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Pirates on the Brink: We’ve been here Before, but Stakes are Higher this Time

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.

East Carolina University football finds itself at a fork in the road.

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?acc recordsSo 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.



6 comments on “Pirates on the Brink: We’ve been here Before, but Stakes are Higher this Time

  1. Purple Haze

    It’s all about leadership. I know we have David Hart over-seeing the athletic department but its almost unheard of for a major college athletic program not to have an AD. I agree with you that we need someone with some fire and connections in that position and we need him sooner than later. We need to increase our football coaching budget to attract more qualified, experienced coach’s. In turn, that coach will bring more qualified and experienced assistants. You see what happens when you bring in a proven assistant. Things get better(Blackwell). It’s time to move on from Coach Mo but we need to hire the AD first. Hopefully, that will come shortly. Pirate Nation will return, but we have to make some good decisions going forward to get the confidence of the fans back. And W’s wouldn’t hurt either.(-:

    • I am eager to see how this AD search goes. I think the chancellor knows how important it is and Dave Hart will advise in a fashion that has ECU’s future in mind.

      I feel for Coach Mo because he is a good guy who does connect with his players. Hopefully the new AD gets in here and a plan for the future of football emerges.

      There are certainly serious fiscal issues to address that will directly impact success on the field, but I agree that Pirate Nation always finds a way.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts Purple Haze. Go Pirates!

  2. Pharma, I realize that things look pretty bleak right now, but I don’t think there is any reason to think that we cannot pull ourselves out of the mess we are in even if it takes us several years to do so. As the previous poster indicated and you referred to in your article, right now we have a leadership vacuum and those in a position of leadership have made a shocking number of bad decisions. However I think that once we decide to stop making the hole deeper we can begin to recover. I don’t have access to any insider information, but surely by now the Chancellor and the BOT have realized that their past decisions have brought a great deal of harm to the University and to the athletic program in particular. And though the formation of a committee to find the new AD is months later than it should have been, at least now the committee has been formed and we can move forward. And lastly, surely by now they realize that their actions will no longer be made mostly in secret and that many, many people are playing very close attention to what they are doing. And if they start taking additional unwise actions that a spotlight will be brought to bear on them and the public will know. The people that claim to lead our university have got to start making smarter and more timely decisions, and they must do a much better job of explaining their decisions to the public and the fan base. When all that starts happening our program will begin to recover and the fan base will come back together.

    • Always good to hear from you TTH. I think that ECU people are always resilient and find a way to get it done and I think this is one of those times we pull ourselves up. I worry mostly about the college landscape shifting at a time when we are most vulnerable.

      Eagerly watching the AD search.

      Cheers to you!

  3. Ron; Nice read once again. I was always beating my chest wondering why ECU was always left out of a conference promotion strictly based upon our record and success against the other programs being considered. Well we got in, got a little money, and have fallen flat.

    I always wanted our Beamer but I think he arrived 10 years late and his OC as we can see was the primary reason for his success. With Lincoln gone I thought our chances of playing at the highest level went with him. . I thought it would be a matter of time before the program sunk to the bottom. Ruff was getting older and IMHO lazy on the recruiting trail.

    I thought the move to go in another direction was the correct one. A young coach full of energy, and NFL experience would be a great hire. I got to speak with Mo at media day in Newport RI and thought he was going to great things at ECU. Sadly I could not have been more wrong.

    The game of football has not changed. Great teams are built from the lines out. If you look at Skips success he knew that was the case. Look at the “all conference” performers from ECU since his departure, they basically do not exist nor can i recall many since 2009 on the Oline or Dline. Teams would do us a favor by throwing the ball rather than blowing us 6 yards off the ball on a dive play. The fact we could never gain a yard running the ball in short yardage also spoke volumes.

    All we hear is how great Jeff Connors is and he might be, but all I have seen is ECU getting shoved around since Skip has left. We might have had our moments or a season or two but for the most part we have been physically dominated at the point of attack.

    Let me say our new D coach has been a miracle worker but you can see they are outgunned.

    This gets me back to what I have been saying for many years and that why we have ignored recruiting the DC area. The Washington Catholic league has 4 teams ranked inside the top 80 nationally. My High School is currently 3rd in the nation and features 1 5 star, 5, 4 star, and 11 3 star kids on the roster. That’s at one school. The league plays a national schedule where you have kids that want to compete at the highest level. While we might not sign the 5 star or 4 star kid you surely can get a 3 star kid who will walk on to campus far better prepared for a college program than a big fish in a very small pond. These kids both play and practice each day against the best available. I know Temple is here recruiting as well as UConn which is twice as far as the 270 miles from Greenville to the DMV. Where in the hell is ECU?

    At this point I do not have any answers and I have to wonder have we dug a hole so deep we will never see the light. We need a great leader with a vision for the future and a way to raise a ton of money as this ship is sinking fast.

    • Great to hear from you DCP. I couldn’t agree more with your comments, particularly about recruiting.

      I am eager to see how the search unfolds for the AD.

      Hope you are well.

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