Jason Nichols wanted to be back at his alma mater, so much so that he made a special trip to East Carolina when Scottie Montgomery was named football coach in December of 2015.
Nichols, a notable receiver in his playing days for the Pirates from 1994 to 1997, was named running backs coach this week.
Persistence paid off for Nichols, who spent last season as running backs coach at Western Carolina.
“When I talked to Coach Montgomery last Wednesday, he remembered something that I had done previously,” Nichols said. “When he first got the job here, I reached out to Coach Montgomery. I actually flew up here. I read that they were going to introduce him at halftime of a basketball game. I flew up. I said I could sit at home or I could come up here and try to meet Coach Montgomery, introduce myself and I did. I probably met him for about two or three minutes.
“I just introduced myself, told him who I was — that I was an alum here — and would just love the opportunity to talk to him about being in the staff. That didn’t happen for me last year but, obviously, it planted a seed. That was one of the first things he mentioned to me when he was talking to me on the telephone. It showed him how much this university meant to me. It does. It means a lot to me and I wanted to express that to him.
“It didn’t happen at that time but it happened when it was supposed to. He remembers that and reached out to me. I’m grateful for that. I’ve got a job to do now, get these running backs playing well.”
The Pirates will have at least four new staff members going forward. Robert Prunty is the new defensive line coach. Brandon Lynch has come in as defensive backs coach. The receivers coach position is in the process of being filled.
“I reached out to Coach Montgomery when Phil (McGeoghan, former ECU receivers coach) was leaving,” Nichols said. “I was inquiring about the receivers job. I talked to Coach Montgomery. I think it was a Saturday and he told me that he wanted to talk to me and interview for the running backs job. I was like, ‘Wow, OK.’ So I’m excited. I said ‘I don’t care how I get there. I just want to get there.’ We talked about that.
“I finally got a chance to talk to him last Wednesday (Feb. 15). . . . When a job opens up, it has to post for so many days before you can actually interview anybody for it. So we finally sat down and we talked last Wednesday, officially. He offered me the job and I told him, ‘Coach, it’s a no brainer for me. I want to be back here.’
Nichols worked for Louisiana-Monroe coach Todd Berry, a former ECU assistant, for six years before joining the Catamounts. Nichols came to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium last year for the season opener when Montgomery’s debut produced a 52-7 win over Western.
“It was definitely different,” Nichols said of the experience. “Actually, the sideline that we were on used to be the home side when I was playing. It was neat to be back. I was excited to be back in Greenville at that time. I wanted to see if we could stun the Pirates that day, to be honest, but we just didn’t have enough in the tank to get that done. But it was just a great feeling. That was the first time that I had been back inside the stadium in a long, long time.”
Capacity has increased to 50,000 since Nichols’ playing days.
“When I was playing, my senior year, the upper deck was in the works,” Nichols said. “In the last few years, they’ve bowled in the other end zone, which also was an addition after I left.”
Fans in the stands were a reason Nichols came to ECU originally.
“Back then, Steve Logan was the head coach,” Nichols said. “Bob Babich was the guy who was recruiting me out of Atlanta. I had a great relationship with them both but to be honest, I just liked the sincerity Coach Logan had when he came to the house and talked to me about this whole opportunity at East Carolina, back in the day. . . .
“It was a college town. It was something I was really looking forward to. I was from Atlanta. I wanted to kind of get away. Georgia Tech was recruiting me a little bit but they kind of struggled with support, being in a big city. I wanted to go somewhere where you were going to get that support from the fans.”
The Pirates knocked off Power Five teams on a regular basis in the mid-1990s.
“Big wins,” Nichols said. “We had some big wins when I was playing here. We beat Syracuse up in Syracuse with Donovan McNabb. We beat Miami down in the Orange Bowl. We beat South Carolina twice while I was here. I just remember us playing some big-time games and winning those games and going to some bowl games.”
The Pirates went to the Liberty Bowl in 1994 and 1995 with contrasting results.
“We went back-to-back,” Nichols said. “The first year we went, we lost to Illinois (30-0). That was the first time with that team getting back into a bowl situation. So we kind of went there and we enjoyed the bowl game. We came back that second year, we just felt that we had some unfinished business. That was our motto going into that season. We came back and we played and we beat Stanford (19-13) in the bowl game that second time around.”
Nichols went on to play for pay in the Canadian Football League.
“I was up there with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats,” he said. “That was an interesting experience being up that far north, being cold in the summer. It was definitely a unique experience. … The field is a little bit longer and you’ve got one extra guy on the football field.”
