At Wednesday’s post-practice press conference, East Carolina coach Mike Houston told a tale of two moments in recent Pirate football history. One was uplifting; one was anything but. One was captured on film but no one enjoys watching it; one wasn’t recorded but Houston wishes it had been.
Let’s start with the highlight, which occurred at a team meeting on Monday. Houston and his staff had made a decision to award full scholarships to two juniors — offensive lineman Jaison Fournet and receiver Jonathan Johnson. Houston doesn’t care for the orchestrated scholarship revelations that seem made for social media, so he made sure their presentation was more of a family experience — no cameras, no cellphones.
“I talked about them as examples for the rest of the team,” Houston said. “And I told them, ‘Tomorrow I’m going to put you on full scholarship.’ And you would have thought we won the Super Bowl. The whole room jumps to their feet, yelling and screaming, dogpiles both of them down here at the front.
“It was the best I’ve ever seen. I hate I didn’t video it now. Every coach in here, said, ‘I got chills,’ because you saw a group rallying around two young men. They know what they’ve been through, they know how invested they are, they know what kind of people they are, and they were cheering for the achievement of a teammate. And as upset as I get about some things, trying to get it fixed, that shows you we’re on the right track.”
The selfless unity and the investment in each other that was on display two days ago was hard to detect in December, when Houston took the head coaching job and had his first meeting with a downtrodden Pirates team. It was a barometer of progress Houston saw even more vividly because of the film he watched in its entirety this morning — N.C. State’s 58-3 shellacking of ECU in the last game of the 2018 season.
“It made me absolutely sick to my stomach,” he said. “We have got to focus on improving every single day. There are some things on that field from last year that are non-negotiable for me. Effort. Teamwork. Positive enthusiasm. Toughness. Coming off the ball. Tackling. Those are non-negotiables. We are going to do those things. And until we get to where we’re doing those things consistently every single day, we are not where we need to be.”
Houston watched that game shortly after he took over, and he has showed edited portions of it to his players repeatedly in the preseason. Most college students love binge watching, but it seems a certainty that no one in the Pirate locker room subjects themselves to that footage because they want to. Their coach believes it will serve as a motivation, and for him it’s a potent reminder of the type of lackadaisical play he refuses to tolerate.
“I hope that fuels them,” he said. “I hope there’s a lot of motivation because of it. I mean, there is for me. It’s been a long time since I’ve been part of a game like that, and I have no interest in going backwards. I have no interest in going through that ever again.”
It’s a long climb out of the abyss, and offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick said that practices like Wednesday’s, with a few bright spots mixed with less encouraging moments, are nonetheless rungs on the ladder as the team plows through hot, difficult, tiring days.
“It’s a grind,” Kirkpatrick said. “We’re adjusting to class, the first week. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are always hard. We’re starting to get ready for a ball game, and at the same time we’re still installing a few things, still trying to go after each other and trying to get better.
“Football’s a hard game, and we’re in that grind, and they’re tired. I’m tired, so I know they’ve got to be tired. And they just have to understand that they’ve got to put forth a little more effort, and they’ve got to be a little more determined on Tuesdays and Wednesdays when the band’s not there, the cheerleaders aren’t there, the Pirate Club isn’t there.”
Every day the staff looks for improvement in the fundamentals that serve as the foundation for any football team’s success. Kirkpatrick said he has seen marked improvement in blocking on offense, and defensive coordinator Bob Trott said the quest to instill solid team tackling habits is progressing slowly but steadily.
“It’s a process,” said Trott, who has coached defenses at ten different colleges and three NFL teams. “We work on it every day. Every day it’s getting a little bit better. Some days we go back a little bit, and they rally, and it’s what defenses are about. I worked for a guy named Bill Parcells, all he ever said was, ‘I want safeties that can tackle.’ He didn’t even care if they could cover. He just wanted them to tackle.
“To play good defense you have to tackle. We’re stressing it every day. We’ll cram it down their throat.”