Mike Houston has spent the nine months since he was hired to rebuild East Carolina’s broken football program preaching values such as mental and physical toughness, perseverance in the face of adversity, character and, most of all, family.
They are some of the foundations upon which most winning programs are built.
But for all he has said about those things both on the practice field and in the meeting rooms, actions still speak louder than words. That’s why Houston’s actions over the past week may ultimately be more important to the Pirates’ future success than any Xs or Os he or his staff draw up.
It’s a lesson in mental toughness, grace under pressure, character and family that began last Monday, when Houston visited his dying father for the final time.
Bill Houston passed away the next day after a prolonged illness. His funeral was Thursday in his hometown of Franklin. Despite his personal loss and the intense emotion that went along with it, the 47-year-old coach still found it within himself to lead and have his team prepared for what, at least in the context of football, was as important game for the development of his program.
Say what you want about the quality of the opposition. Gardner-Webb might have won only four games over the past two years combined and has just one winning season since 2010, but considering the circumstances — first home game under a new coach in a newly-renovated stadium with large hopeful crowd in attendance, coming off a hauntingly familiar opening week loss — this was a game the Pirates badly needed to win.
And they did, rallying around their coach in convincing style to produce an emotional 48-9 victory.
“The way they responded this week is just really incredible,” Houston said afterward. “They were constantly checking on me and I don’t want them doing it, I want them focusing on the game. But it says a lot about them that they have those thoughts.”
What it says most is that even though a majority of the players that contributed to the victory were recruited by Houston’s predecessor Scottie Montgomery, they have already formed a strong bond with their new coach and they’ve bought in to what he’s trying to accomplish.
Quarterback Holton Ahlers said as much after rushing for two touchdowns and throwing for another in the victory.
“Him being able to go out there and coach a football game under the circumstances he and his family have gone through, it means a lot to us,” the sophomore said. “Obviously we’re praying for him. We’re always playing for him.”
As far as the football is concerned, there was a lot of encouragement to be gleaned from a performance that encompassed many of the on-the-field concepts Houston and his staff have been pushing since their arrival in Greenville.
The most noticeable thing was the running game.
ECU averaged a paltry 3.3 yards per carry and had only one 100-yard rushing game in 2018. Saturday against Gardner-Webb, it averaged 7.2 yards per attempt and had two ball carriers go over the century mark while piling up an impressive 365 yards on the ground.
The Pirates also converted 7 of 12 third downs and scored on 8 of 9 trips into the red zone — with six touchdowns — areas that have also been lacking in recent years.
On the other side of the ball, the defense accomplished its stated goal of forcing more turnovers by intercepting a pair of passes while holding the Bulldogs to a single score.
As badly needed and encouraging as the performance was, the reality check is that it came against a clearly outclassed FCS opponent.
The trick now is to start playing to that level, or at least close to it, on a consistent basis against more formidable competition — starting with this week’s road game at American Athletic Conference rival Navy.
For now though, it’s encouraging to know that these new and improved Pirates might actually be new and improved and are capable of putting together a winning effort — both on and off the field — for which the late Bill Houston would have approved.
“He would have found something we could have done better, I promise you that,” Houston said of his father. “But he was always proud of the way our teams competed. When I think back to growing up, I think that was the thing he tried to teach me. No matter what, you’re always going to go out and compete. I think he would’ve been proud of our team tonight and the way they competed.”
Not to mention the lessons they learned.