Donnie Kirkpatrick was sitting in a parking lot at Hillside High School in Durham when he was interviewed Wednesday morning. He was scheduled to visit with some recruits afterward. The situation wasn’t too different from the one that marked the beginning of the end of his 11 years on the East Carolina staff in December of 2015.
Kirkpatrick was at ECU for the entirety of the Skip Holtz and Ruffin McNeill coaching eras. He was a part of Conference USA championships in 2008 and 2009. The Pirates were 10-3 in 2013, the second most wins in a season in school history. There were some good times.
Kirkpatrick was on hand to see his son, Davis, pitch two and two-thirds scoreless innings last Friday night in the Pirates’ 15-8 win over Tulane at Clark-LeClair Stadium.
The well-traveled coach, who enjoyed the greatest stability of his career at ECU, will be back in Greenville on Sept. 2 as offensive coordinator for James Madison, the Pirates’ season-opening opponent.
Dukes won FCS crown
The Dukes won the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision title for the 2016 season.
“That was a great season right there,” Kirkpatrick said. “It was a long season. We didn’t finish until Jan. 7. . . . Fifteen games. It’s been a long time since I played a season that long — I guess high school football when we played for the state championship or something. When you win, you kind of stay energized with it. We just had a great year. We had some great players. The quarterback just really came on, Bryan Schor, and just had such a terrific year. We were really talented at running back. We were pretty talented at receiver, too.
“It was a pretty good offensive situation. We were able to do both things. We blew some teams out. We had some close ones, too. We had to win late at Richmond (47-43). We had to hold on at Villanova (20-7). Then in the playoffs, you play all good teams. Playing at North Dakota State, they had won five national championships in a row. Playing in that dome (Gate City Bank Field) is the loudest place I’ve ever been. I’ve played in Florida and played at Penn State and Clemson and a bunch of places that were really loud but none of them compared to the volume in that dome because I guess there’s nowhere for that noise to go. Man, are they loud in that building. That was a great win up there (27-17). Then we had to come back and we had three weeks off so it was like a bowl game when we played Youngstown (State) in Frisco (TX).
“They were so good on defense . . . but we kind of hopped on them a little bit. We had adversity, but we always had kids step up. . . . We had them down 21-0 early. We didn’t finish offensively like we should have. We might have gotten a little too conservative in the second half with the lead but they weren’t scoring. They weren’t moving the ball by that time. Our defense really played well the second part of the year. They had really gotten aggressive and really started shutting people down.
“It was one of those years, where going in, we felt like we’d be pretty good on offense. The year before, they had been really bad on defense. We turned that around. Special teams were really good. We ran five punt returns for touchdowns. I don’t know if anybody has done that. We had one guy (Rashard Davis), who ran four back. He was the FCS Special Teams Player of the Year. I was shocked somebody punted him four of them. After he had run back three, somebody punted him a fourth one. Special teams played so well. We blocked some kicks. We had a really good punter (Gunnar Kane), too. He didn’t have to punt much, fortunately, but when he did he was very effective.
“When you’re clicking on all three phases, you’ve got a chance.”
JMU won the championship game, 28-14.
Proven experience at quarterback
Schor completed 217 of 297 passes last season for 3,002 yards with 29 touchdowns and six interceptions.
That’s a nice building block for Kirkpatrick, who also coaches quarterbacks.
“It’s a great feeling to have your quarterback back, obviously,” Kirkpatrick said. “You can kind of take that next step. You’re not back to starting all over. Coming in last spring, we were installing base offense. It’s hard to get past much more than just getting the base stuff in because it’s all new terminology. I was the fourth offensive coordinator for the guys who were seniors, for the guys who had redshirted. Just getting the terminology down and just getting the system learned is a challenge in itself because they had so many different things going on. As the season goes on, you install a little bit more. By the end of the year, you may have it all in.
“This spring practice, we were looking at some new things that maybe fit to our personnel a little bit more. It all starts with the quarterback, obviously. We’re no huddle. We’re an up tempo type deal, a little more balanced probably than when I was at ECU. We still throw it quite a bit. Probably have a little stronger running game than we had most years there. It all starts with the quarterback being able to put you in the right play, to be able to stay out of bad plays.”
