With the new early signing period rapidly approaching — it begins on Wednesday, Dec. 18 — East Carolina football coach Mike Houston and his staff are on the road working hard to recruit the kind of talent that will help the Pirates be competitive and win in the American Athletic Conference.
By all accounts, they’re in the process of putting together a class that rates in the top half of the league’s rankings.
In the meantime, back home in Greenville, a different kind of recruiting is taking place.
While the targets of athletic director Jon Gilbert’s efforts will never score a touchdown, make a tackle or even take the field wearing purple and gold, their contributions are still vitally important to ECU’s long-term success.
We’re talking about you, the fans.
It’s been a tough four years for the Pirates. The crowds at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium have reflected that. But Houston has already shown signs of breathing life back into the once proud program.
In the meantime, Gilbert is doing his part to rekindle a spark in a passionate, but frustrated fan base by reaching out directly to Pirate Nation in the form of an open letter.
“Progress was made under head coach Mike Houston that saw our team make noticeable gains throughout the year,” he wrote. “We had several games that could have gone either way, but overall progress was made especially in terms of the culture being formed.
“I understand and share your frustration when the Pirates don’t win. You decide every Saturday in the fall to spend your hard-earned income to support our football program. I get it. I’m not naïve to it. I am thankful for your continued support. We will get better.
“The one point I emphasize to you is that our coaches, staff and student-athletes are committed to returning East Carolina football to its rightful place.”
Gilbert’s comments were little more than a rhetorical pep rally designed to inspire the troops and sell some season tickets. It also served as a plea to members of the Pirate Club to re-up their donations for the coming year, a task someone has to take on with the news that the group’s executive director Phillip Wood will be stepping down at the end of the month.
There was some substance to Gilbert’s correspondence. He announced that ticket prices for the 2020 season will remain the same as they were for 2019 and that he and his staff are planning a series of town hall-type meetings this spring to hear directly from fans on how ECU can improve its game day experience.
That interaction with the paying customers already represents an improvement over his predecessor Jeff Compher.
But talk only goes so far.
While it’s a proven fact that the best teams are often those that receive the most support from their administrators and communities, it’s never easy to convince skeptical fans to make such a large investment of time, money and emotion on a team that doesn’t reward them with positive results.
It’s a classic chicken and egg proposition.
Support brings about success, but fans want to wait for the success to happen before going all in with their support.
The only way to break that never-ending cycle is by taking a leap of faith and buying what Gilbert is selling — both at the ticket office and with the assumption that better days are just the flip of a calendar away.