East Carolina football coach Mike Houston attended a news conference for the Birmingham Bowl in the host city on Thursday afternoon with Coastal Carolina interim coach Chad Staggs.
The Pirates (7-5) play the Chanticleers (9-3) for the first time on Tuesday, Dec. 27, at 6:45 p.m. (ESPN). That’s two days after Christmas in a region that has produced players for both programs.
“It’s great for their families,” Houston said. “A lot of it them, … having the team playing down here allows more of their family to come to games and you know, might have some relatives that haven’t been able to make it up to Greenville very much be able to come and see their relatives or sons or grandsons or whatever play in this venue.
“And so I think that’s exciting for those families. I think it’s always great to have your team in an area that’s so talent rich because it exposes the high school players in that area and to what Pirate football is. And so I think anytime you can travel and have that opportunity, I think that’s positive.”
ECU received a berth in the Military Bowl in Annapolis last year but that game was canceled due to COVID issues with Boston College.
Staggs has been defensive coordinator at Coastal. The Chanticleers have been through some changes with Jamey Chadwell leaving to be the coach at Liberty. Coastal quarterback Grayson McCall has announced he is transferring, but will play in the bowl.
The Chanticleers have players who will be having a homecoming.
“We have four guys from Alabama that are really excited,” Staggs said. “They may spend some time at home when we have some downtime. And we have numerous guys from the Georgia and Atlanta area that are excited. We played several games (in the region) and our teams (in the Sun Belt Conference) are pretty close.
“Our guys and know their families get to see the games. But it’s really cool to come to this game when you do recruit this area so hard. So we’re excited about that and I’m excited over Christmas break that they’re going to actually be that close not only to their football family but to their home, their family at home.”
Former N.C. State offensive coordinator Tim Beck will be the new coach at Coastal. Staggs has been busy with his additional responsibilities in the meantime.
Staggs was a late arrival at the news conference.
“You saw how I kind of stormed in here at the very end,” Staggs said. “That’s kind of been my last 10 days. It’s been exciting. The best thing, we got a rough run there the last couple weeks, but the first thing after Coach Chadwell left was I got them in the weight room and we got around each other and that’s the best way to wipe away a change is really kind get back on the field, weight room. And we’ve had a couple practices that we’ve been able to get in and they’ve been really exciting.
“They’ve had juice, obviously Grayson’s playing. That’s big for our team. He’s a leader and so it is really kind of business as usual. … The office staff, Coach (Willy) Korn (co-offensive coordinator) and Coach (Newland) Isaac (co-offensive coordinator) have been kind of doing their thing. I kind of do my thing on defense and we’ve been trying to watch as much video as we can involving recruiting and transition and all that kind of stuff.
“It’s just the world we live in, college football with the portal and all that stuff and you know, talk to your players about being resilient. You talk to them about overcoming, adapting and I mean that’s what they expect me to do as the leader of the team and that’s what I’m doing.”
Coastal is coming off a 45-26 loss at Troy in the Sun Belt championship on Dec. 3.
“A lot of that is more outside noise than inside noise,” Staggs said. “It’s always tough. I think the players understand that sometimes coaches have to make decisions that are best for their family. It’s always tough, but I’m kind of glad that we are stable in terms of what’s going on now and just looking forward to playing the game.”
Void at center for Pirates
The decision of starting center Avery Jones to enter the transfer portal has created a void the Pirates must fill before lining up at Protective Stadium.
“The biggest thing we want to do is give our team the best opportunity to go out and be competitive, win the ball game here on December 27th,” Houston said. “So fortunately we’ve been able to recruit a great amount of depth there on the offensive front. We have multiple guys that are going to be prepared to play on game day and so I look forward to seeing those guys go out and compete.”
Triple option elements
Coastal will present option elements in its offense. The Pirates lost to Navy, 23-20, in double overtime on Sept. 24. The Midshipmen run an option attack.
“Anytime you face a triple-option based team, it’s always an extreme challenge,” Houston said. “Just coming from my background running triple option at Lenoir-Rhyne and The Citadel, I’ve witnessed what could happen if you face someone that’s not very prepared. Fortunately we do have a little bit of time, most of the time you’re trying to get ready for a team like that in a week and it’s just a real challenge.”
Adjustments for the holiday
The coaches talked about celebrating Christmas while getting ready to play a bowl game.
“Well, it’s been a little different this game versus last game because you’re at the site longer and you’re there Christmas, so you are trying to incorporate so many things that you’re able to do within the city, but also try to do Christmas for the guys as a family,” Staggs said. “Your kids are with you, so you’re trying to implement a night with hot chocolate and gingerbread houses, and we’re doing a candlelight Christmas Eve service for them.
“We’re excited about being able to explore the city. I haven’t been able to get into the city as much. When you’re recruiting you’re kind of in and out a lot. So that’s kind of how we’re trying to implement things over the holiday.”
The Pirates did some sightseeing last year before the Military Bowl was called off.
“The biggest thing is it’s an experience for our student athletes, and so we’ve tried to focus on trying to show them as much of Birmingham as we can,” Houston said. “Certain parts of the day we’re going to be focused on preparing for the game, and then the other parts of the day we want them to enjoy each other and enjoy the greater Birmingham area. So we focused on that a lot. As Chad said, the families will be here and the student athletes are away from their families for Christmas, and obviously that’s a significant holiday for all of us.
“Santa will show up on Christmas Eve, so we’ll make sure that happens and then we will also have a service Christmas Eve to honor the true reason for the holiday. Outside of that, we’re just really excited about the opportunity to come down here and play a bowl game.”
0-for-bowl in Birmingham
ECU lost the inaugural Papajohns.com Bowl, the forerunner of the Birmingham Bowl, 24-7, to South Florida on Dec. 23, 2006, at Legion Field.
The Pirates were on the short end of a 28-20 score with Florida in the Birmingham Bowl at the conclusion of the 2014 season.
Maybe the third time will be the charm for ECU.
“We’re extremely excited about this opportunity to be down here and compete in this game,” Houston said..”Excited about the matchup with Coastal Carolina. Obviously, we’re two institutions that are regionally fairly close so having not met on the football field before should create a good bit of excitement for our fan bases down here. Excited to be back in the city of Birmingham. Certainly, East Carolina University has a rich tradition down here, playing down here in the bowl game, the third time in Birmingham.”
Houston has coached in Birmingham before.
“When I was at Citadel, we played Samford each year, so I’ve played down here in Birmingham before,” said the Pirates coach. “So, I’m just excited to be back in this great city. I know the Pirates are going to turn out. So just be ready for purple and gold here in a couple of weeks. They’ll flood the restaurants and the establishments. … The Pirates party. So, thanks a lot for having us here.”