One year and one week ago it was all possibility, untempered by reality. Would you go back, if you could?
Jon Gilbert and Mike Houston were still strangers to the Pirate Nation, but they were bathed in a sort of purple-and-gold glow at those consecutive press conferences on December 3 and December 4, 2018.
They were symbols as much as men — harbingers of the new day that everyone believed fervently was coming to East Carolina.
That belief still holds, of course, and it’s undiminished among the most optimistic Pirate fans.
Gilbert and Houston are settled in now, looking back on the last year and understanding that even as their best instincts about the ECU community were on target, so also was their apprehension that this reclamation project might be bumpier than anyone hoped last December.
It’s a multilayered process, involving culture building and persistent recruiting and more patience than most Pirates fans feel they possess at this point. Fandom is exhausting that way, and no one understands that more than the ECU coaches and administrators who know that overnight successes don’t happen in college sports, but still wish desperately that they could snap their fingers and summon one.
The Christmas season is marked by hope and a bit of nostalgia, too, so it’s not out of bounds to look back on those two exuberant press conferences and remember the true things that were said, the statements that can help sustain the Pirate Nation when a scoreboard tells a difficult story yet again. The men who took the reins of the athletic department and the football program one year and one week ago didn’t even know yet where they liked to eat lunch in Greenville, but they knew some enduring truths about the worthy challenge they were facing.
• Gilbert: “I will bring a leadership style of communication, openness and visibility. I will literally be at almost everything.” This promise has been kept, and since he towers over most of the other non-athletes in courts and on fields, Gilbert’s presence at every type of ECU sporting event is easy to document. He has been committed to relationships — with athletes, coaches, fans, and even the media — and he has sought opportunities to build trust and sow stability even while unrest remains.
• Houston: “We spoke about the commitment it’s going to take in the weight room. They’re going to have a certain plan laid out for them over the Christmas break. When they come back in January, they will never have worked as hard as they’re going to work this spring, this winter in that weight room, on that field to prepare the team to represent East Carolina University the way it deserves to be represented.” Strength and conditioning coach John Williams was one of the major catalysts for the success of Houston’s squads at James Madison, and he has installed the foundation of his plan to make the Pirates tougher and stronger. His work isn’t finished by a long shot, but no one questions the importance of his program to the long-term fortunes of ECU’s teams.
These final two quotes speak for themselves, because they are gems of perspective and glimmers of hope as we reflect on those promising days of one year and one week ago:
• Houston: “The way we train, the way we practice, is going to be reflective of how we play. I’m not naïve enough to think that we’re going to be able to turn around tomorrow and be what my vision is for this program. It’s going to take a lot of hard work.”
• Gilbert: “I knew what a rich history this institution had, and that really excited me. I feel like there’s tremendous growth here, and opportunity and potential, and that’s why I chose to be here.”