As much as the sports world, particularly coaches, focuses on the next play, the next possession or the next pitch, East Carolina’s recently-canceled main graduation at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium is a reminder that another school year is complete.
Looking back, instead of to the immediate future, maybe some lessons can be learned. The Pirates certainly don’t want to repeat a lot of what became history over the last nine months.
While baseball season continues with a chance to finish strong, as the Pirates have done the past two years, the performance on the diamond thus far has fallen short of expectations. Whether those expectations were realistic is another topic.
There have been a few big wins in the revenue sports, but in general 2016-17 has just been a bad year.
Basketball went through the unique departure of coach Jeff Lebo from the sideline due to hip replacement surgery in January. More recently the hoops program has been jolted by the transfers of freshmen Deng Riak to Akron and Elijah Hughes to Syracuse.
But baseball and basketball don’t drive the bus at East Carolina.
A 3-9 record in football with a 1-7 ledger in the American Athletic Conference epitomizes the struggle that has characterized ECU athletics during the last two semesters.
ECU got Pirate Nation’s hopes up with a resounding 52-7 triumph over Western Carolina in coach Scottie Montgomery’s debut and followed that by holding off N.C. State for a cherished 33-30 win over the closest in-state rival.
Then the season began to go south at South Carolina. The Pirates had three turnovers inside the Gamecocks’ 10-yard line in a 20-15 loss.
Anthony Scott, who scored the go-ahead touchdown against the Wolfpack, lost a fumble at the South Carolina 5 in the fourth quarter.
Zay Jones had 22 catches in Columbia, a performance that helped boost him past former teammate Justin Hardy later in the year for the NCAA career receptions record.
Jones’ pursuit of the record was a positive attention-getter for the program as the team’s losses mounted.
Jones was a second-round choice of the Buffalo Bills in the recent NFL draft, another positive for the Pirates. Coincidentally perhaps, Phil McGeoghan, who was wide receivers coach at ECU last year, is now coaching wide receivers for the Bills.
At USC, Philip Nelson had been picked off twice on drives deep into the red zone before Scott’s costly bobble. On one of the interceptions, the ball appeared to go to the ground from the defender’s grasp but the call was not overturned.
The Pirates finished with a 519-312 command in total yardage against the Gamecocks.
ECU went from bad breaks in week three to simply bad at Virginia Tech. The Hokies had their homecoming and delivered payback from a 35-28 loss in Greenville in 2015 with a 54-17 beatdown.
Some members of ECU’s marching band took a knee for the national anthem the following week before the Pirates were dealt a 47-29 loss at home by Central Florida in ECU’s AAC opener.
The band protest was an unnecessary distraction that the team should not have had to deal with and it heaped negative publicity on the university. Unfortunately, ECU did not fare much better than former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the originator of the Star Spangled sitdown, the rest of the AAC campaign.
The football downturn caused some to further question the dismissal of former coach Ruffin McNeill. Montgomery had no head coaching experience but earned an advanced degree from the school of hard knocks in his maiden voyage on the Pirate ship.
Athletic director Jeff Compher hung his ECU cap on the coaching transition and will be heavily invested in perceivable improvement in 2017. Compher’s contract is up for renewal in 2018 and successful football is, obviously, the cornerstone of Pirate athletics.
Chancellor Cecil Staton is the wild card in the potential dominoes that could topple Compher and even Montgomery. His vision for athletics is an unknown as it pertains to hiring and firing. Staton seems to have kept a lower profile since the band incident.
Montgomery looks to have done A-plus work in recruiting, replacing staff and generally renewing optimism going forward. Back-to-back road games against Power Five teams that he had to deal with in 2016 are absent from the upcoming schedule. In fact, there are seven home games, beginning with a challenge from defending FCS winners James Madison on Sept. 2. All of the games are on Saturday at this point, which would allow the Pirates to develop a weekly routine.
Should Pirate Nation be worried about the opener with the Dukes?
That answer would be in the affirmative.
North Dakota State won 23-21 at Iowa in September last year after winning the 2015 FCS title. JMU won 27-17 at North Dakota State in the 2016 playoffs.
ECU’s additional nonconference matchups — including West Virginia (away, Sept. 9), Virginia Tech (home, Sept. 16) and Brigham Young (home, Oct. 21) are more than formidable.
The Pirates desperately will need the momentum of a season-opening win going into games with the Mountaineers and Hokies.