainment. But I believe the mission of ECU as a University is more important than a game and I would gladly continue to enjoy winning more than we lose, stealing a few games we shouldn’t and losing the rest with integrity, than win them all going the Baylor route…
QAR…this may be the most impactful post this blog has received in its lifetime.
As you may have noted, my posts have become fewer and farther apart…hence why it almost half a month since you posted that I am now responding.
Like you did for that decade you mentioned, I find myself more disgusted with college football than passionate…my only passion re: college sports being more focused on hoping against hope that the NCAA will be disbanded and that universities will admit what they are and stop all the posturing.
I loved Ruff – or at least the image of a coach that is from the school who loves his players first and foremost. Like you, I do not know what was myth and what was reality.
The Pirates baseball feats this season are closer to what I loved most about college sports, but the big revenue sports make me sick these days.
I will tune in to ECU and hope for the best, but prefer mediocrity with integrity over victory if it comes in the form of turning a blind eye to the abuses of players by coaches and administrators, abuses of students at the hands of athletes and if it comes at the sacrifice of the actual mission of my university.
With UNC-CH poised to “get away with it” I expect more and more schools to blatantly revise their academic curriculum for the benefit of admitting and keeping eligible athletes who otherwise would not be on campus. I hope we do not go that route in the name of victory because IMO, once you do that, victory is already lost…regardless of records on the field. If it is not competitive, is it really competition?
That you have found some way to enjoy ECU football in the current landscape of college football gives me hope that I can find the same.
Thank you for your post QAR…I believe it is a must-read for anyone who gives a damn about ECU and its sports programs. Only 145 or so will see it here, but maybe on of us will share.
A very big Cheers to you QAR…and please post again in the future…love to engage in discussion via this blog.