It was painfully obvious from all the empty seats at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Saturday — the announced attendance of just 29,127 was slightly more than half capacity — that a lot of East Carolina fans have given up on their football team.
But because of the effort of the players on the field, it was just as clear that not everyone has thrown in the towel on the 2018 season — and by extension, the leadership of a program teetering on the brink of its fourth straight losing season.
Yes, the Pirates gave up more points than they have in any other game this year in a 59-41 loss to American Athletic Conference rival Memphis. Unlike their last meeting with the Tigers, though, they were able to walk off the field at the end with their heads held high instead of their tails between their legs.
“Last year’s Memphis game . . . was like we got down early and we gave up,” senior wide receiver Trevon Brown said of the 70-13 beatdown he and his teammates absorbed 11 months ago. “We just laid down. This year, I’m a senior now. I’ve got one game left in the Fick and I’m not going out like that.”
It’s an attitude echoed by each member of the Pirates appearing in the postgame interview room on Saturday.
That includes Montgomery, who described ECU’s situation as “frustrating, not disheartening.”
Even as the losses have mounted and those around it have abandoned ship, this team has managed to stay motivated, thanks in large measure to the visible improvement it has shown since that forgettable 2017 finale in Memphis.
The difference from a year ago was on full display in the rematch with the Tigers, when after giving up a 75-yard touchdown on the first play of the second half to fall behind 31-17, ECU answered right back with two scores of its own to tie the game.
Although things eventually got away from the Pirates in the fourth quarter, they never stopped battling. Led by freshman quarterback Holton Ahlers, they drove inside the Memphis 10-yard-line on their final possession before finally running out of downs and time.
The bottom line, however, is that despite the admirable effort, ECU still wasn’t close to being good enough to beat a good conference opponent.
That’s why offensive guard Garrett McGhin was in no mood to be patted on the back in the aftermath of another yet double-digit loss.
“It takes being even harder on yourself now more than ever,” the senior captain said. “You don’t want to sit here and have a high hat just because you moved the ball well or put points on the board. You’ve got to be extremely hard on yourself as if you didn’t play well at all.
“We’re going to come in, watch film, critique every little detail we have and try to get better for the next week.”
Those little details, McGhin said, are the key to turning improvement on the practice field and in some game situations into improvement in the win-loss record.
“One of the biggest things people don’t realize is that the little details is what makes you great,” McGhin said. “Take UCF, for example. A new coach comes in, they fix the little details. They didn’t get a whole new set of personnel. It them only two years to start winning games.”
Ahlers, who was impressive in throwing for 449 yards and three touchdowns without a turnover in his second career start, is confident that the wins will be “coming soon” for the Pirates too, adding that things are “eventually all going to click.”
But because this is already Year 3 of the Montgomery era at ECU, the current staff is running out of time to make it happen.
The embattled coach may have helped set the bar for his future at the school by proclaiming last November that this year’s team would qualify for a bowl. It was a bold prediction Montgomery isn’t ready to back off yet, even though the Pirates will have to win their four remaining games — at Tulane this Saturday, at home against Connecticut, then on the road against Cincinnati and N.C. State to make it happen.
“All my chips are on the football team,” Montgomery said Saturday. “The one thing you have to realize is that things change slowly and then suddenly. I told that to our team and I used one of our coaches for an example.
“One day you’ve got one gray hair, then another gray hair in your beard, then another gray hair. Then suddenly you wake up and you’ve got a beard full of gray hair. So the thing we have to do right now is we have to collect this team and get this team regrouped, go get our first conference win and then we’ll go from there.”
McGhin agreed, saying that even if the Pirates are ultimately eliminated from bowl consideration, the team will remain motivated to win every game it plays.
And not because it’s trying to save it’s coach’s job.
“You think we just play the game to just save somebody else’s job? No, this is attached to my name,” he said. “When I leave East Carolina, they’re going to see Garrett McGhin. They’re going to see how many wins I had and it’s single digits right now.
“It’s personal. I’m not worried about Coach Mo. Coach Mo is a grown man. He has money. He’s going to be able to take care of his family regardless. I’m trying to build this place, East Carolina, this university and get them back to playing Pirate football.”