Good players make good coaches.
As East Carolina seeks to overcome a digression that has produced four straight losing seasons, the staff of new coach Mike Houston is working diligently on recruiting. The objective is to find players that will enable a higher level of performance by the Pirates.
New strength and conditioning coach John Williams is busy developing the talent on hand in the offseason. J.P. Gunter is at the focal point of efforts to bring in difference makers in terms of personnel.
“My official title is Director of Recruiting and Player Personnel,” Gunter said. “What I do is I oversee our 11 coaches, Coach (Mike) Houston and the 10 assistants, that can actually go out on the road. I oversee the overall plan as to where we’re recruiting, who we’re recruiting and how we’re recruiting those young men. …
“I am 100 percent recruiting. I do zero Xs and Os. I find the next guy up and pass him along throughout the coaching staff — make sure everybody is seeing the right people, everybody is communicating with the right people, just really overseeing our overall recruiting efforts.
Different from recruiting coordinator
Gunter is not ECU’s recruiting coordinator although he has experience in that capacity.
“It’s very similar,” Gunter said. “I actually came from The Citadel the last nine years and I was the recruiting coordinator there. With the way college football has really evolved, they’ve taken the recruiting coordinator role and made it an off-the-field administrative role, which is what my role is.
“Fontel Mines here also has the Recruiting Coordinator title and we work hand in hand, but Fontel can actually go out on the road and he’s also worried about our inside receivers and tight ends and the Xs and Os side of things. I am 100 percent recruiting when it comes to what my responsibility is.
“It’s very similar to a recruiting coordinator. I’m just not on the road recruiting myself.”
Worked with Coach Houston
Gunter didn’t come to ECU from James Madison as did Houston and much of the new staff. Still, he has worked with Houston before.
“This is actually my third stop with Coach,” Gunter said. “I started off my coaching career at Lenoir-Rhyne where I played. I played for four years there at L-R. When I finished playing, Coach Houston and Coach (Fred) Goldsmith got there with the new staff. I got to know Coach Houston the two years I coached after my playing days. I left Lenoir-Rhyne while they were still there and they had their successful run. …
“In 2010, I got to The Citadel. I was at The Citadel from 2010 until this past January. When Coach got to The Citadel I was there and I was his recruiting coordinator there. … We’ve had a long relationship and we’ve known each other fairly well since really 2007. That’s when we first got to know each other when we worked together first at Lenoir-Rhyne.”
Houston’s special qualities
Houston has won championships at his previous head coaching assignments at Lenoir-Rhyne, The Citadel and JMU. Gunter was asked what makes Houston special.
“It’s passion for his players,” Gunter said. “It starts there, and the overall vision that he has for our football program. His big-picture vision of being able to see everything that’s important and just the passion for developing young men and also for the sport of football. Once you get around him, you can see his ability to motivate and just how truly how much he cares for the players involved in this program and also the coaches. I mean the passion and the love is truly there.”
Highlight as a player
Gunter played center at Lenoir-Rhyne.
“I will tell you this, we were not very good when I was at Lenoir-Rhyne,” Gunter said. “But between us and Catawba College, we played for a cane. The athletic training staff actually passes back and forth a cane. My junior year, we won the cane back. It was the first time we had seen the cane, I think it was 10 or 11 years. It was the first time they had seen the cane and they actually put a red and black stripe on it for the Lenoir-Rhyne year.
“It was kind of embarrassing when they passed back a cane that was only blue and white, the color of Catawba. My junior year we ended up having a very successful year for what my career consisted of. I believe we ended up being 5-5 that year and beat Catawba. That was a highlight of the year.”
What’s going on in recruiting
This is a period when Pirate coaches are away from the office, culling prospects.
“This is what the NCAA calls an evaluation period,” Gunter said. “What the evaluation period allows us to do is we can go out and visit the high schools in our recruiting footprint. Our coaches are out on the road right now visiting with guidance counselors, administrators, coaches at the high schools.
“We’re really re-familiarizing ourselves with the prospects in the 2020 class. They’re out. They can talk to administrators, talk to coaches. They can watch workouts. They can watch practices. They’re not allowed to have any direct face-to-face contact with the recruits right now. What we’re doing, we’re just gaining more and more knowledge. We’re making sure that everybody knows that ECU first and foremost is going to take care of eastern North Carolina, along with the remainder of the state of North Carolina. Then, of course, our recruiting footprint. You’ll see we’ll be along the eastern coast, from Florida all the way up to Jersey and really reaching out as far west as Kansas and Texas.
