Twenty-seven East Carolina seniors, graduate transfers and graduating juniors were honored Saturday before their final game at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
That much is certain.
What is still to be decided — and of much more interest to the Pirates’ frustrated fan base — is whether the 48-20 Senior Day thrashing of Cincinnati will also be the last home game for Scottie Montgomery as ECU’s coach.
It’s a matter that probably won’t officially be resolved until after next Saturday’s season finale at Memphis. Chances are, however, that athletic director Jeff Compher has already come to his decision about what to do with his embattled second-year coach.
And it’s probably not going to make the most vocal faction of the Pirate Nation happy.
Because no matter how badly some want to see a change in the leadership of the program, it’s more likely than not that Montgomery will be back on the sideline leading ECU next Sept. 1 when it opens the 2018 season at home against N.C. A&T.
This is not an opinion meant to poke the hornet’s nest or endorse either side of what has become an emotionally charged issue. That’s for folks on the sports talk shows, message boards and social media to debate.
Rather, it’s an assessment based on the Pirates’ performances on the field and the signals Compher has been giving off during the past few weeks.
In spite of the hostility he’s encountered, including a group of fans holding up balloons spelling out the words “Fire Compher” in the stands at Dowdy-Ficklen on Saturday, he just doesn’t give the appearance of a man getting ready to fire his coach.
There have been no contrived public votes of confidence, usually a sure sign that the man currently in charge might want to start updating his resume. Instead of hovering over the program like an overbearing parent trying to keep a child on the straight-and-narrow, Compher has maintained a low profile, allowing Montgomery and his staff do their jobs without any added pressure.
And the bottom line is that they’ve done their jobs better over the past four games.
Say what you want about the quality of the competition — three of those four opponents have losing records — or any number of other mitigating circumstances. It’s an undisputed fact that the Pirates have gotten better as the season has gone along.
They’ve won two of their last four while falling just a yard short in overtime of a chance at winning a third.
Although they still rank next-to-last among 129 FBS programs in scoring defense at 42.7 points per game, they’ve reduced that number down to 30.0 over that same stretch, starting with a homecoming victory against Brigham Young on Oct. 21.
That’s a totally different trajectory from a year ago when ECU lost nine of its last 10, with the final four coming by three touchdowns or more.
As impressive as Montgomery’s pedigree might have been after serving apprenticeships as an assistant in both the NFL and under the highly-respected David Cutcliffe of Duke, it’s obvious now that he was not fully prepared for the head coaching opportunity when he was hired by Compher in December 2015.
His first two seasons were, in a sense, on-the-job training and he’s still admittedly learning.
Whether it’s football or business, it doesn’t make sense for a boss to spend that much time and effort grooming a hire only to give up on him and start the process over from scratch just as the young leader is beginning to get the hang of things.
Besides, firing Montgomery after only two seasons would be an admission that Compher made a colossal mistake by getting rid of former coach Ruffin McNeill without having a qualified successor ready to replace him. Even with his new contract extension, that would put the ECU AD directly into the line of fire — or in this case firing — himself.
Better to let it ride and see if the modest improvements made at the end of this season carry over into next. Because while Montgomery has made his share of mistakes and still has clear faults that must be addressed, he has also shown some promise.
It can be seen in the way his team has kept playing hard for him instead of quitting as others might have, and in the visible growth and improvement of, among others, quarterback Gardner Minshew, running backs Hussein Howe and Darius Pinnix, wide receiver Tajh Deans, offensive lineman John Spellacy, linebacker Aaron Ramseur, cornerback Keyshawn Canady, defensive end Kendall Futrell and linebacker Cannon Gibbs.
All of those players will be back again for at least another year with the Pirates.
Barring an unforeseen circumstance or a truly embarrassing performance Saturday against Memphis, their coach will be too.
Like it or not.
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