East Carolina football coach Mike Houston has been busy. Within a span of a couple of weeks, his program has hosted the No. 4 team in the nation and accepted an invitation to the Military Bowl in Annapolis.
After guiding the Pirates to their first winning season since 2014, Houston also was rewarded with an $11.5 million contract through 2026.
Although ECU was on the short end of a 35-13 score when Cincinnati closed the regular season 12-0 at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Nov. 26, Houston was pleased with the atmosphere.
“You’re playing a really, really good football team in a big time environment,” Houston said. “That was a stadium that people come here to play at East Carolina to play in a setting like that. And, certainly, I hope that we can continue to improve everything from the program to the fan support to where we have that kind of stadium every single home game because I think that’s important to prepare a team for those moments.
“Our kids just played really, really hard, I thought we were extremely physical, and I thought we had our shots. Cincinnati made some plays in the first half to go to halftime with a lead (21-3). I thought our kids battled back in the third quarter, and, boy, when you have the ball 1st-and-goal at the four and, if you score, you’re down eight with 11 minutes to go in the game against the No. 4 team in the country, you’re right there with them. … Just had a penalty, had poor execution on third down, and then had a mistake on the field goal that put us in a deeper hole and you can’t make those mistakes right there and knock off a team like that.”
The Bearcats blocked a filed goal and returned it for a touchdown for a 28-3 lead.
“If we’d have punched it in right there, would we have won the game?” Houston said. “I don’t know, but we’d have had a dang good shot and it’d made the last 11 minutes something to be seen there in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. I’m proud of the way our kids competed. I think it’s going to be a great point of reference in the off-season for our roster to continue to grow, to continue to improve, but what a great setting. And our players put us in a position to be in a nationally televised game the day after Thanksgiving, at home, with a lot of meaning on the line. Excited to be in a game like that, but that game’s in the rear view mirror now, so got to get ready for the next one.”
The Pirates (7-5) will face Boston College (6-6) on Dec. 27 at 2:30 p.m. (ESPN).
Quarterback Holton Ahlers has announced his plans to play for ECU in 2022. Ahlers has averaged 260.9 yards passing per game this season with 18 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
“Holton’s dream is to play in the NFL and I support him 100 per cent on that, so he was debating is this the right time to declare for the draft or not?” Houston said “He elected to return for his final season at East Carolina and we’re excited about that. It doesn’t change anything with the rest of the quarterback room, from my perspective. I’m still excited about the rest of those guys in there and I’m excited about that room moving forward to lead our program.
“And I know that everybody out there has an opinion and everybody out there wants to spin what’s going to happen, but the thing is, those kids in that room, it’s their decision, not anybody else’s. And we’re excited about that entire room. … When I took this job, I had a rookie quarterback and now, as we sit here going into the bowl game and going into next year, I have a very experienced, proven leader that’ll be our starting quarterback next year.”
Contract important for recruits
Signing day is Dec. 15 and those joining the ECU program will have an assurance that Houston will be coaching throughout their college careers. Houston was in the third year of a 5-year deal before the new contract was put in place.
“The biggest thing is, from a recruiting perspective, it gives us stability in recruiting,” Houston said. “Lots of rumors start popping up and everybody we’re recruiting against is throwing that stuff at our commits and at the guys that we’re recruiting, so it certainly helps, from a stability standpoint, for parents and recruits and current players on the roster here. I took this job because this is somewhere I really wanted to be.
“I signed the contract extension because this is somewhere I really want to be, and we’ve grown to think of this as home. My family’s transition has been a very positive one for us. The kids are doing really, really well here. Amanda’s feeling very comfortable here in Greenville and very at home here in Greenville. We’ve made great friends, and we love East Carolina. It’s something that I’m glad it’s out of the way and it gives my family and I some just stability for the future for both our work and, most importantly, our home base.”
Indoor practice facility
The Pirates may be closer to a much-needed indoor practice facility as a result of discussions that preceded the contract.
“We’ve been talking about it a lot and, when Jon Gilbert (athletic director) first approached me about the extension, he said, ‘I want you to give some thought to what’s important to you.’ And I said, ‘I can tell you right now,’ I said, ‘stability for my family, my assistant coaches’ salaries have to come up to a competitive level in the AAC, and we have to have an indoor practice facility.’ And I said, ‘Those three things, that’s what’s important to me. We have to have that for this program.’
“I am so excited about the support of Jon Gilbert and Chancellor (Philip) Rogers and our board of trustees and our donors. There’s a lot of people that have jumped on board with all of this and are behind the scenes pushing with all of this. And I’m excited about the reality of an indoor practice facility. I would anticipate that you’re going to hear more news on that at the beginning of the year.”
Return to Navy stadium
The Pirates will be back in Navy-Marine Corps Stadium for the bowl game. Owen Daffer’s game-ending 54-yard field goal provided a 38-35 win over Navy in that venue on Nov. 20.
