East Carolina Board of Trustees Chairman Kieran Shanahan described the place the Pirate faithful have been inhabiting this fall as “the wilderness,” and that seems accurate if that wilderness is also dry and sweltering like a desert. Fans in the Pirate Nation have been trudging along, thirsty and scorched, suffering a glut of disappointments, wondering if what looks like a clear blue pond in the distance is just a cruel mirage.
Monday, with the approval of the contracts of new athletic director Jon Gilbert and new football coach Mike Houston and the press conference introducing Gilbert to the media, those parched Pirates made it to the water’s edge, drank their fill and found themselves with a clear head and something even more refreshing than a cool drink of water — genuine, undiluted hope.
After weeks of speculation and frustration, the Murphy Center was all smiles Monday afternoon, and everyone was available to share their thoughts on the process that was kept hush-hush for so long.
Chancellor Cecil Staton spoke about the eight-month quest for the right leader, telling 94.3 The Game later that he felt like ECU had hit two home runs, and it was only the first inning.
Special athletics advisor Dave Hart, whose own relationship with Gilbert goes back a decade, gave interviews to the media afterwards, too.
But the star of the day was Gilbert, who characterized himself as “a servant leader” who planned to reinforce a beleaguered athletic department by focusing on the pillars of unity with the larger mission of the university, academic excellence among student-athletes and a high level of athletic success.
It wasn’t an easy decision to make the move to Greenville after less than two years at Southern Mississippi, but Gilbert sees something special at ECU that Hart has always reinforced.
“One of the reasons that I accepted the job here, I go back to my days at Alabama working for Dave, and the love that he had for East Carolina,” Gilbert said. “I can’t tell you how many times he told me how hard it was to leave. And I knew it was special and I felt it was the right opportunity.”
Gilbert, played football for Lenoir-Rhyne and worked as a graduate assistant football coach at Eastern Kentucky while earning his master’s in sport management. Prior to his hiring at Southern Miss, he worked at the University of Alabama for nearly 17 years, serving in a variety of capacities within the athletic department, and then spent six years at the University of Tennessee as the Executive Senior Associate Athletics Director. He worked with Hart at both Alabama and Tennessee.
Even back in his years as a student-athlete at Lenoir-Rhyne, Gilbert met the late legendary Pirate administrator Henry Van Sant and Hanley Painter, an old-timer within the Lenoir-Rhyne athletic department, who was fond of telling Clarence Stasavich stories. From that impressionable age, Gilbert remembers being struck by their stories of the people and the traditions in the Pirate Nation.
“I knew what a rich history this institution had, and that really excited me,” he said. “I feel like there’s tremendous growth here, and opportunity and potential, and that’s why I chose to be here.”
He is aware that he is moving into a college sports stronghold that has been shell-shocked by events like Saturday’s 58-3 loss at North Carolina State, but Gilbert believes that he can reinstate trust and rebuild a winning tradition with some simple, but profound steps — creating a culture of excellence and fun within the ECU athletic offices and relentlessly showing up to support Pirate athletics and listen to the fans who are there beside him cheering ECU teams on.
“I will bring a leadership style of communication, openness and visibility,” he said. “I will literally be at almost everything. Certainly, I’ll be at football, but I will be at all our other sports as well, and make sure that those student-athletes know that they have my support and I value what they’re doing. I want to earn your trust. I think it’s really important that I earn the trust of the entire Pirate faithful. I am who I am. I’m pretty simple. I want to win, I want to do it the right way, and I want to have fun.”
Staton, who thanked Hart for his dedication and described the “deep dive” that he and other ECU leaders undertook to thoroughly evaluate the athletic program and identify the optimal candidates for these key openings, talked about Gilbert’s years of experience at elite institutions and his vision for pushing the programs he leads to new heights.
“Under his leadership Southern Miss has increased resources in the areas of academic success as well as student-athlete well-being,” Staton said “He hired for Conference USA the very first full-time nutritionist. He built the student-athletes’ first nutrition fueling bar. He cares deeply about our student-athletes and will bring that mindset and that commitment to all he does here.
“I don’t think we could have done better.”
Head baseball coach Cliff Godwin, who had breakfast with Gilbert on Monday morning, said that he called Southern Miss baseball coach Scott Berry when he learned Gilbert was the leading candidate. The first thing Berry said to him was, “I hope he doesn’t take the job.”
“I’m just excited about him coming here and leading our athletic department,” Godwin said.
Tuesday will mark Good News, Part Two, as the media and athletic executives gather in the same room at 10 a.m. to officially introduce Houston as ECU’s 22nd head football coach. Gilbert made it clear that he did go to Harrisonburg, VA, to meet with Houston, even if the two personnel decisions seemed to happen almost simultaneously to the outside observer.
“I did hire the football coach; when I went to speak with him I asked both Dave Hart and J.J. McLamb to go with me, but I did hire him and I have spoken to him numerous times,” Gilbert said.