Of all the criticisms that were aimed at former athletic director Jeff Compher — and there were plenty of them, to be sure — the loudest and most frequent usually dealt with his inability to connect with East Carolina’s passionate fan base.
It’s safe to say he wasn’t much of a people person, especially when compared to his predecessor Terry Holland.
Compher’s disconnect became the source of great frustration as the Pirates began to consistently under-perform both financially and on the field of competition under his watch. One of the few positives that can be taken from his unpopular tenure, which came to an abrupt end when he was shown the door last March, is that it set the bar extremely low for his eventual successor.
It’s a standard Jon Gilbert is already well on the way to surpassing.
In fact, it took less than 24 hours for the former Southern Miss AD to endear himself to the Pirates faithful when, with the ink still wet on his own contract, he hired James Madison’s Mike Houston to lead ECU’s football program into its new era.
Gilbert has maintained a high visibility since, including sitting in the stands at Minges Coliseum for Wednesday’s home basketball game against Temple.
On Thursday, Gilbert issued what he described as the first of many open letters to Pirate Nation, in which he encouraged fans to support their teams by attending games and began to map out several of his immediate goals.
Among the objectives:
- Identifying a new opponent to fill the void Virginia Tech’s retaliatory cancellation created on next season’s football schedule;
- Restructuring individual and season ticket pricing structures;
- Bringing back successful events from the past and beginning new traditions, such as a revamped Pirate Walk for home football weekends;
- And establishing a new Pirate Club renewal program.
“As we begin a new era of ECU Athletics, we will be making many decisions in an effort to stabilize and sustain forward progress,” Gilbert wrote in his letter. “We will continue to improve upon the many successes which exist within the department and make significant changes to other areas to bring about different outcomes.”
In an effort to help determine what kind of changes are needed — and wanted — Gilbert has taken it upon himself to meet and greet as many Pirate fans as possible. He said he’s already visited with people in Greenville and “across several eastern North Carolina communities.” In the coming weeks, he’s planning trips to Raleigh, Greensboro, the Outer Banks, Wilmington and Charlotte.
And these are not just social calls.
In addition to introducing himself to the masses, Gilbert will be seeking input geared toward answering some vitally important questions.
What are our strengths as a department?
What areas do we need to focus on for improvements?
What’s in our way of comprehensive excellence?
What are the next steps?
Opinions will inevitably vary on each of those topics. But that’s the point. The mere fact that Gilbert is seeking those diverse opinions is a significant development considering the deaf ears upon which fan concerns have previously fallen.
“I have learned this is a resilient place, and that is in no small part because of you,” the new AD wrote. “Pirate Nation is strong, loyal and committed to excellence. Your love for and commitment to ECU is why we will continue to thrive as we move forward.”
Gilbert added that “it’s exciting to just see the possibilities.”
What makes those possibilities all the more exciting is the fact that the new AD wants to make turning them into reality a team effort.
That can only happen, however, if fans take him up on his offer to participate in the process.
It means using the lines of communication Gilbert is opening to express constructive thoughts, concerns and suggestions instead of venting them on social media or, worse, simply staying away from Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in protest and not saying anything.
Times are changing at ECU.
Though it’s too early to tell whether they’re changing for the better or not, there’s at least one thing about which Pirates fans can already take heart.
For the first time in a long time, their voices may finally be heard again.