The plans and sacrifices East Carolina made for the Military Bowl were squelched Sunday with the announcement that Boston College could not play in the game scheduled for Monday at 2:30 p.m. at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium.
The news broke as much of Pirate Nation, including the team, coaches and support staff, had already traveled for the Pirates’ first bowl game since the 2014 season. Some fans who were on their way to a Sunday evening reception at The Graduate Hotel in Annapolis that the Pirate Club had planned, basically made a U-turn and headed home when they were notified.
ECU athletic director Jon Gilbert and Pirates coach Mike Houston held a news conference via Zoom within an hour of the official notice of cancellation.
“Obviously I’m very disappointed for our student athletes, our coaches, staff, our fans, just the entire East Carolina fan base. I’m very disappointed in that regard,” Gilbert said..
BC reportedly had over 40 players unavailable due to COVID protocols, injuries, opt-outs and transfers. ECU had dealt with a much smaller group of COVID cases and the Pirates were in the final stages of game preparation.
“I do want to really clarify that the athletic director at Boston College, Pat Kraft and I, as well as the medical staff from East Carolina and Boston College, we’ve been talking multiple times over the past couple of days,” Gilbert said. “We knew that certainly there were COVID issues and then made the final decision this morning based on where they were. …
“We did have five positives on East Carolina, a couple that obviously were players, but our medical staff, we did a really good job of mitigating it and coming up with arrangements to isolate and quarantine those individuals. And we were certainly ready to play the game.
“I do feel for Boston College and their players and that institution as well. They traveled to D.C. They were practicing. They wanted to play this game. Pat Kraft, … was very disappointed that they were not going to be able to play as well.”
Gilbert absolved the Eagles of blame although it appears ECU did a much better job of dealing with the resurgent virus. The ECU AD also said refunds are planned for those who purchased tickets.
“This was not something where it was in anyone’s control,” Gilbert said. “I just feel really bad for all involved that we’re not able to play the game. Obviously, we’re working through multiple logistics, getting the team back.
“There will be a process for refunds for those individuals that will want a refund. We’ll also set up something where those individuals, if they want to donate their ticket to the Pirate Club, they’ll be able to do that.”
The Military Bowl has a reported payout of $2,066,990 that apparently will not be distributed. The Pirates become the third American Athletic Conference team to have a bowl canceled so league revenue stands to be severely impacted. Memphis was scheduled to play in the Hawaii Bowl against Hawaii before the Rainbow Warriors bowed out due to COVID. That was also the basis for Virginia not playing in the Fenway Bowl against Southern Methodist.
“Obviously, we’ll have game expenses with little to no revenue coming in from the game,” Gilbert said. “Just a lot of things that we’re working through at this time. … Obviously, I am anticipating little or no payout. Most everyone will have the opportunity for a refund if they don’t choose to donate it to the Pirate Club. So there are quite a few expenses we’re going to have to absorb. I don’t have an exact number on what that is right now. And if I gave you a number, it’d be a wild guess, and I’d prefer not to do that.
“But the team has really been practicing in Greenville since graduation, since school got out. And then we let the players off for a couple days where they went home and then we traveled to Annapolis or D.C. on (Dec.) 23rd and have been in a hotel since then. So the expenses are going to be significant.”
Telling the team
Houston was tasked with telling the team that they would not be playing in a scenario they had been looking forward to since becoming bowl eligible with a 30-29 overtime win at Memphis on Nov. 13.
“It was very, very challenging to inform the team this morning,” Houston said. “I felt good about us being able to play the game on Monday from both side’s standpoint, as late as this morning. And just our kids, they’ve had a great week of preparation. We’ve had some COVID issues. We had a couple of starters that would’ve been out, but I’ll tell you Herb Reinhard (assistant athletic director for medical services at ECU) and our athletic training staff just did an outstanding job working with the student athletes and setting up some protocols and some things to really kind of isolate and try to keep things as safe as possible so that we didn’t have a huge outbreak.
“And I think that the dedication that the kids had, they made some sacrifices and didn’t do some things you would usually do during a bowl game, because they were very motivated to play this game.
“I’m just really saddened for them. I hate it for the Boston College kids also. It would’ve been a great game. I’m just sad for our seniors. They were heartbroken. Taking over three years ago where the program was and then where we are today, those seniors have been the ones that have been kind of the glue that’s helped us through this. And this has been their motivation to get in a bowl game and play a bowl game. And, they were motivated to win the bowl game. And I hate it for them, but it’s just not a good situation for those young men.”
