Just three days later, the Pirates came into an actual financial windfall with the announcement of a $20 million cash infusion into the school’s athletic budget.
Ten million of those dollars comes from an account of $149 million in non-state auxiliary funds. The other half of the godsend was a transfer from an ECU Physicians accrued fund balance of $95 million.
Between them, the twin contributions will help dig the Pirates out from under the $4.2 budget deficit that has been projected for the current fiscal year.
More importantly, they will give Gilbert the ability to hire adequate staff, pursue facility improvement projects such as an indoor practice facility and provide current athletes with the kind of services they need -— including a training table — to even the playing field with their American Athletic Conference rivals.
It’s the kind of infrastructure that leads directly to better performances on the field of competition in much the same way improved roads and bridges are conducive to faster, more efficient travel.
The influx of money, however, is only part of the reason for the sudden uptick in optimism surrounding ECU’s program.
Though recruitment, retention and ultimately winning are never easy, unless of course you’re at Alabama, the task of achieving those goals becomes much more attainable when everyone in the athletic department is on the same page.
That hasn’t always been the case recently with the Pirates.
Things became so dysfunctional last March that the decision was made to shove former athletic director Jeff Compher out the door even as the search for a new basketball coach reached its critical stage.
The decision to bring Hart in for an extensive review of the program and the home run hiring of Joe Dooley helped ease tensions somewhat. But it was clear from the number of empty seats at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium as the football team stumbled to a third straight 3-9 season that the Pirates’ ship was still foundering.
That changed with an eventful week that began with the long-awaited firing of coach Scottie Montgomery two days before ECU’s season finale at N.C. State and ended with Monday’s press conference introducing Gilbert and announcing the hiring of Houston.
In one fell swoop, the Pirates’ athletic family was transformed from the Simpsons to the Cleavers with a stability it hasn’t had since the unexpected firing of football coach Ruffin McNeill in December 2015.
Granted, stability doesn’t guarantee success. It is, however, a good start.
Gilbert initiated the healing process with his first official act as AD by pledging to build meaningful relationships with all the coaches on his staff.
“I don’t have all the answers, so it’s important for me to get in and visit with the staff,” he said. “I think it’s important for me to meet with our staff, listen to them and then pave the way forward.”
Gilbert’s second official act, hiring Houston, was even more significant.
The 47-year-old Western North Carolina native should be a breath of fresh air for an ECU fan base desperate for a reason to cheer again on fall Saturday afternoons.
Only time will tell if he’s the right man for the job and if his success at the FCS level will carry over to the more competitive AAC. But with a resume that includes six conference championships in eight years as a head coach, he’s exactly the right kind of man for the job.
With all due respect to Montgomery — a dedicated, hard-working individual who will be a better head coach the next time he gets an opportunity because of his experience at ECU — the Pirates have traded up from a rookie going through on-the-job training to a proven commodity with a national championship pedigree.
It’s been a long time since ECU fans have had reason to be realistically optimistic about the direction of the their football program. But after an extended period of disappointment and despair, they may finally have hit the jackpot with a winning lottery ticket.