Projections have East Carolina headed for a variety of bowl destinations ranging from Fenway Park to Myrtle Beach to Birmingham to Shreveport. ECU athletic director Jon Gilbert elaborated on the possibilities Thursday.
The American Athletic Conference championship game, which sends No. 22 Central Florida to No. 18 Tulane on Saturday (ABC, 4 p.m.) will be the catalyst for the slotting process for AAC teams.
“It really kind of starts at the top, meaning we know that our champion is going to play in a New Year’s Six Bowl, and it trickles down from there,” Gilbert said. “The pecking order though, is whoever wins the champ game plays in a New Year’s Six Bowl, and just from the projections it looks like that’s going to be the Cotton Bowl.
“Then the next pick is one of the ESPN-owned bowls. So, ESPN would pick one school and say, ‘We’re going to slot this school,’ and I’m clearly making this up. … ‘Cincinnati, you’re going to Fenway.’ Then the Military Bowl picks, and the Military Bowl will say, ‘Hey, we want this school,’ or whatever. Then the next pick is another ESPN bowl, and then the next pick is the Independence Bowl. Again, very speculative on my part, but they’re probably going to look at somebody geographically. Then the rest of the picks are all ESPN bowls is the way the pecking order works.”
The third annual Myrtle Beach Bowl (Dec. 19 at Coastal Carolina, Conway, SC) would be a relatively close destination for Pirate Nation.
“I would say certainly that there’s a possibility, but at this point what happens is ESPN, who controls a lot of these bowls, they’re looking for the best matchup TV wise, and they’re looking for the best matchup that will draw people.
“That’s how it works. The benefit is, I’ve been told by multiple people, East Carolina is kind of like a Swiss Army knife. We could go to multiple bowl locations, and they would all be happy with it based on our brand and our fan base. I feel positive about we’re going to get in a solid bowl, and I think it’ll be a good experience for our student athletes and our fans.”
Bowl selections are not necessarily in order of the AAC standings.
“They don’t necessarily have to pick in the league standings, although I don’t think ESPN on their first pick, whatever team they take, they’re not going to take a 6-6 team over an 8-win football team,” Gilbert said. “They won’t do that. But will they, in the pecking order on when they pick, will they pick a 6-6 team over a 7-5 team? I think that might could happen depending on location and matchup.”
Gilbert said he expects ECU’s bowl destination to be finalized by Sunday at 3 p.m.
The $60 million Pirates Unite fund-raising effort includes an indoor practice facility for football.
“I’m thrilled with where our fundraising efforts have gone through the Pirate Club,” Gilbert said. “Ryan Robinson and his staff have done just an excellent job in building relationships with our donor base, and then our donor base has done such a good job of investing in East Carolina athletics. While the campaign is going really, really well, I don’t have a timeframe on when we would break ground.
“The naming opportunity for the indoor building is still available. That’s at $5 million. We’ve talked to a few people about that opportunity, but that has not been finalized yet. We continue to kind of work through that. But if you notice over the last several weeks, we continue to announce multiple gifts that are coming in, and we’ll continue to do that through the end of the year. I do think for the year, we’re headed in a really good place, almost where we could have our best year ever, which would send a really strong message.”
ECU was second in the AAC in home attendance in football in 2022 with an average of 41,372. UCF was first at 41,542.
“We sold out TowneBank Tower for the first time this year.,” Gilbert said. “Season ticket sales were, I think, at our highest number since 2014. We were a little over 16,000. It trended very much in the right direction this year. I think that speaks to a stable football program and putting a really good product on the field.”
Approval by the Rose Bowl on Wednesday cleared the way for the College Football Playoff to expand from four teams to 12 in 2024.
“I am in favor of that expansion,” Gilbert said. “I do think it is important. There are only 130 Division 1 football playing schools, and I think with a 12-team playoff, everyone can say that there is a pathway to the championship, much like the college basketball tournament. I know teams get left out and whatnot, but when you look at college basketball, everybody can say, ‘Hey, we have a pathway to the championship.’
“I think with a four-team playoff, that’s not necessarily the case. You don’t have a pathway. I think 12 is a good number, and I think that it will create a pathway for other leagues to make it there and potentially upset a team in an early round and create a lot more excitement around the playoff.”
Future football scheduling
ECU will open the 2023 football season at Michigan, which is currently No. 2 in the CFP standings.
“I do think that we are in a good spot as it relates to our football schedule,” Gilbert said. “Next year we open up with Michigan at Michigan, Marshall at home, at App and Gardner-Webb at home to round out the nonconference schedule.
“We’re relatively full. In 2026 we need an FCS game. Right now, in the books, we have App at home, at Boise, West Virginia at home that year. That’s in 2026. As it relates to state schools, obviously we play N.C. State again at State in ’25, and then they come back to Dowdy-Ficklen in 2028. We also have Wake Forest home and home, that’s in ’27 in ’28. Wake at home in ’27, at Wake in ’28.
