After a fast but thorough search, East Carolina football coach Mike Houston introduced new offensive coordinator John David Baker on Monday.
Baker said there will be an 8-month plan to make the program more productive offensively after averaging 17.3 points per game during a 2-10 season in 2023. The Pirates finished in a 3-way tie for 124th among the Football Bowl Subdivision’s 130 teams in terms of scoring average.
The Pirates will look to establish the running game, attack vertically through the air, look for quarterbacks and other personnel needs in the transfer portal and possibly adjust the offensive coaching staff to provide the new play caller with the needed tools.
“Exciting day for Pirate football, and excited about this announcement,” Houston said. ” … We started this process, and really looking nationally for the right fit for our next offensive coordinator here, from the start, John David really stood out.
“As I went through everything and got to know him better, the biggest thing is I talked to people that had worked with him at multiple stops. It became very, very clear that he was the clear cut choice to come here and lead our offense.
“Just excited about this moment, and excited about him and what he’s going to bring to Pirate football. I think our fan base is going to be energized by him. Our players are going to be energized by him and his style of play, and just really look forward to seeing the new look offense on the field this fall.”
Baker at the podium
Baker worked most recently as co-offensive coordinator and tight ends coach at Ole Miss.
“Just want to say how appreciative I am,” Baker said. “Coach Houston and Jon Gilbert (ECU athletic director) for believing in me and giving me the chance to come here. I truly believe this is a special university and a special program, that the sky is really the limit, or else I wouldn’t be here.”
Baker was looking to take the next step in his career after helping the Rebels to a 10-2 record this season, a No. 11 national ranking and a Peach Bowl berth against Penn State on Dec. 30. Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin has allowed Baker to call plays in intrasquad settings.
“The next step for me and my career was to go run my own show and call plays,” Baker said. “That was the first thing. But when you look at this conference (American Athletic), it’s a great conference with a lot of good schools and programs and so the chance to go do that at what I consider a high level and a great conference was something that I felt very strongly about. And then once I got into it and started talking to Coach Houston more and more and got a feel for the kind of person he was. It was really a no-brainer for me.”
Style of play
Baker expounded on what his unit will look like.
“It’s going to be one that you feel like is always on the attack,” he said. “We’re going to be extremely aggressive. We’re going to take our shots and we’re going to play at a pretty good tempo. That’s something that I firmly believe in.
“Obviously that’s something that we’ve done the last three years at Ole Miss and had a ton of success. It’s going to be simple for our kids. They’re going to be able to go play and anytime they step on the grass step in between the white lines, they’re going to know exactly what they’re doing. They’re going to know how to do it really fast. So in a nutshell, I would say that’s what it is. It’s going to be an aggressive style, one that I think the fans will find really exciting.”
Baker plans a run first offense.
“For us, everything starts in the run game,” he said. “I think sometimes just with my background, there’s probably a little bit of a misconception of getting tagged as an air raid guy. And don’t get me wrong, we’ve got a lot of those principles in what we do. But for me, everything starts in the run game and builds off of that, whether it be RPO’s (run pass options) or play action game.
“Everything starts up front and when we get the run game rolling, that’s when this thing gets really, really special.”
Getting started at ECU
Baker planned to hit the ground running in his new post with a break for the Peach Bowl.
“Just to be really clear, I’m an East Carolina Pirate and my whole focus is on the Pirates and going to make sure we go add the pieces that we need to go compete for a championship next year,” Baker said. “That is my whole focus over the next few weeks up until signing day and as the transfer portal stays open through December, so I’ll be on the road obviously. Going to see our commits, go see our kids as fast as possible, get in front of them so they know me, and I know them.
“And then really the bowl game came down to just Coach Kiffin one, he and I having a great relationship, but also every one of those kids in that tight end room at Ole Miss I recruited. And so I sat in their living rooms with their parents and their homes and brought them to Ole Miss and when you sit down for a season, you ask those kids to commit for 12 months. Let’s go do something special. And so Coach Kiffin has been gracious enough to give me the opportunity to go finish that out with them at the appropriate time. But my whole focus is here on this program and making sure we’re going to get the pieces that we need to go compete right now.”
Qualities of a quarterback
Baker was asked what he looks for in evaluating quarterbacks.
“The first thing he’s got to be a proven leader,” Baker said. “He has got to be tough. Those are the first two things you got to look at because I can’t ask that guy to get in the huddle and those other 10 guys look at him and them not know that or feel that. So, he’s got to be that.
“From an attribute standpoint, we love a guy that’s extremely accurate. I feel like that’s something that you can’t really coach. You can tweak some mechanic things on guys. You can fix their feet here and there, but for the most part, if a guy’s accurate, he’s accurate. And so that’s something that we look for a lot.
“And then we love an athletic guy having the ability to mix in some quarterback run game when we need it, get yourself out of trouble because a lot of times, and we’ve found it with the guy that we’ve got at Ole Miss, Jaxson (Dart) does a great job of bailing us out when things don’t go well. And so having that extra element is something that we want to try and find as well.”
