That’s what it takes to build a successful and sustainable college football program from the bottom up.
You can’t microwave things, as former East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill used to say, or try to turn things around with one giant leap with a roster full of graduate transfers. It has to happen organically and gradually, with the centerpiece of the process being young players that will be around long enough to see the job through.
And that’s exactly what coach Mike Houston and his staff are doing with the Pirates.
Baby steps like beating an FCS team you’re supposed to beat and doing it convincingly, as ECU did against Gardner-Webb in its home opener on Sept. 7.
Baby steps like winning on the road, something the Pirates hadn’t done since Sept. 25, 2017 at Connecticut — a two-year stretch spanning 10 games.
And baby steps like equaling your win total from each of the past three seasons with plenty of time left to continue building momentum.
Houston and his Pirates accomplished the latter two goals on Saturday with their 24-21 victory at Old Dominion.
It wasn’t the smoothest effort on record or the prettiest game ECU has played. But that’s the key to winning away from home, when the surroundings are unfamiliar, the fans in the stands are unfriendly and adversity inevitably hits at just the wrong times.
In this case, the adversity came in the form of two interceptions, a lost fumble, a field goal attempt that was blocked and six penalties.
But instead of getting knocked back and never recovering as it had so many times over the past three years, the Pirates rose to the occasion and started swinging right back.
They blocked a kick of their own, scoring a touchdown in the process when junior linebacker Warren Saba got his hands on an ODU punt, picked up the loose ball and took it into the end zone.
They bent, but didn’t break when senior defensive lineman Jalen Price forced and recovered a fumble just inches from the goal line.
And they intercepted two passes of their own, by Gerard Stringer and Ja’Quan McMillian, with both coming in the fourth quarter with the outcome very much in doubt.
Then, after the Monarchs scored to get within a field goal with 2:13 remaining, hands team member C.J. Johnson recovered an onside kick to ensure a victory that almost certainly would have been a loss anytime in the recent past.
And the best part is that many of those who contributed to the win were freshmen and sophomores with long bright futures ahead of them — freshman McMillan and sophomore Stringer; freshman Johnson and his former high school teammate and sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers; leading rusher, freshman Demetrius Mauney; and top receiver, sophomore Blake Proehl.
They were all part of a baby step that was duly noted by Houston in the giddy aftermath of Saturday’s gritty effort.
“That shows right there the resiliency this team has developed already,” he said. “We didn’t hang our heads, we stayed together, we kept fighting. We talk about that all the time. It’s easy to talk about. It’s hard to do in the moment. But I’m really proud of them the way they pulled together there in the fourth quarter.”
So what now?
What’s the next baby step on the road back to respectability first, then relevance, and finally into contention for conference titles?
The logical answer is beating an American Athletic Conference opponent other than lowly — and departing — UConn. It’s an opportunity that will present itself on Thursday when Temple comes to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
Though the Owls are hardly a pushover, they’re also not a juggernaut, as their loss to Buffalo earlier this season suggests. They’re the kind of opponent this ECU team can beat on a good night with a raucous home “Paint it Black” crowd behind it, urging it on.
At the very least, the upcoming game against Temple will serve as a meaningful measuring stick of just how far the Pirates have come under Houston and how many more baby steps they still have left to go before their journey is complete.