Sisyphus is one of the most tragic figures in Greek mythology, a former king doomed for eternity to push a large rock up a steep hill only to have it roll back down to the bottom every time it gets tantalizingly close to the top.
It’s a fate, it would seem, that is currently shared by the East Carolina football program.
The Pirates have spent the past three-plus seasons struggling to push the proverbial rock toward the top of their own personal mountain. Or in real life terms, respectability in the American Athletic Conference.
They’ve made significant strides since the arrival of new coach Mike Houston in December, taking baby steps toward the summit through the first six games.
Then last week in Orlando, they appeared ready to finally get over the hump after a promising second half against conference powerhouse Central Florida.
The trend seemed to be reinforced with Tyler Snead’s 100-yard touchdown return of the opening kickoff in Saturday’s home game against South Florida.
But those moments of glory were only a tease.
Like Sisyphus, ECU’s rock never made it to the top. It came rolling back down in the form of a disappointing 45-20 defeat at the hands of the visiting Bulls.
It’s not just that the Pirates lost a game against an AAC opponent that was eminently beatable on what should have been a festive homecoming celebration. It’s the way they lost it that made this by far the most disappointing performance of Houston’s short tenure.
Following a pattern that has haunted it like a recurring nightmare so many times in the recent past, ECU got pushed around at the line of scrimmage, was gashed for huge chunks of yardage on the ground and coughed the ball up in the red zone instead of scoring points.
The result was an insurmountable deficit by halftime for the second straight week. This time it was 35-10 — and this time, unlike the previous week at UCF, the Pirates didn’t fight back.
“Certainly disappointed with the outcome of the ballgame,” Houston said afterward. “That’s not what we expect from ourselves. It’s not what we want to be. Too many critical errors at the wrong time that we put ourselves in bad situations and did not take advantage of some opportunities we had. You can’t do that if you’re going to win a ballgame against a good football team in this conference.”
It’s a lesson ECU should have learned by now. Maybe this time it will.
But it won’t be easy.
The next two games are against AAC East leader Cincinnati at Dowdy-Ficklen, followed by a trip to West Division leader Southern Methodist.
The biggest thing the program has going for it this time is Houston. He is committed to giving the Pirates the direction they lost somewhere along the way. He has already worked hard to change the culture of the program.
He knows by now that it’s not something that will happen overnight.
“When I took the job, I knew that things were going to be tough getting it turned around,” Houston said. “I knew that there were going to be some ups and downs this year, but that doesn’t make it any easier. Our expectations are to get things fixed as fast as possible.
“None of us – players, coaches, none of us – accept this. This is not who we want to be. It doesn’t take anything away from South Florida. They’re a good football team. Obviously, they had some guys that had some big days for them. But we expect to compete at a higher level than this.”
It’s an expectation Houston has met in the past.
He won at Lenoir-Rhyne. He turned things around at The Citadel. He brought home a national championship at James Madison.
If anyone can get ECU back on the winning track, he’s as likely a candidate as anyone to do it.
All he has to do is trudge back down to the bottom of the mountain, take a deep breath and start pushing it up the hill again with the hope that this time, unlike Sisyphus, he’ll finally be able to get it over the top.