A couple of weeks ago, prior to East Carolina’s football game against Temple, coach Scottie Montgomery got a bit of advice from his mentor and former boss David Cutcliffe.
The message was one of patience, a commodity that isn’t always abundant in college sports, especially when things aren’t going well.
And things can’t get much worse than they are with the Pirates right now.
“The thing you can’t do is start changing principles, start reaching for answers that don’t really exist,” said Cutcliffe, Duke’s head coach. “That’s kind of the approach I’ve taken with Scottie.
“Scottie knows how good he is. He knows what are the basic ways to go about building a program. If you start trying to quickly fix a team, sometimes you hurt your program and you can’t afford to do that.”
It could be argued that bringing in five graduate transfers, two of which were suspended on Saturday for a violation of academic policy, changing defensive coordinators three games into a season, then bringing in a 73-year-old to serve as “defensive analyst” is the very definition of trying to quickly fix a team.
But that’s not necessarily what Cutcliffe was talking about. His advice had to do with staying true to the core principles a coach establishes for his program. Or in more simple terms, the culture he’s trying to establish.
The question is how long can ECU afford to wait to find out exactly what that culture is supposed to be?
There are only two options.
The first is to cut your losses the way newly hired AD Terry Holland did in 2004, when he mercifully ended the forgettable John Thompson error, uh, era after just two seasons. The coach he brought in, Skip Holtz, didn’t just turn the program around, he turned it into a two-time conference champion.
Of course, there are also examples of how the opposite approach can work.
The most dramatic came in 1988-89, when Mack Brown posted back-to-back 1-10 seasons in his first two years as coach at North Carolina.
Undoubtedly, there were calls from fans, boosters and probably even the media for a quick change. But his boss — some guy named John Swofford — decided to stick to his principles and give Brown a chance to imprint his culture into the program.
Brown rewarded Swofford’s patience by improving to 6-4-1 in Year 3. He didn’t have another losing season for the remainder of his 10-year tenure in Chapel Hill. His final two teams went 10-2 and 11-1.
It should be noted that Brown had head coaching experience at two other schools before being hired by the Tar Heels and was already known for rebuilding downtrodden programs. His previous team, Tulane, also went 1-10 in his first season there before making it to a bowl two years later.
Montgomery’s career track is more like that of Thompson, an up-and-coming assistant getting his first crack at running a team of his own after spending time as a coordinator at a Power 5 school.
Thompson went 1-11 in his first season, with an average margin of 19.7 points per loss. Montgomery’s first team went 3-9 with an average margin of defeat of 21.7 points. Thompson’s second and final year was only slightly better at 2-9 with an average margin of 18.7 points per loss.
By contrast, Montgomery’s sophomore campaign has gotten even worse. This year’s Pirates have won just once in seven games and have lost by an average margin of 33.1 points. They’ve given up 60 or more points three times, rank dead last in the nation in scoring defense and are on an FBS-record pace by allowing an even 600 yards per game.
The breakdowns in Saturday’s loss at Central Florida were the worst to date, with ECU giving up touchdowns in all three phases of the game. The most optimistic outlook for the remainder of the season is one more win, next week against an equally foundering BYU.
So what does athletic director Jeff Compher do?
Unlike Holland, who inherited the mess Thompson created, Compher is responsible for hiring Montgomery and is therefore attached at the hip with his coach. He does, however, have the security of a contract extension signed before the start of the season, which means he may be able to afford to give Montgomery at least one more season to grow into the job.
Another mitigating factor to that end could be the recruiting class Montgomery and his staff have begun to put together for next season, led by highly-regarded dual-threat quarterback Holton Ahlers.
If Compher were to ask Cutcliffe for advice on whether he should let his current coach stick around to lead that group of incoming newcomers, you know what he’ll say.
“I’ve been there and done that, where you felt like winning was never going to be a product of all your hard work,” Cutcliffe said. “But it will be.”
It’s a great attitude, but there are no guarantees things will work out so well. As bad as things are for the Pirates right now, they can still get worse.
That’s why the five games remaining this season are so important.
If there’s a hint of improvement, along with visible development of young players such as Aaron Ramseur, Darius Pinnix and Tahj Deans — whether it shows up in the won-loss record or not — there can be at least some hope that Montgomery’s version of culture is beginning to take hold.
But if things continue to spiral out of control as they are now, there can be no other choice for ECU but to cut its losses and try heading in different direction.