Kirkpatrick saw the baseball series with Tulane, which was ECU’s first American Athletic Conference series win at home this season.
“I’ve been lucky,” Kirkpatrick said. “I’ve seen a couple of the games. I’m out recruiting now. I timed it up with the spring recruiting that I got in. I saw the Wednesday game, which [Davis] didn’t pitch in. I was there for Friday night when he pitched this past weekend. Saw the whole weekend when they took two of three from Tulane. I was at Central Florida, that weekend.
“Most of the time, I kind of watch it on the computer and keep up with them as best I can.”
Only Dukes loss was to UNC
James Madison’s only loss during a 14-1 campaign in 2016 was at North Carolina, 56-28, on Sept. 17. JMU led 21-14 at the close of the first quarter.
“Third game of the year, played a good North Carolina team,” Kirkpatrick said. “We took the lead on them to start the game and played really well the first half. They were explosive. I know they had some injuries late in the year and lost some of those receivers. The quarterback [Mitch Trubisky], if people didn’t think he was good, they didn’t watch our game because he was tremendous against us. I don’t know if he missed a throw that day or not. . . . We just couldn’t keep up with them there. . . . We just could not stop them that day. They just had too many weapons and they were a pretty good team.”
Trubisky completed 24 of 27 for 432 yards against the Dukes with three TDs and no picks.
“They probably weren’t as good at the end of the year as they were at the beginning of the year,” Kirkpatrick said. “We took that loss. That was good experience for our guys though. We competed pretty well up there. We just didn’t play good enough to win.”
The experience at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill and other demanding venues may have value for the Dukes as they venture into Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium for the season opener.
“Year to year, is a whole new team, even when you’ve got returning players,” Kirkpatrick said. “It helps a little bit I guess that we’ve been in that environment. They beat SMU, which is maybe not a similar environment, but it is an FBS team. It’s an American Conference team — the year before we got there. SMU obviously wasn’t very good that year. If nothing else, we’ve been in that environment. Dowdy-Ficklen can be pretty rowdy so you’ve had an opportunity to play in front of a big crowd that’s against you a little bit.
“Like I say, the North Dakota State game was the toughest environment that I’ve been in. You couldn’t hear. You couldn’t call a play. You couldn’t check a play in that environment. You had to work your silent counts and your hand signaling. It will be interesting opening up at ECU. I know they’ll be a lot better this year than probably they were last year.
“We’ll look forward to that. I think if we can play a bigger or tougher type of opponent to open the season, it probably helps your summer workouts a little bit because your kids know they’ve got to be ready game one —not that you ever disrespect anybody. We opened up this past season with Morehead State (80-7 JMU win). It was a good opponent but not an opponent that might jump out and get your players’ attention in summer workouts like opening up with East Carolina would.”
ECU adjustments on defense
The Pirates are expected to align differently on defense after going 3-9 overall last year and 1-7 in the AAC. The personnel on the defensive front should be deeper and more talented.
“You see things,” Kirkpatrick said. “I still have a lot of contacts in Greenville. The thing is, defensively, everybody is so multiple nowadays. Saying you’re a 3-4 or you’re a 4-2-5 or you’re a 4-3, whatever, doesn’t really mean much anymore because everybody now is so situational, meaning that they’ve got a third down package so they’re going to be in three down. They’re going to have a nickel package. They’re going to have a dime package. They’re going to have a four-down package where they may have three linebackers in the game. It seems like everybody is doing so much stuff now that you have to be prepared for everything. Your game plan is much more situational.
“Opening up the first game, you never really know what a team is going to do. Most of the time, they’re not sure what they’re going to end up being as their base. They might have a plan but you’ve got to get in the season and then you start to do kind of what you need to do. Defensively, last year we changed as the season evolved. They kind of found their niche. They started out being much more of a zone-type team and they ended up being much more of a man coverage type team because they discovered as the season went on, the man coverage fi them better. We lost some of those guys so this year that may not be the case. Going into it, we’ll have a base idea that ECU has changed defensively, how they’re structured, but it won’t tell us much by that. We’ll have to get in the game and kind of adjust as the game goes on.”
