In the good old days of sportswriting, when print was king and everyone knew what a catch was, I used to receive a stack of actual glossy football media guides every summer that, when piled on top of one another, could double as an ottoman.
These magazines killed many trees, yes, but they also proved to be a fair repository of information and, at times, an above-average source of entertainment.
The media guide covers that gave me and my colleagues the best laugh were the ones that proclaimed, in the most on-the-nose way possible, that this was a program undergoing a building year. Hardhats. Scaffolding. Maybe a jackhammer for good measure. Before you even cracked the binding, you were duly warned to keep your expectations low.
With collegiate rosters always in flux and the coaching carousel constantly revolving, building years are a real, albeit painfully clichéd, phase in every football program’s life cycle.
Any college football fans can pinpoint former behemoths that fell off the radar for a time while they regrouped and forged a more enduring competitive identity. Sometimes “building year” is just a buzz phrase for a struggling team, but other times it turns out to be an accurate assessment of a season’s role in the construction of something greater.
This East Carolina football season, folks, has all of the earmarks of a true building year. To dabble in what will surely be an even more annoying metaphor, this Pirates squad is a chrysalis, camouflaged by a cocoon while it frantically divides cells, grows wings and becomes a butterfly to be revealed shortly. (I told you that one would be awful.)
Mike Houston and his players should unironically wear hardhats around Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, because what is happening inside the ECU program has all of the earmarks of budding potential, soon to emerge as success.
Single-digit margins of defeat against two consecutive Top 25 opponents. A program passing record and, in two weeks, a total of more than 1,000 yards in the air and ten touchdowns from quarterback Holton Ahlers. Stellar receiving performances from C.J. Johnson and, when he was sidelined by injury, Tyler Snead.
The Pirate Nation landscape started to improve considerably when the team battled Central Florida so admirably on the road three weeks ago, and with the exception of a discouraging defeat at the hands of South Florida, the sky has looked progressively brighter ever since.
Everyone agrees that victories are needed, that winning fixes everything and that no fan base deserves a renovation of its record more than ECU.
Houston has made it clear that he has no stomach for moral victories, and as a consummate competitor he is undoubtedly replaying the penalties and mental errors that, if avoided, could have put the Pirates in a conversation about bowl eligibility today.
While the coaching staff recruits and schemes in an effort to bridge the gaps, those associated with the ECU program need to become reacquainted with triumph; I was watching the Cincinnati game in my living room, about two miles from Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, and every time the cannon boomed (ten seconds before a touchdown or field goal on the broadcast) my son and I asked each other, “Is that fireworks? A car backfiring?” We knew it made our dog bark, but the memories of hearing that particular sound frequently on Saturdays had become pretty faded.
I have been covering Pirate football intermittently for just over twenty years, so I’ve seen these iterations of the program before. Like phases of the moon, a team waxes and wanes, and while ECU fans are understandably weary of the waning they can take heart by looking at Skip Holtz’s first two seasons, on a slow-but-sure rebound from the John Thompson doldrums. After Thompson’s teams went 1-11 and 2-9, Holtz coached his Pirates to 5-6 during his first season in a Conference USA that wasn’t nearly as competitive as the 2019 American Athletic Conference, then to a 7-6 record in 2006 that sent ECU to its first bowl game in five years.
The Pirates haven’t been to a bowl since 2015, and Houston’s team is staying in every game because of talented underclassmen. Even an impartial observer can see that 2020 could be a near-repeat of 2006 and that this is an authentic building year with a blueprint and an ambitious plan for its completed project.
Now we just need to come up with a poetic way to characterize this process that doesn’t involve jackhammers or butterflies.