It’s said that football is the front door to every college athletic program because of the attention it gets and the income it generates.
If that’s the case, then East Carolina’s front door is in desperate need of repair.
Some of that is already underway with the ongoing renovations that will turn Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium into an active construction site this fall. But in addition to the cosmetic work, there are cracks in the foundation of the program that must also be addressed and repaired.
The 2018 season was already going to be a pivotal one for coach Scottie Montgomery after going 3-9 in his first two years in Greenville. With the arrival of special consultant Dave Hart, whose review of the Pirates’ overall athletic program will have a major impact on the future of Pirates’ football, the level of urgency has increased exponentially.
Bonesville’s Brett Friedlander recently conducted a wide-ranging interview with Hart that touched on a number of subjects important to Pirates fans.
Here, in the second installment of a multi-part series [View Part 1], Hart provides his thoughts on what it will take to make ECU football competitive again and what Montgomery’s role in that process might be moving forward:
Q: How critical is the upcoming season for the future of the football program?
A: “I’ve had great meetings with Scottie and our other coaches and I know they feel this way too, but football has to be healthy here for us to get where we want to go. That’s a lot of pressure and we’re not the only place where that statement is true. And that’s not all on Scottie Montgomery. It’s not all on the head football coach. That’s on the administration. It’s on the campus at large.
“Athletics has never been, never will be and never should be the most important thing going on at a college campus. But one thing nobody can argue is that it is the most visible element within the total university structure. It is the passion point for every single alumnus, the community, the region. So, to get football healthy the university has to help and the athletic department has to make it a priority. When football is healthy here, everybody has a smile on their face. Life is better. Life is a lot better, that’s a fact.”
Q: How do you go about doing that?
A: “We’ve got to attack it collectively. Scottie is doing his part recruiting. Now we’ve got to help him. We’ve got to help all of our coaches compete in the American (Athletic Conference), because at some point it’s pretty simplistic. You’re either going to be a player or you’re going to be on the sidelines. We want to be a player. The chancellor wants us to be a player. Right now, though, we’re largely on the sidelines. Not in baseball, not in volleyball, not in everything. But we’ve got to get to the point where we can create enough financial support to erase any or the voids that exist in recruiting. That’s critically important. We have some holes there.”
Q: How did those holes happen?
A: “They weren’t holes when we were in Conference USA and the CAA, because everybody looked alike then. People didn’t charter in those leagues. Well, our men’s and women’s basketball teams, we’ve gotten to the point where they’ve got to charter. You look at the geographic footprint of our conference and how commercial flights can impact academics with the NCAA’s new parameters with days off, it makes a big difference.
“We’re not doing it as a luxury, and that’s what I have to be very clear about to the chancellor when we go public with some of this. We’re not looking for climbing aboard a luxury liner. We’re looking for what we need to do to be in the upper third of this league and compete for championships, because we’ve got quite a ways to go there.”
Q: How serious is the current financial situation?
A: “We’ve got some good coaches who are doing a good job. We just have to get to the point where we can get out of this deficit situation so they’re not bracing a 10 percent cut or whatever the cut might be. That’s a situation that affects morale and a lot of things. The chancellor understands that or he never would have made the call to me. He wants to know where our strengths are, and we have strengths, and where our weaknesses are and how can the university can help. And the university’s hands are tied because of state regulations in some instances. This becomes a very complex situation financially from that perspective.”
Q: The fan base is frustrated right now and attendance, especially in football, is down. How big a role can it play in the resurgence of the overall program?
A: “I have always felt like ECU is basically a model for passion and participation. I think that here, we’ve always had a positive chip on our shoulder. I can remember when I was here the last time, we made these lapel pins that said ‘Yes we can’ and my gosh, everybody who ever touched East Carolina had one.
“It’s that kind of ‘we will get this done’ attitude that prevailed. We’ve always been a grassroots place here at East Carolina. Everybody was always important. The $25 donor was important. Everybody is important. Maybe somewhere down the line we’ve had some erosion there. That’s not a finger-pointing comment. We’ve got to get back to who we are and we’ve got to maintain on a consistent basis who East Carolina is and what made it special. The passion is still there. The fan base will come back. They’re tough. This is a tough mentality that is shared throughout the ECU fan base.
“They’re looking for hope. They’re looking to be part of the solution, part of the recovery if you will. That has to be true internally and externally. I really do believe that will happen.
“Do we have some hurdles to clear? Absolutely. Are some of them pretty high? They are. But again, here at ECU we’ve always been able to find a way. I believe we’ll find a way again.”