East Carolina was among hopefuls for inclusion in the Big 12 Conference and Zay Jones was 146 catches behind former teammate Justin Hardy on the career receptions list. That’s how the 2016 season began.
In the three months that ensued, the Big 12 dream turned into a fiasco, Jones set new Football Bowl Subdivision records and the Pirates lost nine of their last 10 games after a promising 2-0 start under first-year coach Scottie Montgomery that included a 33-30 win over N.C. State.
The Wolfpack went to Chapel Hill to close the season and took similar purpose that was evident in its appearance in Greenville and gained bowl eligibility with a 28-21 win over North Carolina.
The Pirates didn’t play another game on the same level of week two.
ECU finished 3-9 overall and 1-7 in the American Athletic Conference. Teams are what their record says they are, a tough realization for a university whose ambition has been reinforced by its gridiron performance for decades.
The Pirates had gone 5-6 in 2015 and 3-5 in the league when athletic director Jeff Compher dismissed ECU alumnus Ruffin McNeill as coach. Compher cited the championship trajectory of the program in firing the former Pirate safety.
There have been unsubstantiated accounts of insubordination and/or lack of discipline involving McNeill, but Compher should have been transparent enough to indicate that was the case before pushing a coach out the door who was 42-34 overall at ECU and 8-8 in the AAC while operating with fewer resources in some key areas than many of his colleagues.
The contention that McNeill didn’t recruit well has been used as an explanation for the Pirates’ current plight but Ruff’s teams performed better than ECU did this year with the players he brought in. McNeill was the only coach in the country who saw enough in the record-setting Jones to offer him a scholarship.
The move to dismiss McNeill looked increasingly questionable with each loss in 2016. The defeats for the most part were more pronounced than a year ago.
An exception was a 41-3 homecoming win over Connecticut that reversed a 31-13 loss to the host Huskies in 2015.
Would things have been different with McNeill this season? That’s hard to say. Kurt Benkert would have been on hand at quarterback. Gardner Minshew would not have been.
McNeill’s firing drew scrutiny far and wide, sort of like the protest statement by some of the marching band before the Central Florida game. That provided a distraction for the fan base at the AAC opener. It required unnecessary time to address in administrative offices across the campus.
Fan support waned as the team struggled on in 2016 but ECU still led the AAC in attendance with 43,094 per game.
The Pirates didn’t get many breaks. Turnovers in the red zone contributed to a 20-15 loss at South Carolina. An interception in the end zone appeared to hit the ground on the replay but the call was not overturned. Everything that could go wrong seemingly did so in a 54-17 loss at Virginia Tech in week four.
Special teams problems early in the season were addressed and resolved for the most part.
Moving the ball was not a problem as ECU averaged 467.1 yards of offense, third in the AAC. The Pirates led the league in passing yards with 334.7 per game. One issue was generating points from scoring opportunities as ECU scored on 73.9 percent of its red zone chances, which ranked 11th in the 12-team AAC.
Sacks were unfavorable numbers. The Pirates yielded 31 and made just eight. Both figures were last in the league statistics.
ECU’s rush defense was also ineffective. The Pirates allowed 228.5 yards per game, 12th and last in the AAC.
ECU also finished last in the league in turnover margin at minus-16.
There is plenty to address and repair for a coaching staff currently focused on recruiting. Some problem areas will get an infusion of junior college talent but the goal is to eventually rely on incoming high school players to develop within the program.
How much time that will take and how much time Montgomery and staff will have is a valid question.
Montgomery came from Duke, which endured five losing seasons under coach David Cutcliffe before turning the corner and going 10-4 in 2013. ECU won’t have the same degree of patience with Montgomery because football is the flagship sport for the Pirates.
What works at Duke may not necessarily work at ECU. Duke can recruit a different type of student-athlete on a national basis. The only other former Blue Devil to coach the Pirates, Mike McGee, went 3-8 at ECU in 1970 before leaving to coach Duke. McGee, who was from Elizabeth City, took over a program that was 2-7 in Clarence Stasavich’s last season.
That’s ancient history in college football terms but more recent history shows the dangers of replacing a winning coach.
Steve Logan got his walking papers after going 4-8 overall and 4-4 in Conference USA in 2002. Logan still has the most wins by an ECU coach. His career record is 69-58.
The Pirates were 3-20 over the next two seasons under John Thompson, who lacked head coaching experience before coming to ECU.
The Pirates brought in Terry Holland as athletic director and he dismissed Thompson. Holland’s hire, Skip Holtz, began getting the program turned around in 2005 when ECU went 5-6 overall and 4-4 in C-USA. Holtz won C-USA championships in 2008 and 2009.
More recently, McNeill made references to Frank Beamer’s lean period at Virginia Tech a couple of decades ago. The Hokies stuck by their alumnus. That’s history, too.