Thursday did not unfold for David Blackwell or anyone else in the East Carolina football program as anticipated. The ECU defensive coordinator became interim head coach for Saturday’s noon game at N.C. State with the termination of Scottie Montgomery after morning practice.
Dr. Cecil Staton, ECU chancellor, advanced the timetable for a decision on Montgomery’s status. Staton had issued a statement on Nov. 14 that an assessment would be made at the conclusion of the season.
Montgomery had a players-only meeting regarding his departure after compiling a 9-26 overall record and a 4-20 mark in the American Athletic Conference in three seasons. Blackwell, Dave Hart and J.J. McLamb met with the team after Montgomery.
Hart is a special athletics advisor to the chancellor and McLamb is senior associate athletic director for internal operations.
“Really an emotional day for our coaching staff and our players,” Blackwell said at a news conference Thursday afternoon. “It was not a good morning. Not a good afternoon. It’s been a long day, but we are where we are. Timing is never good on these kinds of things, obviously two days before a football game. There’s a lot of emotions our players are feeling right now.
“All of our mind set right now as a coaching staff is on our players and moving forward to this weekend and trying to represent this university in the most positive way we can.”
Blackwell, who also coaches linebackers, was an offensive lineman at ECU until his career was ended by injury. He became a student assistant coach for the Pirates.
Blackwell orchestrated a position change for Nate Harvey in the offseason. The former running back set an AAC record for tackles for loss in a season in 2018 and was named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year this week.
Respect for Coach Mo
Montgomery brought Blackwell in from Jacksonville (AL) State after ECU was last in the Football Bowl Subdivision in scoring defense in 2017. Blackwell expressed respect for his former boss.
“He has handled himself first class in everything he does, professional,” Blackwell said. “He’s been a great role model for us as a coaching staff, just on how to be a father and how to handle your business. Again, I have much respect for how he handled this thing.”
Behind the timing of Thursday move
There is the likelihood that the timing of Montgomery’s dismissal will allow the decision makers regarding athletics to accelerate a coaching search. Many programs have completed their regular seasons and possible Pirate target Mike Houston of James Madison has reportedly received an offer from Charlotte.
Blackwell said he is not actively pursuing the head coaching job.
“Right now, my 100 percent focus is on our football players,” Blackwell said. “You guys don’t see the hurt. … Coach Montgomery was extremely loved by the football players. He has done a lot for them personally. My focus right now is on them and the mindset of this football team and on what we can do to prepare this team. Right now, you’re 48 hours from a game and this happens.
“It’s not an ideal situation. We’re going to deal with it the best we can. Those decisions (coaching search) and things like that moving forward, … we’ll cross those bridges when we get to them, but right now my 100 percent focus is on this football team, our coaching staff and our families — just trying to help everyone understand, what our players need at this point, and trying to give them some sense of normalcy to be able to go play this game.
” … We’ve still got a game to play and we’re going to do everything in our power to go win this football game. Our seniors deserve that. This university deserves that. There’s a reason we’re playing it. You know, if they’re keeping score, it matters.”
Ready for task at hand
Although he is not presently seeking the ECU job, Blackwell said he is ready for his responsibilities this weekend.
“From a professional standpoint, I’ve been ready for this for a long time,” he said. “There’s no question about that. Now, is there a blueprint for this? No.
“I was at Clemson (2008) when we had a coaching change six games into the season and coach (Dabo) Swinney became the interim head coach. We won enough games down the stretch for him to get that job. I have seen how he handled that, the blueprint he had to do that. This is 48 hours before a football game. Obviously I’ve never been a part of it. … The timing of it is obviously hard. The psyche of the team right now is rattled. They’re very rattled. He means a lot to those guys and to us as a coaching staff.”
The interim coach thinks the Pirates will adjust to the situation.
“I believe in my heart that they’re going to compete, that they’re going to come out and they’re going to fight and they’re going to play,” Blackwell said. “Again, we’re in uncharted waters here with what’s happened because of the timing of it. … We leave practice at 10 o’clock and everybody is in a good mood. We had an upbeat practice. Guys were excited. Two hours later, you’re calling them back here with that. We’re kind of in an area I don’t think you’re ever prepared for. You’ve just got to deal with it the best you can. There’s not a blueprint for this.”
The Pirates are dealing with circumstances driven by instantaneous communication.
“The fact that when it’s happened is unprecedented,” Blackwell said. “We’re in a world now, when decisions are made, they’re hard to keep private. So if a decision was made on Tuesday or Wednesday in the world we live in nowadays, to keep it quiet until Sunday I don’t think is the right thing.
“As bad as those meetings were today, it probably would be worse for those guys find it out over social media.”
