The start of a new season is always an exciting time.
The past is forgotten, everyone is undefeated and at least until the first game is played, anything and everything is possible.
Regardless of how dire the projections might be.
There’s an even greater sense of hope and anticipation when a new coach is thrown into the equation, as it has been with the East Carolina football program and the arrival of Mike Houston.
Considering Houston’s track record of having won wherever he’s gone, including a national championship at the FCS level three years ago at James Madison, the heightened expectations that surround the Pirates heading into the fall aren’t just wishful thinking.
But there’s much more involved here than simply turning around a program that has fallen into disrepair after three straight 3-9 seasons.
With a state-of-the-art TowneBank Tower rising above Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium to give it an impressive new look, an energetic athletic director coming in to mend damaged fences, a dynamic basketball coach that has rekindled interest by putting together a highly-ranked 11-man recruiting class and a baseball team on the cusp of a College World Series breakthrough, there is suddenly a positive energy surrounding ECU athletics that’s been missing for quite some time.
The start of the 2019-20 academic year is a symbolic cleaning of the slate for the Pirates. It’s a push of the reset button that makes it all the more important for the football team to keep the momentum going.
That doesn’t mean winning the American Athletic Conference or even getting the six wins needed for bowl eligibility, although with franchise quarterback Holton Ahlers poised for stardom and a much less challenging nonconference schedule than usual, the latter is a realistic possibility.
The bar is set low enough that any kind of tangible improvement, both on the scoreboard and the win-loss record, can be interpreted as a sign that the program is finally headed in the right direction.
The Pirates will begin preparing to accomplish that task with the opening of camp this week. But they’re not the only ones that can play an active role in deciding the course of the upcoming season.
As Houston specifically mentioned at his introductory press conference last December, ECU’s fans have almost as much of a stake in the success of the team as the new coach, his staff and their newly motivated group of players.
“I would tell them, we’re all in this together,” Houston said. “You’re either part of the problem or you’re part of the solution. I haven’t been here the last three years, so I can’t tell you what all the problems are, but I can tell you this, I’m committed to getting it fixed. And I need the fans’ help.
“I need the alumni’s help. I need the administration’s help. We’re all going to be in this together. I expect Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium to be jam-packed and full this coming fall. I’m going to work together with our players to make sure that we put a product on the field that our fanbase can embrace.”
They’ve got their work cut out for them.
Attendance and with it, financial support for the program, has plummeted over the past four years — dropping from an average of 44,788 per game in 2014 to just 32,908 per game last season.
And those figures are based on tickets distributed. Actual attendance was even less, including announced gatherings of 29,127 and 27,234 for the final two home games of the Scottie Montgomery era — the first time since John Thompson’s final season of 2004 that ECU has played before consecutive crowds of fewer than 30,000 at Dowdy-Ficklen.
The apathy is somewhat understandable, considering the circumstances. But at the same time, there’s no better encouragement for young players struggling with their confidence than the knowledge that someone out there has their back no matter what.
For Pirate fans, that means taking a leap of faith and coming back out to support their team as they once did from Day 1 rather than taking a wait-and-see attitude based on the early results.
“The big thing is not what I do, it’s what we do,” Houston said last week at the AAC’s preseason media event in Rhode Island. “It’s our culture, it’s creating the family atmosphere we’ve had at all (his previous stops). It’s not just the coaches, it’s not just the players … it’s all of us.
“You’re going to see us over time build a culture where everyone is on the same page, everybody trusts each other, everybody cares about each other. When you get everyone going in the same direction and working for a common goal, that’s when you can really achieve special things.”