The first step toward rebuilding a struggling program — before the first game is played or the first new recruit signed — is for the new coach to convince those already in the program to buy into what he’s selling.
In the case of new East Carolina football coach Mike Houston, that process is already well underway.
Granted, the bar has been set extremely low after three straight 3-9 seasons. But with six conference championships and a national title to his credit in eight seasons as a head coach, Houston arrived in Greenville with an important quality that give him a head start over his rookie predecessor Scottie Montgomery.
It helped Houston win his introductory press conference before he ever stepped up to the podium and has helped him earn the outspoken loyalty of the Pirates’ most visible player, star quarterback Holton Ahlers.
It also helped him keep together the makings of a strong first recruiting class by convincing most of Montgomery’s prospects to stick with their commitments to ECU.
Saturday, the new coach got to work on bringing the Pirates’ frustrated fan base back into the fold. He did it with a short, but rousing speech at halftime of ECU’s basketball game against South Florida.
“I need Pirate Nation to be locked and loaded so that Dowdy-Ficklen is a hard place to play everytime we’re at home,” he said. “I promise you the Pirates will get this right and will not stop until we get to the top.”
Houston deftly used ECU’s most recent game, an embarrassing 58-3 loss at N.C. State to end the 2018 season, as a way of contrasting the Pirates’ disappointing recent past to the success he plans for the future.
Referring to the scheduled rematch at Carter-Finley Stadium in the 2019 opener on August 31, Houston whipped the faithful at Minges Coliseum into a frenzy by proclaiming that “I’m pretty sure we have a score to settle with the Wolfpack.”
As satisfying as a win in that game would be, it’s likely to take more than just one game or even one season to “right the ship and charge full speed ahead,” as Houston promised.
But there is at least one victory the Pirates can guarantee right away. It’s getting everyone — from the coaching staff to the players to the administration to the fans — all pulling in the same direction again.
Before the work on the field begins with the start of Houston’s first spring practice at ECU, the new coach will continue the job of winning over Pirate Nation with a “Signing Day Celebration” at Dowdy-Ficklen on Wednesday, Feb. 6.
The free event, scheduled to begin at 5 p.m., will serve as an introduction of the program’s latest signees while also giving Houston, along with new coordinators Donnie Kirkpatrick and Bob Trott, an opportunity to bond with fans and help relight a fire under the ticket-buying public.
That rekindling of the passion Pirates fans once had for their team is vitally important, because as much success as ECU’s baseball team has enjoyed since the arrival of coach Cliff Godwin and as much promise as its men’s and women’s basketball teams are finally beginning to show, football is still the catalyst that drives every big-time college athletic department.
Putting 45,000-50,000 into the stands of a newly renovated Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Saturday afternoons in the fall will go a long way toward easing the financial pressures ECU’s overall program has been dealing with for the past few years.
If enough people buy into what Houston is selling, it might even restore the kind of atmosphere that was once a Pirate football trademark — one that inspires the team on the field to finally get over the top and start turning some of those close losses into memorable wins.