McNeill was dismissed after a 5-7 season in 2015. The Pirates were 3-5 in the AAC.
“That was a shock to the staff, I can assure you of that,” Kirkpatrick said. “I know that I was on the road recruiting. I was actually in a high school waiting to visit with two prospects and they wanted to wait for class to change. They were coming down to the conference room and we got a text message from Ruff that he had been released of his duties. That was quite a shock. Pretty soon afterwards, I had gotten a call from the athletic director [Jeff Compher] to call him.
Story continues after the following picture…
“I actually ended up telling the young men I had an emergency back at the office that I had to go take care of. I had to go out in the parking lot to call [Compher] to really get the details on the news. When you’re in this business, obviously, you’ve got to be a little light on your feet. You’ve got to be flexible. You’ve got to know things are going to happen. How all that went down, I’m not exactly sure I’ll ever totally understand what that was all about. It was definitely shocking the day it happened.
“I was at West Mecklenburg High School there. I was recruiting the Charlotte area. I had already been to a couple of schools that morning. I had a few more and I was going to see a game. Oddly enough, I was on my way to Rock Hill that night — it was a Friday — to see Gage Moloney play, who we were going to offer a scholarship to after I watched him play if he looked as good as we thought he was going to look.
“We ended up signing Gage at James Madison.”
Moloney, a quarterback, was Mr. Football in South Carolina in 2016 at Northwestern High School in Rock Hill.
“I didn’t go watch him play that night because I was told to come on back,” Kirkpatrick said. “I went back in. We were having team meetings and things like that but oddly enough we ended up signing the guy I was going to watch play that night. … I had no idea that was going to all play out.”
Kirkpatrick served in the interim between staffs after McNeill’s departure.
“The phone call back to Jeff Compher was about me coming back,” Kirkpatrick said. “He had asked me, because I was also serving as the recruiting coordinator, which I had done for those 11 years, if I would stay on until they hired a new coach and try to keep the class together that we were actively recruiting. There was also quite a bit of unrest going on with the team, obviously, when the news hit and try to maybe come back and calm the team down a little bit and try to hold things over. I had agreed to do that. I felt like that was probably the right thing to do on all sides of the deal.
“I did stay on. It was through the Christmas break, into January. Things just didn’t work out. Pretty quickly after that, about two weeks later, I was offered a couple of different jobs. The one that seemed to be the best was the one at James Madison. I ended up taking that job there by the end of January.”
Minimal conversation with Scottie
Kirkpatrick didn’t have an in-depth discussion with Montgomery about remaining on the ECU staff.
“Not really,” Kirkpatrick said. “Not so much with Scottie I guess. As I stayed there to bridge the gap until he got named, by the time he got there I had pretty much decided it was probably not going to be the right place for me to stay at that time. There were probably some differences in the way the administration was probably going to take the thing. I had a brief conversation with Scottie but I don’t know the details. I don’t remember. Mostly, Scottie had talked to me through Smitty (Terrell Smith), his operations guy, and Jeff, the AD, a little bit, just getting the information on the recruits that we were actively recruiting, where we were and some things about the team.
“Me and Scottie never really had a serious conversation about me staying there.”
Motivation vs. ECU
Kirkpatrick said he won’t be driven by thoughts of payback for the previous regime’s dismissal when JMU plays the Pirates.
“You just can’t do that,” Kirkpatrick said. “I had 11 great years at East Carolina. Both my kids went to high school there, went to middle school there. That was something that me and my wife (Misty) feel very fortunate in that. In this business, most of us move around quite a bit. I surely was one of those, moving at an average of about every two to three years there. When we left to come to East Carolina, I was looking for somewhere I could give my kids a little bit of a normal life, some place to call home.
“Skip coming in on the front end, it was a major rebuilding process at that time in that they were at rock bottom, I would say from the previous couple of years. I never felt like Skip would probably retire at East Carolina, but I knew that he would have to be there a while before he could leave because he wasn’t going to be able just to turn it around in one year. It had all the makings of something we were looking for. It was beyond our expectations that we could get them all through high school.
