With unrest brewing in Pirate Nation, it’s as good a time as ever to launch “Quick Kicks,” an occasional column that will make brief observations about topics ranging from the action on the field to the processes that take place behind closed doors.
• Never had East Carolina had so much at stake against a Division I-AA/FCS opponent as was the case when the Pirates were manhandled on their home turf by James Madison Saturday night. The loss ended ECU’s 25-game winning streak over teams from the NCAA’s lower division.
When the final outcome was known and the completeness of JMU’s domination sank in, fans and other observers instinctively began further refining their conclusions about the wisdom or lack thereof of the school’s decision to abruptly fire former Pirate player Ruffin McNeill as head coach after a 5-7 season in 2015.
• Scottie Montgomery, McNeill’s successor, had not previously faced the scrutiny ECU athletic director Jeff Compher has endured since Compher pulled the trigger on McNeill. Despite last season’s 3-9 collapse, Montgomery generally got the benefit of the doubt from Pirate Nation. His charisma and resume were too impressive to ignore. Optimism was abundant that a year of seasoning, schematic adjustments and much-touted personnel upgrades would begin to reinvigorate the program.
If the uproar on call-in shows, the rants on Internet message boards, the comments on social media and the input Bonesville has received from readers can be used as a measuring stick, that benevolence appears to have evaporated.
• For Montgomery and others in the chain of command, the shift in mood comes at a perilous time. All three of the Pirates’ remaining September opponents — West Virginia, Virginia Tech and South Florida — were ranked in the preseason Top 25. Unless Coach Mo & Company can pull a warren of rabbits out of the hat, the controversy will get progressively more heated.
Questions over the decision by Compher and the acquiescence of former chancellor Steve Ballard and ECU’s board of trustees in firing McNeill will become more harsh. Criticism of current chancellor Cecil Staton and the board of trustees for recently giving Compher a raise and extending his contract for five years after last year’s broad decline in the athletic department’s overall competitive performance will become louder.
• If the season goes south from here, the angst in Pirate Nation will be reflected by more empty seats in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium and more challenges for ECU’s perennially-challenged athletic department budget. Football has long been the linchpin of the school’s pursuit of an upwardly mobile track in the world of college athletics and the driving force in generating revenues.
With ECU situated deep in the heart of ACC basketball country, iconic chancellor Leo Jenkins determined more than 50 years ago that football could be an effective P.R. tool in raising the school’s profile regionally and nationally. Few would argue with Jenkins’ foresight today. Football has almost continuously played that role well at ECU ever since, in essence serving as the most prominent outer-facing facet of a school perceived to be pursuing bold ambitions with swagger.
With the exception of the John Thompson coaching fiasco in 2002-03 — which, ironically, followed the contentious ouster of Steve Logan, the school’s all-time leader in coaching wins — the program preserved its credibility along with what was eventually branded as its “undaunted” identity in seasons ranging from superb to mediocre.
• With all of that in mind, a flagging football program is not a scenario that will go down lightly with most alumni, fans and donors. The pressure will be immense to fix the program’s problems sooner rather than later.
In the case of the John Thompson era, the problem was fixed relatively quickly after then-chancellor William Muse and then-athletic director Mike Hamrick departed in rapid succession, followed by Terry Holland’s appointment by Ballard as AD and Holland’s subsequent firing of Thompson and hiring of Skip Holtz.
Bonesville is not taking the editorial position that Staton, Compher and Montgomery should be sent packing. We’re merely making the point that the board of trustees finally saw the writing on the wall in 2003 and exerted itself. The current board of trustees should immediately assume a more active role in helping the leaders that report to them define a path forward that will right the ship.
• As Brian Bailey wrote in his Tuesday column on Bonesville, hope for a quick turnaround is not lost… but it is tenuous. Montgomery has his work cut out. His biggest challenge will be to channel what happened at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium last Saturday night into something positive.
As an old salt with various ties to the program since the ’60s — as a student, athletic department staffer, donor and journalist — I can cite an example when utter failure in a season opener was overcome with spectacular success. After a humiliating 57-8 defeat by a Lou Holtz-coached N.C. State team in 1973, then-coach Sonny Randle lit a fire under the Pirates and led them to a 13-0 shutout of a good Southern Miss team the following week and an eventual 9-2 record.