“We return the game to South Carolina in 2027, and I’m going backwards here. Then back in ’25, we’ve got the return game with BYU. So, a lot of things on the schedule. Really if you said, ‘When do you need games next?’ We need an FCS game in ’26, we need an FCS game in 2028. Then really starting back in ’29, right now ’29 and beyond, we don’t have many games on the schedule, so we’ll get to work on that here in short order.”
Cincinnati, Houston and UCF leave the AAC after the current school year. Scheduled to join are Alabama-Birmingham, Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Rice and Texas-San Antonio.
“We’ve got three good teams that are leaving the league,” Gilbert said. “I think there’s opportunity for others, including East Carolina, to kind of step up and be in that upper tier. We do have some really good teams coming in the league. … Obviously UAB, North Texas and Texas-San Antonio are all bowl eligible this year. Those are good football teams, and I think our fan base, when they see us play a team like that, they’ll realize that they’re bringing a pretty good brand of football in.
“The other piece that I think is important is having a conference opponent like Charlotte that’s close enough to drive to. Right now, our closest conference opponent in football is Navy, but if you look at a full member, it’s probably Temple. Well, we really don’t consider Temple as a rival. I’m not saying that Charlotte is automatically a rival, but I think it’s one of those things that we can develop it into a rivalry, and I like the fact that it is one game where our fan base can really drive to.
East Carolina started 5-1 in men’s basketball but a poor second half at Old Dominion on Saturday and a setback from previously winless South Carolina State have the Pirates at 5-3 going into a visit from Campbell (4-3) on Friday at 7 p.m.
“I am pleased with where our basketball program is, and any time there’s a coaching change, it does take time,” Gilbert said. “I anticipated that there would be some games that may not go in our favor this year that you’re expected to win. Likewise, I expect to win some that maybe you’re not favored or expected to win, kind of like the Toledo game.
“I think it comes with growing pains where you have a young roster. I really love the team and the way they compete. I think early on we saw that this is a team that’s going to play hard for 40 minutes. They’re not going to quit, and they’re almost never out of a game. Those are really good qualities. But certainly we still have growing to do. Disappointing loss the other night, but I talked to Coach (Michael) Schwartz the next day, and no one is more disappointed about the loss than him and our student athletes. We’re going to continue to grow as a team, but I believe the future is bright, and I feel very confident with the staff we have in place.”
Compensation for athletes for use of their name, image likeness, and immediate playing time when transferring have had a dramatic effect on college athletics.
“It’s important for our fan base to know that name, image and likeness, or short, NIL, it is a sandbox that we need to play in,” Gilbert said, “It’s really important. The world has changed, and players are able to be compensated now. We do have quite a few players that are on some sort of NIL opportunity. I think if I could stress one thing to business owners and individuals that care about East Carolina, is to getting them to help in NIL deals and really stress that there’s some big schools that throw out a bunch of money, really high dollars. That’s really not what we’re talking about at East Carolina. If we can give kids a couple extra hundred dollars a month in NIL opportunities, meals at restaurants in town, those things go a long way.
“The reality is, your better players at whatever school you’re at, whether it’s East Carolina or Ohio State, your better players are getting offered NIL deals on the side from other schools to transfer. That’s just the reality of how things are going. One thing that I am really pleased about, our student athletes love being Pirates. They love Greenville, and they love being here. They’re having a really good experience, but they also get lured by being compensated by other places. The more that we can find opportunities, no matter what that amount is, the better off we’re going to be.”
The fan experience at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium included some long lines at concessions for the season opener against N.C. State.
“We got better throughout the year.” Gilbert said. “We continue to work with our concessions partner on what changes can be made. It’s one of those things that we need to look at in the offseason. What infrastructure do we need to invest in to make the concession experience a better experience?
“But at the end of the day, our concessions partner, it’ll be whoever the campus concession partner is, because we need the kitchens on campus and the personnel on campus to help run game day. It’s not really feasible for us to go with some separate partner altogether than what campus has because of the kitchens and the personnel that the campus side has.”
Gilbert was asked about challenges facing athletics.
“There are challenges, but I look at them as we’ve got multiple opportunities,” he said. “You continue to want to be competitive on the field or court, whatever sport you’re playing. You want to make sure that your fans are having a good experience at whatever event they’re going to. Then we’ve got to continue to drive revenue. If we all want the program that we’re all expecting to have at East Carolina, that takes revenue to do it, and continuing to find ways to drive revenue where you can invest in your programs is a really important piece.”
High schools vs. the portal
As immediate playing time has been granted to transfers. recruiting has moved away to a degree from high school athletes.
“The trend I think is going more towards transfers, certainly than it was at one time, as opposed to recruiting high school athletes,” Gilbert said.
Recruiting varies by sport at ECU.
“That policy is coach to coach on how they build their roster,” Gilbert said. “Some coaches have to go strictly to the portal. I think you’ve got to find the balance of where you’re bringing some high school kids in and developing them, but also getting a portal student-athlete because you have film on them and can tell that they’ve kind of been through the fire and know what you’re getting.”
AAC vs. ?
Gilbert said that the AAC has discussed a challenge series in basketball similar to the just completed ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The ACC announced this week that it would be moving to a challenge series with the SEC.
“I think it would have some interest,” Gilbert said of possible matchups involving the AAC against another league.