GREENVILLE — As successful as first-year East Carolina coach Mike Houston has been in compiling an 80-25 record in eight seasons at Lenoir-Rhyne, The Citadel and James Madison, his current profession was not his first choice as he graduated from Mars Hill. Houston shared the story during one-on-one interviews at ECU’s football media day on Saturday.
“I was pre-med in college,” Houston said. “I majored in biology and chemistry. I had a good GPA (grade point average), did well on the MCAT (Medical College Admission Test), applied to East Carolina and Chapel Hill. I got put on a waiting list at both schools.
“The dean of the medical school here suggested that I get a job in the Research Triangle Park with one of the pharmaceutical companies. … I could not see myself doing that. The only other thing I had thought about doing — I grew up playing sports. Football, basketball, baseball, track. I was always involved in athletics. I called my college football coach and talked to him about it. He suggested I give it a try and so I took a job teaching high school chemistry and physics and coaching football and basketball at Forbush High School in the Winston-Salem area.
“I was just going to do it for a year and reapply to med school, but two-three months in, I loved it and I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I never looked back. Certainly, it’s turned out to be the right path for me, what I was meant to do.
“In kind of a way, I owe East Carolina University for getting me into coaching.”
Pirates prepare for heat
East Carolina opens the season at N.C. State on Saturday, August 31, at noon.
“It’s going to be hot,” Houston said. “It’s going to be humid. Fortunately, we practice in eastern North Carolina. We kicked off at 12 o’clock last year against them in Raleigh when I coached at JMU and that was a big concern.”
The Pirates have been practicing in the mornings thus far.
“That’s really the biggest positive about practicing in the afternoons,” Houston said. “Regardless of whether we had classes starting next week, we would shift everything to an afternoon practice. You’ve got to practice in the heat to prepare to play in the heat. We’ve had a pretty hot preseason camp, but I think the afternoon practice is really going to be in the peak of the heat. I think that’s going to be good for us.
“I’ve talked to the players about it because we’ve really got to push ourselves in the heat this week because the only way you prepare to play on August 31 is to push yourself and condition in it the next two weeks.”
State game last year
ECU absorbed a 58-3 pounding from the Wolfpack to end the 2018 season for the Pirates.
“That game is such an outlier, when you look at it,” Houston said. “They lost their head coach three days before. Certainly, the program was in disarray. You go into that with a lot of injuries against a really good football team. It was a recipe for disaster. That’s a tough situation that those kids were put in last year.
“It’s not N.C. State’s fault. You go out there and play. The game kicks off and you play the game the way it’s supposed to be played. I just think it was a tough situation for the players who were here then. I think we’re in a different situation now. I think there’s more stability in the program today. That’s obvious, but I’m sure that’s in the back of our kids’ minds, but every year is a new year and every team is a new team. This team is not the one that they played last December.”
Starting the season in Raleigh
ECU has played its first game of the season at State seven times, starting with a 57-8 setback in 1973. The Pirates won 28-23 in 1977 after a loss in 1975 (26-3). The Wolfpack prevailed 33-26 in 1982. ECU started 1985 with a 33-14 win in Raleigh, but lost 38-10 the following season.
The series, which State leads, 17-13, was suspended after hostilities between the rivals after a 32-14 Pirates road win in 1987.
ECU is 3-4 in season openers hosted by the Pack.
State leads 15-8 in all games played in Raleigh. The Pirates are 3-1 against the Pack in Greenville and lead 2-1 at neutral sites, including the 37-34 win in the Peach Bowl in Atlanta to conclude the 1991 season.
Houston was asked about his concerns two weeks before the season opener.
“We don’t have time to talk about all of them,” said the Pirates coach. “I’m worried about everything. … worried about the buses, where we’re staying, the travel, how we’re going to handle the routine of a road game. You’re worried about school starting. I’m worried about all the parties around Greenville tonight. I’m worried about everything. I joke about that, but you’re worried about everything. You’re worried about special teams. You’re worried about the situations that are going to come up.
“You’re worried about playing together with a team for the first time. As much as we try to simulate that, it’s completely different when you get on that sideline on game day in Raleigh, just functioning as a unit — making sure that we do things right, do the things that good football teams do. Don’t have 12 on the field. Don’t have 10 on the field. Don’t have foolish penalties. Have organization on the sidelines. It’s all the things you learn once you’ve spent time together.
“Two years from now, those things won’t be a concern. Today, everything is a concern.”
Defensive coordinator Bob Trott inherited a unit that was 11th among 12 teams in scoring defense in the American Athletic Conference. Opponents averaged 37.3 points per game against ECU.
“We’re getting better, but it is a process,” Trott said. “It’s one day at a time. You get better every day. That’s all we ask the players to do. We’re at the stage now that we need to go play and have some real situations. You don’t get any better until you’re out there in the heat of battle and performing. That’s what we’re trying to do right now.”
Holton Ahlers and Reid Herring are competing for the starting nod at quarterback. Both have experience as starters from 2018.
“We’re going to put the quarterback out there that we think gives us the best chance to win the game,” said offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick. “We’re fortunate. I think we have two guys that probably are good enough to lead this football team to a lot of wins. It’s been a great competition going on between the two.
“I think the competition makes you better. Even if you do name your starter, you’re always one snap away from the other guy having to play anyhow because of an injury in this sport. It’s not like we name one, you’re going to throw the other guy away. You’re going to have to work with him to get him ready.”