College football is much different than when Mike Houston came to East Carolina as coach after the 2018 season.
Houston had successful tenures at Lenoir-Rhyne, The Citadel and James Madison using a formula of recruiting and developing players within a culture of commitment to success.
Those factors are important, but there’s more involved these days with the dissolution of transfer restrictions and money from Name, Image, Likeness (NIL) for players.
The role that NIL money is playing across the landscape of college football is staggering.
A football player on full scholarship when the Pirates joined the major college ranks in 1977 after winning the Southern Conference, got room, board, books, tuition and $15 a month for laundry.
When a cost of attendance allowance went into effect at ECU, the payments to student-athletes, which included travel to campus from home and a meals subsidy, was $4,025 for 2015-16.
NIL money in some programs makes that compensation look like pocket change.
Stadium Talk reports that Colorado quarterback Shedeur Sanders has NIL deals totaling $4 million, roughly equivalent to the annual salary of the ECU coaching staff. Sanders’ endorsements from Gatorade, Tom Brady apparel and Beats by Dre look pretty good beside the annual salary of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy, who has a contract for $870,000 this year.
Shedeur Sanders is the youngest son of Buffaloes coach Deion Sanders. Older brother Shilo Sanders, a safety for Colorado, reportedly has NIL earnings of $910,000.
An NIL investment does not guarantee return. Colorado was 4-8 in 2023. Texas backup quarterback Arch Manning, nephew of legends Peyton and Eli Manning, and grandson of Archie Manning, reportedly had a $2.8 million NIL deal. He completed two of five passes as a freshman for the Longhorns, a value of $1.4 million per completion.
ECU did not get a quarterback out of the portal last year, relying on highly regarded recruit Mason Garcia, who had been in the program for three years. Garcia defied the recruit and develop philosophy and was eventually benched in favor of Alex Flinn.
The Pirates went from 8-5 with a bowl win in 2022 to 2-10 in 2023. Major losses from 2022 included veteran quarterback Holton Ahlers and running back Keaton Mitchell as well as some productive receivers.
Ahlers may have been a throwback in terms of his program loyalty. In contrast, Alabama had nine players get into the portal in a 15-minute span after a 27-20 College Football Playoff semifinal loss in overtime to Michigan in the Rose Bowl. One-loss Georgia has had 32 players exit to the portal or the NFL draft.
Ahlers played every snap he could for the Pirates, including an extra season due to COVID.
Money only goes so far, apparently. Quarterbacks Sam Hartman of Notre Dame and Drake Maye of North Carolina were each making $1.5 million in 2023 but each opted out of bowl games to prepare for the NFL.
There is little consistency in terms of motivation to transfer. Money, obviously, is a factor. Playing time is another. Some players want to be closer to home or just desire a change of scenery. Coaching changes can impact decisions. Sometimes, Football Championship Subdivision or lower level players want to see what they can do on a bigger stage. Sometimes Power Five backups see greener grass elsewhere. There are apparent lateral moves as well, within conferences and even between rival programs.
ECU has gone big with transfers in the past. Former coach Scottie Montgomery brought in five players who had been in other programs prior to the 2017 season. The group included Tyshon Dye (running back, Clemson), Gaelin Elmore (defensive end, Minnesota), Tim Irvin (defensive back, Auburn), Thomas Sirk (quarterback, Duke) and Korrin Wiggins (defensive back, Clemson).
The infusion of transfers didn’t work in 2017. The Pirates opened with a 34-14 loss at home to a seasoned James Madison team, coached by Houston, and went 3-9.
Transfers can have more impact now. The extent of roster makeover each season diminishes the likelihood that players will stay and develop within a program. The odds are longer against a player remaining four or five years in a program out of high school. The recruiting process really never ends for players that programs wish to retain.
There is a lot of illegal tampering from programs looking to poach players. Houston apparently turned in a Southeastern Conference program for pursuing Pirate safety Julius Wood after the 2022 season.
The portal itself is a flesh market. One ACC coach said the procedure in contacting prospective transfers usually involves an initial conversation with an agent and the discussion moves quickly to the money that the transfer potentially will receive. Programs that can’t ante up are weeded out.
ECU has an effort in place to support NIL agreements financially, Team Boneyard. A decision has evolved among backers as to whether they should give to the NIL-funding collective or donate to efforts to build an indoor practice facility.
Money is obviously an essential element of success and that puts the Pirates at a general disadvantage. Revenue has increased from the American Athletic Conference but is far from what Power Five conference members rake in.
Despite the obstacles, Houston is addressing the worst decline record-wise in school history in an active manner. New offensive coordinator John David Baker appears to have insight into more production from that unit. New offensive line coach Matt Mattox no doubt came with Baker’s approval. New safeties coach Damon Magazu summons memories of past success for the Pirates.
ECU will not face a national power on the road to start next season as they did with a 30-3 loss at Michigan to begin 2023.
The opening opponent in 2024 will be Norfolk State at home, which provides a much better chance of gaining some early confidence and momentum.
ECU continues to monitor the portal but has already added some promising pieces via the transfer route. Included in that group are quarterback Katin Houser, who threw for 1,132 yards and six touchdowns for Michigan State last season. The Pirates also have attracted receivers O’Mega Blake from South Carolina and Anthony Smith from N.C. State.
The Pirates secured commitments from cornerback Andrew Wilson-Lamp of West Virginia and offensive lineman Qae’shon Sapp of Florida State on Thursday.
Spring practice and preseason camp will be crucial in working new players and coaches into a well-functioning team.
ECU appears capable of balancing last season’s downturn with significant improvement as the Pirates figure out what works in this age of college football.