“We’re honored to be a part of it and it’s a very prestigious bowl,” Houston said. “It is an easily drivable distance for our fan base. I think that’s what makes us an attractive participant for the bowl. It should be an opportunity for Pirate Nation, who have so passionately been waiting, excited for an opportunity to go to a bowl game.
“Again, it should be a great opportunity for us to fill that stadium up with the purple and gold. And we’re excited about the matchup. We’re facing an extremely tough opponent. Boston College is a very talented team and they’ll be healthy and rested and, when they are, they have the horses to do a lot of damage. So it’s going to be a great matchup for us. It’s going to be just a great opportunity for us.”
Benefit of extra practices
Extra practices for a bowl game are a developmental tool.
“It’s the other big perk that you get, and I’ve talked to so many of our young players,” Houston said Wednesday morning. “I just had one leave my office just a minute ago, young offensive lineman that has a huge upside, and I just impressed upon him the opportunity he has daily to just get a little bit better each day. If he does that, then you look up and, at the end of this month, then he’s going to be an improved player going into the spring.
“That’s the way you look at all of them. I’ve talked with several of the young guys that have been red-shirted, or haven’t played this year that I think have a bright future here. I’ve talked to so many of them just about taking advantage of this opportunity right now because, if you get just a little bit better every day, you’ll look up in six months and you’ll be a lot better. I think it’s a great opportunity for our roster as a whole, the ones that are returning, to use this time to make sure that we’re better players in January than we are right now.”
The Pirates won’t be home for Christmas, but they will get some time to go home before the bowl.
“Right now, we’re balancing out the schedule of practice with the final exam schedule,” Houston said. “We’ve got practice (Wednesday) and we got practice (Thursday). We’ll take Friday off. We have a lot of exams on Friday. We’ll practice Saturday and Sunday. We’ll take Monday off. We’ll practice Tuesday and Wednesday, and then I’m going to give the kids four days off. It gives a chance for the ones that are graduating to have some time around graduation there next Friday the 17th. …
“It gives kids time to go home and see their parents for Christmas, since we’ll be at the bowl site for Christmas day. It’s an opportunity just for them to get a little bit of a Christmas break since that’s being taken away, to a degree, by the bowl game. They’ll report back on the 19th, we’ll practice for three days, and then we’ll depart for D.C. on the 23rd, and just practice up there for a couple days before the bowl game.”
The ECU team will get to see some of the well-known landmarks in the nation’s capital.
“We’re going to take advantage of some of the things there in Washington, D.C. and try to incorporate in some things that our kids don’t get to experience every day,” Houston said. “We’re going to tour the African American History Museum one day. We’re going to tour Washington one day, and go see the White House, the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, Capitol Building, all those things. We’re trying to set up a deal to maybe visit one of the other historic sites up there and just try to work that in with the practice and the preparation.”
Houston said the game will remain the priority on the trip.
“The one thing that I’ve been constant with so far, that I’ll continue to be constant with our roster, is the most important thing is the game,” Houston said, “They’re very motivated to win this football game. And I can see that just in the way we practiced (Tuesday). (It was) a full-pad practice and it’s three weeks out from the bowl game and just their effort, enthusiasm, and focus (Tuesday) was really, really good. If we can maintain that over the course of the next three weeks and work in rest when we have those days off, then I think we’ll be ready to roll on the 27th.”
All-American Athletic Conference
The Pirates were 5-3 in the AAC in 2021. Houston talked about recognition for the league’s top players.
“I’m really excited for the guys that were named to the (All-AAC) team and so excited for Keaton (Mitchell, running back) and Owen (Daffer, kicker) to be named first team,” Houston said. “This is a good league and you can sit here … am I disappointed that Tyler Snead and Ja’Quan McMillian didn’t get first team? Yes. Am I disappointed that we didn’t have some other players that had really solid years get named to the team? Yes.
“But this is a really good league and there’s a lot of really good players in this league. I think that you probably feel like you got shorted, especially since you had a team that tied for third overall, to have no more players than that, you just say, ‘Okay, well, then how did we win the games we won? How are we competitive with the top teams? How did we take Houston to overtime?’ Yeah, you feel a little bit slighted, but I’m sure every coach feels that way.”
Bearcats in CFP
Cincinnati, ECU’s last opponent, will carry the AAC banner into the College Football Playoffs against No. 1 Alabama in the Cotton Bowl on Dec. 31 (3:30 p.m., ESPN). Warren Saba had two interceptions for the Pirates against the Bearcats.
“It’s great to see a program from our conference to be in that final four, to be in that college football playoff, and, yeah, I hope they win the whole thing,” Houston said. “But, just from our game, I thought they defended us really, really well in our game. They’ve got to cut down on a couple of the mistakes that they made offensively, because they’re not going to be able to make those mistakes against a team like Alabama, but, listen, I promise you, that’s what they’re hearing. It’ll be exciting to watch them play and, like I said, I hope they win.”