New East Carolina athletic director Jon Gilbert has cleared an unusual hurdle in his first month on the job. Gilbert had to find a replacement for Virginia Tech, which was scheduled to play at ECU on Sept. 21.
The Hokies canceled out on the trip to Greenville after the Pirates did not travel to Blacksburg in 2018 as Hurricane Florence approached. ECU officials were not sure if the football team would be able to return home from the road game and the Pirates went directly to Orlando in preparation for an American Athletic Conference matchup the following week at South Florida.
North Carolina and N.C. State canceled games the same weekend due to the storm.
“One of those things that you don’t anticipate when you first come on the job is losing a football game this close to football season,” Gilbert said. “As that process played out, I spent a lot of time on the phone talking to a bunch of athletic directors about scheduling opportunities. My preference was to try to find an FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) team that we could play. I talked to a few schools that were interested, but the way scheduling works, people schedule so far in advance, there really weren’t any FBS opportunities out there without them canceling or getting out of games.
“At the end of the day, an FCS (Football Championship Subdivision) opponent was the only type of opponent that we could schedule. I do feel in that regard that we did get a very good FCS opponent in William & Mary. We had been longtime conference members years ago. I do think at least from our fan base standpoint, they do know the name and the history of the program, the tradition of East Carolina and William & Mary playing each other. I do think there is a benefit in that regard.
“They had scheduled 11 games. I think their intent was to play 11, as do a lot of FCS teams. It just so happened they had an opening on the date we needed, so the stars did align.”
The Tribe has a financial guarantee of $375,000 for the game at ECU, Gilbert said.
Lure of ECU
Gilbert had been athletic director at Southern Miss for two years before accepting the position with the Pirates. Gilbert worked with former ECU athletic director Dave Hart at Alabama and Tennessee.
Hart has served as an athletic director at East Carolina, Florida State, and Tennessee. He was executive athletic director at Alabama, his alma mater, working with former Crimson Tide athletic director Mal Moore before leaving for Tennessee in 2011. Hart is currently a special athletics advisor to Dr. Cecil Staton, ECU chancellor.
“It’s a great opportunity,” Gilbert said. “We certainly have a great brand nationally and are well thought of. We certainly have fielded very competitive sports programs over the history of East Carolina athletics. That is one of the things that attracted me to the job.
“Certainly we have some things we need to get better in. We haven’t had a winning football season in four years. Part of the task that I have is making sure that we are building the infrastructure the right way to help support our football program and other sports programs as we build for success.”
How does ECU compare to Southern Miss?
“Certainly, the schools are similar in nature,” Gilbert said. “There are some differences when you look at it institutionally. We have almost 30,000 students here. We’re in a different conference that provides more financial support and visibility, which are two things we can help capitalize and recruit upon.”
Hart’s influence on Gilbert regarding ECU began long before Hart was looking to fill the void that brought Gilbert to Greenville.
“Certainly, I have a longstanding history and working relationship with Dave,” Gilbert said. “He and his wife, Pam, have taught Katie and I so much, both as a consultant and previously as an athletic director. I started hearing about how great East Carolina was from the first time we started working together at Alabama. Then, obviously, I worked with him for five years at Tennessee. The way the two of them spoke so highly of East Carolina, it certainly played a part in our decision to come here.”
Bringing fans back in football
Gilbert said the South side renovation of Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium will be ready well before the Pirates host Gardner-Webb on Sept. 7.
“It is (on schedule),” Gilbert said. “That project is scheduled to be completed some time in June. So it will be ready and functional by our first home football game.”
Bringing fans back in football is a primary objective. Season ticket sales and attendance slumped in recent seasons.
“I think the first order of business is for me and this athletic department to earn the trust of our fan base and make them want to come back to view a Pirate game,” Gilbert said. “So I am meeting with staff, talking to students and our fan base. I’ve been out in the community quite a bit and want to hear their thoughts on things that we need to bring back or start new with to engage this community to come back and watch the Pirates play.
“In the process of doing that I want to make sure this is an engaging athletic department with our community and people feel like they are invited to come back and be a part of this.”
East Carolina got an American Athletic Conference hoops win, 66-65, over visiting Tulane on Thursday night.
“I am really encouraged about the leadership of Joe Dooley and his staff,” Gilbert said. “They are doing a remarkable job of changing the culture in our basketball program. With this team, I think the effort that you see them play with — I know we haven’t been as successful on the scoreboard — but we clearly are developing into a much better basketball team. Joe and his staff really should be commended for that.”
The basketball team has had some charter flights this season as opposed to traveling commercial.
“We’ve done some charters this year where our student-athletes can get home after a game as opposed to staying the night and spending the entire next day traveling. No. 1, that helps them in the classroom, where they can go to class. From a performance standpoint, there’s a benefit to that. They’ve had several charters this year, which ultimately will benefit the program.”
Athletic department financial burdens recently were eased with a $20 million cash infusion from non-athletic department accounts. The Pirates were looking at an athletic deficit of nearly $5 million for the 2018-19 scholastic year.
“We don’t have an expense issue,” Gilbert said. “We have a revenue issue. We’ve got to do a better job of generating revenue for the department. Obviously, we need to sell more tickets to our athletic events. We need to increase corporate sponsorships, private giving, all of our contracts. They all play a part in the overall health and well-being of our department. It’s important that we look at all those avenues to improve.
“We’re certainly not where we want to be, but I do feel like with new coaching staffs, renewed energy in the department and in the community, we are headed in the right direction.”