It’s said that history repeats itself. East Carolina may well be in the midst of that process, repeating a pattern that began with Steve Logan’s dismissal as coach after the 2002 season.
Logan had the most wins (69) in program history, but former athletic director Mike Hamrick fired him after a 4-8 season that culminated with a 42-26 home loss to Cincinnati that left the Pirates 4-4 in Conference USA.
Logan’s exit divided the fan base, much as Ruffin McNeill’s departure did after the 2015 season when his final game was a 19-16 loss to Cincinnati that left ECU 5-7 overall and 3-5 in the American Athletic Conference.
McNeill was 42-34 in six seasons as coach of the Pirates. He also had five straight wins over Atlantic Coast Conference opponents North Carolina, N.C. State and Virginia Tech.
Logan’s replacement, John Thompson, was 3-20 in two seasons. Scottie Montgomery followed McNeill and went 9-27 during three seasons.
Both Hamrick and Jeff Compher, who terminated McNeill, were defined in large part at ECU by unsuccessful hires in football. Hamrick didn’t hang around to see Thompson falter, accepting the opportunity to direct the athletic program at Nevada-Las Vegas. Compher resigned before Montgomery’s last season at ECU was complete.
After an interim period when Nick Floyd served as AD after Hamrick left, Terry Holland came aboard at ECU. Holland announced in the days following a 41-17 loss at South Florida in the 10th game of the season that Thompson would not be returning as coach.
Thompson was a lame duck for a 52-14 loss to N.C. State in Charlotte to finish the 2004 season.
Montgomery was not around for a 58-3 loss to the Wolfpack that completed the 2018 season for the Pirates. With Mike Houston involved with Charlotte about their coaching vacancy, Dave Hart, working as special athletics advisor to chancellor Cecil Staton, put the wheels in motion to bring Houston to ECU from James Madison.
Hart secured Jon Gilbert as AD and Gilbert gave his approval on Houston.
Holland saw the potential of Skip Holtz, who had been working on his dad Lou’s staff at South Carolina. Unlike Thompson or Montgomery, Holtz had previous head coaching experience from a successful stint at Connecticut.
Houston has won to an impressive degree at Lenoir-Rhyne, The Citadel and James Madison. His 2017 Dukes came to ECU and took the season opener, 34-14. Much of that JMU staff has accompanied Houston to Greenville. Houston has won conference championships in six of his eight seasons as a head coach.
Houston guided JMU to the Football Championship Subdivision title in 2016.
Holtz took a program that was 2-9 in 2004 and improved to 5-6 overall and 4-4 in C-USA in 2005. Holtz guided the Pirates to bowls the next four seasons, winning C-USA championships in 2008 and 2009. ECU was 8-5 in 2007, 9-5 in 2008 and 9-5 in 2009 before Holtz left for South Florida.
Although ECU utilized more of a passing offense after Lincoln Riley came to the program from Texas Tech with McNeill, Holtz liked to use the run game to control the clock. Holtz also had some outstanding defensive linemen such as C.J. Wilson and Linval Joseph, who went on to help the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants to Super Bowl triumphs.
In similar fashion, Houston is characterized as a defensive coach who wants to establish the ground game on offense. One question of the moment in comparison is the talent level of the current defensive front.
Houston and staff are addressing personnel needs. The coaches went over spring game film on Monday and Houston was involved with post-spring player interviews midweek before his primary focus returned to recruiting.
The Pirates also will work to develop the talent on hand. Sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers said that the transition to Donnie Kirkpatrick as quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator is going well.
“We’ve gotten along great,” said Ahlers after the offense’s 71-36 win over the defense in the Purple-Gold game of his relationship with Kirkpatrick. “He’s a great guy. He’s a great teacher. He’s a great coach.”
Kirkpatrick and offensive line coach Steve Shankweiler have been on staff at ECU during successful past eras.
“Anytime you get a guy to come back, it’s a special opportunity for all of us,” Ahlers said.
It wouldn’t be fair to ascribe all of ECU’s success under Holtz to the current Louisiana Tech coach. Thompson and his staff brought many players into the program such as running back Chris Johnson, who subsequently became significant contributors for the Pirates under Holtz. There was a perception that Montgomery was upgrading recruiting before he was forced out.
Ahlers was a successful recruiting target of the previous staff.
Houston has turned around programs before, although it has been on the FCS level. But the same principles of success should apply in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
The financial situation that constricted function throughout the athletic department in recent years is being resolved through a cash infusion of $20 million from other accounts at ECU. The Pirates are on the verge of completing membership dues to the AAC that amounted to $500,000 annually. League commissioner Mike Aresco has negotiated a television rights renewal with ESPN that will provide more revenue.
A lot of things appear to be turning the corner for ECU, including the hiring of Houston.
Will history repeat itself in football? Pirate fans would like nothing better.