Of all the noticeable differences between new East Carolina football coach Mike Houston and his predecessor Scottie Montgomery, one in particular stands out.
This is not meant to put Montgomery down or to disparage him in any way. He is a good man with a wealth of football knowledge and an obvious passion for his program and players. There’s a good chance he will be a successful coach in the future, perhaps because of what he learned from his experience with the Pirates.
But the bottom line is that he simply wasn’t prepared for the job when he was hired to replace Ruffin McNeill by former athletic director Jeff Compher. It was an on-the-job training situation from Day 1, which — given the level at which ECU is being asked to play as a member of the highly competitive American Athletic Conference — was a recipe for failure.
Three straight three-win seasons is a failure by anyone’s definition of the word.
Houston, by contrast, comes to Greenville having been a head coach at three different colleges and a high school.
Having won at every stop along the way, including an FCS national championship at James Madison in 2016, he knows exactly what it takes to build a successful program. What he hasn’t figured out on his own, he said he’s “begged, borrowed and stolen” from others that have done things well.
While that doesn’t guarantee he will do it again at ECU or that if he does, it will happen overnight, it does put him in a better position to make the right kind of changes and turn things around than someone going through the process for the first time.
“This is the fifth program that I’ve been the head coach of, so every time from starting out at the high school level in Asheville, I don’t know how many years ago, you learn from every experience you have and it builds upon what you have to offer,” Houston said Thursday at a press conference before the opening of spring practice. “Every experience you use what you learned to try to be better the next time.”
Among the most important things Houston has learned from his time at T.C. Roberson High in Asheville, Lenoir-Rhyne, The Citadel and James Madison, is that there’s a lot more to preparing a team to win football games than installing schemes and teaching the Xs and Ox.
He made it clear in no uncertain terms Thursday that establishing a winning mindset among his players is his top priority for spring practice.
“Most important is that we establish our culture and attitude and the way we’re going to operate. I think that’s critical,” Houston said. “Players are going to come and go over the years, but it is critical to me that we establish the proper culture in this program to where as players enter the program, we have to have things in place so they understand how we’re going to do things — how we’re going to operate, how we’re going to work, how we’re going to go about things on a daily basis.”
Some of those things have already been established, especially in the weight room. Others, such as the physicality the Pirates have lacked for far too long, are about to be put into place during 15 practices over the next few weeks.
“I told them we’re going to find out what kind of football team we have in my opinion at about 8:45 on Monday morning because that’s when we start Inside Run,” Houston said of his players. “Inside Run is a drill that is going to be the backbone of our program and it is not going to be for the faint of heart. We are going to be a physical football team on both sides of the ball. We’re going to practice in a manner to prepare ourselves to play on game day.
“I expect an up-tempo practice. I expect a lot of effort. I expect a lot of discipline. I expect a lot of intensity. It’s going to be a helmeted practice. I told the players that whatever your version of a helmeted practice was before, you might as well throw that out the door. We’re going to be demanding and we’re going to establish what it means to practice on a daily basis because those habits are going to dictate how you play on game day.”
Considering the Pirates’ game day results over the past three seasons, any change is welcome. But when they’re made with the benefit of experience, as they are this time around with Houston, they stand a much better chance of being changes for the better.