Conversation between coaches
Blackwell spoke privately with Montgomery on Thursday after the move was made.
“As most coaches do in that situation, he’s worried about us,” Blackwell said. “He’s not worried about himself. He’s worried about the players. He’s worried about the coaching staff. But that’s who he is, the kind of person he is and the type man he is.
“That’s where my focus is and should be. It’s on the coaches and players moving forward.”
‘Didn’t win enough games’
Blackwell was asked about the factors that produced the mid-game week transition.
“We didn’t win enough games,” he said. ” … I wasn’t in that room when that decision was made. I have no idea what they were thinking. … The bottom line is we didn’t win enough football games. We had three games this year that were seven points or less. We’re not here right now talking to me if we win those games. We’re getting ready to prepare for a bowl game. You’re 18 points from being in a bowl game.
“That’s the reality of where we are, but we didn’t get that done. In all three of those games, we could have won on defense. We could have won on offense. We could have won on special teams. It wasn’t one deal. You’re a stop away on defense. You’re a touchdown away on offense or a big kick return or a blocked punt on special teams. You’re one play away really in three games of us not having this discussion. But the bottom line in this business is that. You’ve got to win football games and obviously we haven’t won enough.”
Potential of emotions
Blackwell was asked if the emotions generated by Montgomery’s dismissal could possibly become a positive factor.
“It’s hard to say because those emotions could be distractions, too,” Blackwell said. “It can go either way sometimes. We came out emotional when Coach (Tommy) Bowden got let go at Clemson and played really, really hard against Georgia Tech, but lost the game because we turned it over several times. We lost a really close football game because of emotions, too.
“I think it can be good and bad. … There’s a lot of anger. Sometimes people forget the human element. … It’s not easy for anybody. It’s not easy to make those decisions. It’s not easy to come talk to those kids about it. And, it’s obviously not easy for the players. Coaches, we know what we’re signing up for. You come into this business, you know it’s part of this business. Our families understand that. The players, they don’t get that sometimes.
“For the players, a lot of them chose to come here because of Coach Montgomery and because of the coaching staff. That’s a very difficult thing for those guys.
“Our mindset, we’ll meet (Friday) morning. We’ll have some time to get together and spend some time together and try to focus ourselves in to go win this football game and to compete at a high level. … I called my wife today and had her go to take my son out of school. Those things are hard. It’s not easy on families.”
True freshman quarterback Holton Ahlers has had limited practice time this week.
“In no way, shape or form will we put him in harm’s way,” Blackwell said. “If he’s ready to play, he’ll play. If he’s not ready to play. he won’t play and Reid Herring will go play. That’s the way it will be. That’s how we’ll handle it.”
Coordinators to make calls
Blackwell will continue to make the defensive calls. Offensive coordinator Tony Petersen will dial up that unit.
“Structurally, nothing will change there,” Blackwell said. “That’ll roll just like it has.”
Caretakers through signing period
The current staff will continue working to maintain a well-regarded recruiting class. There is a signing period Dec. 19-21.
“We’re under contract,” Blackwell said. “I’m here until I get another job, one way or the other, as all our coaches are. We’re going to do things professionally. We’ll focus on the signing class, turn the page on Monday. Really focus on our commitments and try to keep them here. Do the best job we can for the university and the athletic department.
“Every commitment we have will be reached out to by our coaching staff. We’re going to honor all of our commitments, the university is. We want those guys. The athletic department wants them and we want them. We want to keep this class intact as much as we can. That will be the sole focus here. We’ve got a recruiting weekend next weekend. Signing day is coming fast. We’ve got to have the recruiting weekend. We’ve got to get these guys on campus. We’ve got to get them on official visits.
“That’s going to be another touchy deal without a staff in place, a full-time staff in place. … There willl be some things here until signing day that we have to get done.
“The other side of that is we are at that point in the season, when the season ends … , every coach on our staff has got to find something. There’s no guarantees. No one’s guaranteed next year. All of our contracts are one-year deals. … There’s no mindset of ‘Hey, I’m going to be here next year,’ from the coaching staff standpoint. We’ve got to proceed as if we’re not. As guys get opportunities, they’ve got to take them. Then, obviously, we have to shift and adjust, recruiting-wise.
“Through signing day or until whenever, the full staff is going to recruit as hard as we can. If we lose coaches to other jobs, as that happens, then obviously you have to deal with that, myself included, because I’m not guaranteed tomorrow. … I’ve had several phone calls already. That’s the nature of the business.
” … I’ll do the best job I can as long as they want me to be here. … We’re going to see every one them (recruits) in person next week, our commitments, and do the best job we can to hold on to them.”