There were repercussions throughout Pirate Nation. Over 5,100 tickets had been sold from ECU’s allotment as of Dec. 21.
“Our fan base too,” Houston said “This has rallied them. This group of student athletes has brought our fan base back and there’s purple everywhere around D.C. and Annapolis the last day or so. And I’ve showed the kids a message this morning from an alum about the purple flags all up and down the interstate headed to Annapolis.
“I hate it for our fans. There’s so many families I’ve seen just since the announcement came out in the lobby and around the hotel that they’ve spent a lot of resources to get here, to be here to support these student athletes. And so I’m disappointed for everyone. I hate that it turned out like this, but so proud of our young men, proud of our seniors, proud of our team, proud of what they’ve accomplished this year.”.
A lot of planning went into the bowl game.
“They had a great experience this week,” Houston said of his team. “Jake Kirkendall (director of football operations) and J.J. McLamb (executive associate athletic director for internal operations) and the Capitol Hilton did just an incredible job hosting us. And the student athletes have had just an incredible week. A great week of practice, but a great week around D.C., a great week of experiencing a bowl game. It’s just disappointing that this is the way it ends.”
No impromptu plans
Although Memphis and SMU would appear to be possible opponents for a rescheduled postseason game, Gilbert said there are no such plans.
“There is not,” Gilbert said. “Our season is concluded. Our team will travel back late today. Obviously with the ball game, the date that they’ve been there since the 23rd of December logistically, it is just not possible. And so we’re going to release our student athletes to go home, spend some time with the family, and then we’ll move on and look for them to return in January when school starts.”
Situation progressed rapidly
Gilbert knew Kraft when he was the AD at Temple.
“We had a prior relationship,” Gilbert said. “We started communicating, I believe it was Christmas Eve or Christmas morning that they were having positives. And, so if you look at, I’m talking about ECU now, the majority of our, if not all, of our team and coaching staff, we’re all vaccinated. And, so we were only testing individuals that showed symptoms. So if you test an individual that shows symptoms, typically the process on quarantine — I’m going back to the old model. If you were a close contact, you had to quarantine for 14 days.
“Now, the only thing we were doing was testing close contacts three to five days after their exposure. And so, we were in a very good place where we could have played the game and wanted to play the game. And I do believe Boston College really did want to play the game. They traveled to D.C. and were practicing. And I could sense the disappointment in Pat’s voice when, they had to walk in the room as well and tell their players at where they’re practicing, that they couldn’t play either. So I just feel bad all the way around.”
Houston said the team began to take precautions as the threat of COVID increased.
“Yes, that’s what was done,” said the third-year Pirates coach. “When we started having a few issues. I mean our kids stayed in the hotel. We’ve been completely masked. We’ve isolated anybody that got contact traced. We started that a few days ago. So that’s what I was saying is we drastically cut back on the bowl experience when we started having issues.”
More practices, reps
Despite the circumstances of not playing, ECU got in a lot of practices since the end of the regular season, a developmental factor that will help the program going forward.
“Absolutely,” Houston said. “And, the development has been critically been missed in this program and so, that’s been a big positive of this.
“We can keep on beating on we’re not going to be able to play the game. Everybody knows we’re not going to get to play the game. But just the experience this week of being here for a bowl week is so critical for our program because the kids in this program have never experienced this.
“They had no idea. You could talk to them about what a bowl is like, but they have never experienced anything like this. So I think just the taste of this is so critical for the future of our program and especially with a roster so young. It’s only going to benefit us moving forward. So I think this was a tremendous next step for our program this season and this postseason.”
There was little in the way of a silver lining for the seniors.
“That’s what gets you,” Houston said, “Bruce Bivens, Fernando Frye, Sean Bailey, Justin Chase, D.J. Ford, just all these seniors. Bruce and Aaron, Bruce Bivens and Aaron Ramseur, the two inside linebackers, we talked about it afterwards and I mean, they’re in tears. They came here to do this, and they went through such a dark time and now to have the program turn the way it has and to be on the cusp of playing in their first bowl game of their college career…..
“It’s the only bowl game that they would’ve played in, in college, and to have that taken away, it’s been devastating. And I really hurt for those seniors. And I had a chance to have some time with each one of them since we’ve informed them and just tell them, number one, how much I care about them and I’m here to support them in any way with what the next step in life is, but just to thank them and what they mean to this program is just so … words cannot properly convey. … They went through a lot and I hate it for them.”