Under Nichols’ supervision last season, Western Carolina’s Detrez Newsome led the Football Championship Subdivision with a school record 2,343 all-purpose yards. Newsome ran for 1,031 yards and 10 touchdowns.
ECU’s top returning rusher, Anthony Scott, ran for 413 yards and two TDs in 2016.
Developing the Pirate running backs is a multi-faceted task. ECU’s 24 fumbles during a 3-9 season last year were 24 too many.
“First and foremost, to be honest, we’ve got to take care of the ball,” Nichols said. “Going back and watching some of the cut-ups, we’ve got to take care of the ball. We laid the ball on the ground way too much in the season last year to be successful. That’s first and foremost, ball security.
“The next big thing as a running backs group is knowing how to protect the quarterback. We’ve got to know our protections. We’ve got to be physical, stepping up and being part of that protection, knowing who we’re blocking. The third thing is running the football. We’ve got a lot of capable guys who can do that. We’re going to spend this spring trying to find out who does it better.”
Nichols has hit the ground running in his new post.
“I’m still learning everything,” Nichols said. “I got an office here officially on Monday. We’ve been going through all the cut-ups and making some adjustments. You go back and you watch the film, just like you do at any place. It’s just the little things that you go back and you notice. If we correct things, you’ve got a chance to win six, seven, eight, nine ball games. That’s why you go through and you self evaluate because what you’re trying to do is get better. That’s what we’ve been doing here the last three or four days, just trying to see what we need to do to be better.
“I’ve been able to watch the personnel on film. I haven’t had much time to really get to know those guys yet. That probably won’t really happen until we get out on the field and find out who brings what to the table. Any time you’re taking over a new group, . . . they’ve got a clean slate with me. I’m going to believe what I see on film. I’m going to judge them by that. We’re going to have a high standard of how we’re going to go and compete every day in practice. The guys that do it well are going to be the guys that play on Saturday.”
Montgomery is a dynamic coach to work for, Nichols indicated.
“Just being around him so far, just his organization, his attention to detail,” Nichols said. “Listening to him talk in our staff meetings and understanding how everything is supposed to come together. I’ve been really impressed with that. I’m also very aware of his background with [Duke] Coach [David] Cutcliffe and seeing the things that he’s probably bringing to this program that he learned from Coach Cutcliffe. I want to be around that and be associated with that. Just the motivation he’s going to bring to get this thing turned around here at East Carolina.”
Nichols’ first opportunity to actually coach and teach will be in spring ball. He reiterated maintaining the handle on the pigskin as a high priority.
“First and foremost, we’ve got to take care of the ball,” Nichols said. “Coming out of spring, we’ve got to feel good about that as a group that we’re going to take care of the football. We can’t lay the football on the ground. Then just the attitude of how hard we’ve got to work. I think these guys work hard, don’t get me wrong, but we’ve got to bring that every day. That’s what good teammates do that want to be a part of a winning situation is every day we’ve got to show up and be ready to go to work. That’s going to be my job. Pay attention to the details, how we’re aligned and how we’re assigned, proper footwork, what we want to get done on the inside zone and all those good things. We’re going to be very detail oriented this spring. I’m going to look at everything we need to get better at and make sure we’re hitting that every day.”
The college game has changed since Nichols was a Pirate player. He is a previous holder of ECU’s career receptions record with 152.
“The big part is they throw it a lot more,” Nichols said. “East Carolina has had two guys (Justin Hardy and Zay Jones) set the [career Football Bowl Subdivision] receptions record. They definitely throw the ball more. They play more in space. This game is about ‘how can I get my athletes in space?’ Of course, the kids are getting bigger, stronger and faster — all that good stuff. It’s changed but at the end of the day, the fundamentals is what it comes down to — making sure that we’re taking care of the football and doing all those good things to be successful.”
Players have gotten bigger and so has Greenville.
“It’s changed a lot,” Nichols said of ECU’s home town. “I see the growth. Even now, they’re building something over here on campus, a new student union or something like that. A lot of growth here and a community that I’m excited about, a lot of new restaurants and shops and stuff like that. Greenville has definitely grown a lot.”
ECU did not have an alumnus on staff last season above the position of graduate assistant. Montgomery has remedied that void and knows he’s made a hire who will be able to draw on his background in recruiting.
“Not only does Jason bring a wealth of coaching experience to East Carolina, he knows first-hand of the special bond that exists between Pirate Nation and our program,” Montgomery said in a university statement. “To have the opportunity to impact young men on the same campus and playing fields where he earned his degree and competed is immeasurable.
“From a recruiting standpoint, I’m not sure if there’s anyone else who could tell a more compelling story of what it means to be a Pirate.”