“When Skip went to South Florida, I know there were some members of the staff who were excited about that. I was not. I was fortunate that when it came down to three candidates and all three candidates for the job had asked me if they got the job, would I stay? I was planning to stay anyhow. That worked out good with it being Ruff. I’d known Ruff for a long time. In fact, the first player I ever signed as a college coach was playing basketball for Ruff [at Lumberton High School]. He was the head basketball coach and he was the defensive backs coach there on the football team so I had met Ruff many years ago.
“We just have great feelings about East Carolina. There’s still a lot of players on that team that I either coached or I recruited personally or was involved with as recruiting coordinator. I don’t have any bad feelings for East Carolina.
“Every game that I go into, coach into, whatever, I’ve got to feel like I’m probably as motivated to do well, to win, as you possibly can be. I’d feel guilty if I wasn’t. There’s no more motivation that I could have for that game than I’ll have for the next game or any game we have in my life.
“I’ve been in this situation before. I had left Louisville and had gone to Chattanooga and, oddly enough, we went back and played Louisville. I had been in that situation when I left Chattanooga. I was at Western Carolina and we went back and played [Chattanooga], too. After the game, it can sometimes be a little bit emotional. You see some of those players. With ECU, it will surely be like that with a lot of those players. There are some ex-players that I still talk to a lot that are going to be at that game. They’re already talking about that. It will be great seeing them. There will be some emotions with that.
“Going into the football part of it, I don’t know if you just block it out or it just isn’t a factor in the thing.”
Thoughts on 3-9 season
The coaching change at East Carolina didn’t produce immediate improvement in terms of the record. A 33-30 win at home over N.C. State the second week of the season was unquestionably the highlight.
“I had my own things going on but I kept up with it obviously because of those players,” Kirkpatrick said. “After the North Carolina State game, I had texted Zay [Jones] and a couple of the guys that I had obviously coached before. We had spoke and a bunch of them called me that night. I was happy for them. One thing I’m proud of is that I felt like we left the program in good shape. We left a group of good players, good people there. Things were in good shape I felt like. Obviously, good enough to beat a North Carolina State team that went on to win a bowl game.
“I know the season didn’t turn out particularly well for them. At that point, I don’t know that I had any thoughts about that. Football is tough. The other teams are going to try to beat you every week so you’re going to have to do a lot of things right. Nobody is going to give you anything. I felt for the players because I know they went through some struggles and some things that are tough. I’ve been there before, too.
“We were having a great year so I heard from a lot of those guys throughout the year. Just saying ‘congratulations’ and ‘saw you on TV’ and things like that. Those relationships are what coaching is all about.
“As far as how their season turned out, I don’t know why it went what it did or all that stuff. I know they’ll get it turned around though.”
ECU will be looking to turn things around in 2017, starting with the JMU game.
“There’s quite a bit of difference in the American Conference-type deal and an FCS Colonial Athletic-type deal,” Kirkpatrick said. “There’s a big difference obviously. That’s 85 scholarships versus 63 and some stuff like that, too. Hopefully, both of us will have good years. It will be a good crowd. The Pirates always draw well so that part will be fun to come back and play at Dowdy-Ficklen.
“The only negative to playing early is if you have a hot game where subs come into play a little bit. The FCS guys can get worn down a little bit.
“We have to play these types of games because they are a little bit of a financial gain for our program. Our players want to play in some of those anyhow. You don’t want to play too many of them but you want to play some of them. It helps your recruiting.”
Recruiting competition, too
The Pirates likely will be competing with JMU, which is located in Harrisonburg, VA, in recruiting as well.
“We want to recruit the state of North Carolina,” Kirkpatrick said. “We’re not that far from it. We have a lot of coaches that have North Carolina ties. [Head coach] Mike Houston is a North Carolina guy. Tripp Weaver (former ECU staff assistant), who is with us, is a North Carolina guy. Bob Trott (defensive coordinator) is a North Carolina guy. I’m from North Carolina. Dale (Steele, former director of football administration at ECU) has spent a lot of time in North Carolina. . . . We want to recruit the state. We have a lot of ties in it.
“Playing a team from North Carolina — we played North Carolina last year — playing East Carolina this year. That helps you to be known a little bit more in those areas that you want to recruit. It’s a good situation for us.”