Dave Hart will leave East Carolina in better shape than he found it earlier this year when he returned to the program as special athletics advisor to Dr. Cecil Staton, ECU chancellor.
The Pirate ship has been listing in a sea of red ink. Jeff Compher’s biggest move as athletic director, the firing of Ruffin McNeill as football coach and the hiring of Scottie Montgomery as his replacement, sank like an anchor.
Three straight 3-9 seasons diminished the fan base’s enthusiasm for ECU’s flagship sport and empty seats in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium were the consequence. Reduced attendance negatively impacted much-needed revenue from football.
The completion of the search for Compher’s successor was followed shortly by the announcement of a new football coach this week.
Accompanied by a stunning cash infusion of $20 million, Pirate athletics will be sailing smartly into a new era.
Hart’s hires are highly qualified and will be operating without the considerable financial pressure that had been hanging over the entire athletic department.
It’s like representatives from Publisher’s Clearing House showed up on Pirate Nation’s front porch, thanks to Hart’s behind-the-scenes expertise.
“There’s a lot of genuine excitement from the announcement on Jon Gilbert and Mike Houston,” Hart said. “They are two terrific people. They just simply excel in their respective jobs.”
Gilbert comes in as athletic director from Southern Miss. He worked with Hart at Tennessee when Hart was athletic director for the Volunteers. Rather than snorkeling in the sea of red ink that engulfed ECU athletics, Gilbert will take over a program that will receive $10 million from an account of $149 million in non-state auxiliary funds. That will more than offset a deficit of $4.2 million projected at the close of the current fiscal year. The balance will remain available to satisfy future department deficits.
Hart noted that the athletic department had been beset by hiring freezes and budget cuts due to its funding struggles.
“Some people are doing three or four jobs,” Hart said.
He added that such a work load precludes many of the responsibilities from being performed in the manner that they should.
But money is a difference maker, an enabler. Houston may find plans for a new indoor practice facility under his Christmas tree.
A second $10 million transfer comes from an ECU Physicians accrued fund balance of $95 million. It will be used in part to set up a training table for athletes.
“Everything that I found in my nine months here touched the financial situation,” Hart said. “It seemed to always go back to where we were from a financial stability standpoint. One thing that I’m not sure everybody has absorbed or understood fully — in the American (Athletic Conference), the high, high majority of schools are subsidized heavily by the university. … It’s simply universities recognizing the value of athletics.
“When East Carolina made the move and it was a terrific move and a great opportunity to move into the American, I just don’t know that it was fully understood that we could not make that move without also making a significant investment. Five years later, it caught up to ECU.”
ECU has one more payment of $500,000 remaining on its $2.5 million membership fee to the AAC. There are buyouts for Compher and Montgomery, but there are certainly emerging factors to dissolve the despair generated by the last two losses of football season, 56-6 at Cincinnati and 58-3 at N.C. State.
“I told the chancellor when I came in that what we needed was hope,” Hart said.
Hart was originally supposed to be on the job delving into finances and operations through Sept. 15. He agreed to remain until Dec. 15 and may accept another extension to assist in the general transition of leadership after spearheading the efforts that put Gilbert and Houston in place.
Hart and Staton maneuvered around a previous offer from Charlotte to secure Houston although it required the dismissal of Montgomery 48 hours before the kickoff at State.
The tactic’s payoff may well have advanced the situation at ECU from hope to confident anticipation. Houston has won at Lenoir-Rhyne, The Citadel and James Madison. The Dukes dealt ECU a 34-14 loss to start the 2017 season, which was probably as effective as any of the power points on the new coach’s resume.
Gilbert was on board at ECU in time to put his stamp of approval on the football hire. Houston was his top choice independent of the ground work already in place. Gilbert spent a portion of his career at Alabama.
“Jon is a great fit,” Hart said. “He is an exceptional person, relative to core values. … He understands how you treat people is critically important. Jon is very genuine and he will be among the Pirate faithful. He’ll do that with a big smile on his face. … He will connect and resonate immediately with the East Carolina fan base.
“We worked together for a little more than eight years and Jon knows how important it is to be out there among the fan base. This program was built on the priority that everybody matters. This is eastern North Carolina’s theme, like was stated by Mike at the press conference. That’s a very good way to put it.
“Maybe we got away from that a little bit in terms of everybody mattering. … These guys and Joe Dooley (basketball coach) and Cliff (Godwin, baseball coach) do a great job. They’re all on the same page of that priority.”
Houston, who led JMU to the Football Championship Subdivision national title in 2016, will bring offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick and defensive coordinator Bob Trott to direct those corresponding units at ECU. Dukes offensive line coach Steve Shankweiler and Kirkpatrick are returning after previous stints on the Pirates staff.
The immediate focus for football will be retaining a recruiting class that Montgomery and his staff assembled.
“We’ve got to get football healthy,” Hart said. “We’ve got to get fans back in the stands. … The last three, four, five years, we’ve had some erosion. That’s a big part of the recovery process is to have our fan base come back. I think we’re beginning to see that taking shape. … I think people are excited. That’s a big part of it.
“We’ve also got to get an environment that’s conducive to fundraising. Part of that is winning games. People need hope. They need a reason to believe.”
The addition of Gilbert and Houston along with the resources allocated for athletics are game changers.
“We’re trying to take the next step at ECU to bring all that back together,” Hart said. “People in the football circles nationally, when you say, ‘East Carolina,’ they think of the passion. They think of 50,000 people in the stadium. They think of what East Carolina is and what the profile is. We’ve gotten away from that a little bit and it’s nothing that can’t be regained.
“I think now we have the level of commitment to move forward. We’ve got some really good pieces in place now.”