“Our coaches are really out there, really just seeing the young men in person, watching them workout, watching them practice and, again, visiting with the high school coaches and administrators. … The NCAA evaluation period runs from April 15 all the way to the end of May is the window that we’re allowed to be out on the road. We cut it up. They allow 168 days to be shared among 10 assistant coaches. We divide it up so ‘you get X amount of days, you get X amount of days.’ That’s how our coaches know the amount of time that they have to be out on the road.”
Camps on campus
ECU’s coaches will have the opportunity to work directly with recruits next month.
“June 1 is when we really start having the young men back on campus as we’re allowed to host our summer camps,” Gunter said. “It allows us to get those guys on campus and it allows us to actually work with them. Our coaching staff will be able to coach up the guys who we have identified as our recruits. It allows us to get them on campus. … The majority of June we’re allowed to have camps. We’ll really focus in on getting those guys to our campus. Obviously, being around ECU, there’s a ton of construction and there’s a ton of excitement.
“We can get them here to campus. Again, allow our coaching staff to work with them and it allows us to get a great evaluation in person and spend some true quality time with the guys. … We want to make sure that the recruits are a really good fit. We’re not going to hurry into anything. We want to make sure you fit us. We get to work with them. We get to see them compete. We really just get to see the make-up of the young man — how are they going to compete. Athletically, can they do what we ask them to do? That’s a big part there, a big part of the evaluation process. We’re not just going to go out there and throw out offers. We want to make sure they fit us and they fit East Carolina and what we’re doing here.
“We have the ability to offer a young man in June. There’s nothing that says we can’t.”
Gunter’s handle got shortened during his playing days.
“My name is John Phillip,” Gunter said. “I was named after both of my grandfathers. I had a John on one side and a Phillip on the other. On legal paperwork, I’ve always gone by John Phillip, but when I started playing organized sports … a lot of the coaches struggled to remember John Phillip, but a lot of them could remember J.P. So it got shortened quickly.
“My son is John Turnbull and he goes by Turner, but a lot of the time, you’ll hear us just say, ‘T.’ Just shorten it up.”
There is a lot of discussion about the safety element in football. Gunter doesn’t plan to discourage his son, age 2, from playing.
“I think as long as it’s taught in a safe way, it’s a safe sport,” Gunter said. “I have no apprehension of my son playing what I feel is the best team game on the planet.”
Changes in recruiting
Gunter has been involved in recruiting during a period of change.
“Heck, we’re in the culture now where some schools are offering eighth-graders,” Gunter said. “That’s definitely a different change in the game. Also, you look at technology. You’re not having to worry about sending out tapes or DVDs anymore. We can sit here on the Internet and on our computers, pads — whatever we have — Microsoft Surfaces. We can sit here and we can pull up any young man’s film — not only in the country, but the world. You don’t come across a ton of it, but you come across some European players trying to get a college scholarship or some Canadians trying to get a college scholarship.
“The technology alone, you’re not packing up a car with 100 DVDs or VHS tapes. In 2007, you had a combination of VHS and DVDs were just coming onto the game. When it comes to recruiting now, you don’t have to worry about any of that. You click on the link and you can have all of the young man’s film from when he was in the eighth grade all the way up to now, his senior year right there at your fingertips. That’s the part that’s kind of made this interesting. Technology-wise, you can really see a ton of kids and be able to reach and contact different people, different coaches, different guidance counselors, different prospects, whoever it may be.”
Bringing back ECU standard
Recruiting can make a return to ECU’s good old days a part of the Pirates’ future.
“Trust me, we’re excited to be here,” Gunter said. “The most impressive part I’ve seen since I’ve been here in January is the true passion for college football that ECU shows. My wife (Megan), our coaching staff, we are extremely excited to be here at the university.
“I grew up in South Carolina. East Carolina was always a football team up here. We were ecstatic about Coach Houston giving me this opportunity. Given some time, we can get it back to where ECU football is used to being. We’re excited to be here. We’re excited. The leadership is in a good spot and we’re ready to get rolling.”