Finding a quarterback who checks Baker’s boxes will be at the top of his shopping list.
“That will be my main focus because if we don’t have a quarterback, nothing else really matters,” he said. “In this offense, in any offense if you don’t have a quarterback, things get really, really hard. And so my job is to go find some guys that add to the pieces that we’ve got in the room and the guy may be on campus already.
“We don’t know that. That’s for us to go figure out over the next eight months, but I do know this: the more guys, more quality guys that we can add to the room and create real competition in there, somebody’s going to come out on the other side and they’re going to be the guy that we want. And so that’s my whole focus. That’s everybody on this coaching staff’s focus is going to just add guys to that room so we can get a real competition and figure out who the guy’s going to be.”
No prior history
Baker had no prior history with Houston but did his homework on his new boss.
“I’ve known Coach Houston for all of about two weeks maybe,” Baker said. “He and I, we had no previous relationship, had a first phone call a week and a half ago maybe, but just like Coach Houston probably did a lot of research on me, I kind of did the same and just reached out to as many people as I possibly knew that had any kind of connection to him because that was my whole deal was, just like it was mentioned earlier, I was in a great situation at Ole Miss and loved it, loved it there, loved living in Oxford. And so for me to go anywhere or leave there, it had to be the right situation and more importantly with the right people because if you’re not with the right people, this thing, this is not real fun.
“We spend way too many hours up here working and trying to do things right that if you’re with people you don’t want to spend a lot of time with, it can get miserable real fast. And so once I got to know Coach, I started to realize very quickly he’s the type of man built on the right things, as I like to say, he’s cut from the same cloth as I am. And so that was something I felt strongly about and felt comfortable in coming here.”
Baker has worked with a who’s who in developing as a coach.
“I’ve had a unique career path,” Baker said. “I do not take a ton of credit for the things that I know or the offense that I run mostly because I feel fortunate I’m who I am and where I am today because of the guys I’ve been around. I’m 33 years old. I’ve worked at four different schools now and just the guys that I’ve worked with starting even all the way back when I played in college. My head coach was Chris Thompson who’s the associate head coach at Florida State.
“My high school head coach was Sterlin Gilbert who was offensive coordinator at University of Texas a few years ago. And then on to North Texas working for Seth Littrell, who obviously in the state of North Carolina did a great job at UNC. Graham Harrell, Clay Helton, Jeff Lebby, Lane Kiffin, those are guys that I’ve gotten to sit in rooms with for a lot of years and kind of develop what it will look like in the fall.
Like I said earlier, got to spend a lot of time in the air raid. Credit for the things that I know or the offense that I run mostly because I feel fortunate I’m who I am and where I am today because of the guys I’ve been around. I’m 33 years old. I’ve worked at four different schools now and just the guys that I’ve worked with starting even all the way back when I played in college (Abilene Christian).”
Impressions of new home
Baker talked about his impressions of ECU and Greenville before becoming a Pirate.
“I knew a lot of people just from my ties to kind of that whole Mike Leach tree as far as guys that had worked here before,” Baker said, “Clay McGuire, Brandon Jones, those guys that were here with Lincoln (Riley) and them. And those were guys that I called during the process of like, ‘Hey, what do you think of this place? What do you think of Greenville?’ All those things. And every one of them said the same thing and they’re like, ‘Dude, that place is awesome. It is a legit place that the sky’s the limit.’
“That and just seeing it from afar. Obviously you have a ton of crossover tape and just seeing this place, seeing the fan base, that was probably one of the things that attracted me the most. Coming from an SEC school in a small college town, you get that same feel here. This is an SEC town now and these people care about this program and that’s what fires me up, because now we’re going to go put something on that green grass that these guys are going to really like to watch every Saturday.”
ECU’s defense was an attractive element of the OC job. The Pirates ranked 43rd in the FBS, allowing 22.4 points per game.
“Full transparency it was,” Baker said. “And it’s knowing that they have pieces coming back on defense and what Coach (Blake) Harrell (defensive coordinator) and those guys were able to do last year. Knowing that coming here, all we really need to do is fix the offense. I felt very confident in being able to do that and that’s why when I talk to our kids later today is making sure that gets conveyed to them.
“This is not a 2-year plan. This is not a 3-year plan. We got eight months to go get this thing right because we can go do something really special next season and so making sure our guys understand that and have a sense of urgency about doing that.”
Houston said multiple factors were in Baker’s favor.
“I don’t think it was necessarily one thing as much as just who he is as a complete person and coach,” Houston said. “Some of the things that stood out from talking to the people that had been with him at multiple different stops — his work ethic, his character, his knowledge of what he’s doing, all those stood out at every stop. I think he is viewed in the college football landscape as a rising star. A guy that as he said is prepared for this moment.
“It came down to, I think the style of play will fit us here for what I wanted to go to and I wanted to be much more aggressive and I wanted something that was going to attract our fans and recruits. And so I think we got all of that with John David.”