Every new coach has his honeymoon period and Scottie Montgomery is no different.
The energetic former Duke and Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver ignited a spark of enthusiasm by winning his introductory East Carolina press conference, then built on the momentum with a strong Signing Day performance.
Montgomery further endeared himself to his new fan base by leading the Pirates to victory in their first two games this season, including a satisfying 33-30 victory against in-state rival N.C. State.
But after three straight losses — all punctuated by the same recurring self-inflicted mistakes — the honeymoon is officially over.
That’s not to say either the fans or athletic director Jeff Compher have lost their faith in their young coach. All signs still point to Montgomery as a rising star in the business because of his experience, knowledge and coaching bloodline.
It’s just that as a rookie getting his first taste of being the man in charge, he’s now moved on to the inevitable second phase of a process most new coaches must endure: Dealing with and overcoming adversity.
“We knew that we would have some growing pains,” Montgomery said at his weekly press conference on Monday. “But we didn’t think the growing pains would last this long or that there would be this many.”
The most frustrating aspect of the Pirates’ current slump is that they’ve continued to repeat the same mistakes in each successive loss.
They’ve given up a momentum-changing kick or punt return of better than 80 yards in each of the last three games. Twice in those last three games they’ve outgained their opponent by 148 yards or more only to lose because of their inability to score in the red zone.
And they’ve turned the ball over at an alarming rate, usually at the worst times possible.
That was again the case in last week’s ugly 47-29 loss to Central Florida, a game punctuated by five turnovers, including a pick six and a lost fumble inside the Knights’ 5-yard line.
Through Montgomery’s first five games as coach, ECU ranks 127th in the nation — or next-to-last among FBS programs — in turnover margin at minus-9. They have given the ball away 13 times compared to only four takeaways.
The Pirates’ special teams have been equally as self-destructive, ranking 119th in kickoff return defense.
“Those things can be corrected,” Montgomery said. “And those things will be corrected.”
The question is how?
Montgomery and his staff have already made wholesale personnel changes on their kickoff and punt coverage teams. They’ve also switched kickers after having field goals blocked in consecutive weeks.
As for ball security, there’s only so much coaches can do — a fact that is clearly weighing on a newcomer to the profession facing his first post-honeymoon test.
“I think there’s pressure and that’s what it should be,” Montgomery said. “That’s what we signed up for and what we’re here for. There should be pressure on the coaches and the players. But is it any more than it was last week? It is because it’s the next week and we didn’t win last week. All of us have a microscope that we continue to pull out when we don’t do things the right way.
“We have to continue to look at how we’re getting the ball to certain people when we’re moving people around. It’s good for our program. We don’t expect to lose. We didn’t go into last week expecting to lose, nor the week before or the week before. That pressure is something that we apply to ourselves and our players to make sure that we get a better product.”
The scrutiny will only become more intense as the Pirates travel to Tampa on Saturday to take on defending AAC East champion South Florida, perhaps with a backup quarterback leading the team if starter Philip Nelson is unable to go.
Win or lose, it’s an encouraging sign that Montgomery’s faith in himself, his players and his system remains strong. That’s why despite the disappointment of the past three weeks, it’s important that Pirate fans return the favor during their new coach’s growing pains and continue to maintain their faith in him.