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Gilbert: I want to win and have fun

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New East Carolina athletics director Jon Gilbert holds an ECU jersey with Chancellor Cecil Staton, right, and special athletics adviser Dave Hart on Monday at the Murphy Center for Gilbert's introductory news conference.

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By RONNIE WOODWARD
The Daily Reflector

Monday, December 3, 2018

As he was flanked by East Carolina University Chancellor Cecil Staton and ECU special athletics adviser Dave Hart, new East Carolina athletics director Jon Gilbert described himself as a servant leader ready to bring wins and positivity back to the Pirates.

Gilbert comes from Southern Miss, and he was introduced Monday as the Pirates’ AD, hours after his contract was approved by the ECU Board of Trustee, which also approved the hire of Mike Houston as the Pirates’ new football coach. Houston will be formally introduced Tuesday.

Hart led both searches and said that Gilbert had a unique and driven role in finalizing Houston’s move from James Madison to ECU. Gilbert and Hart worked together previously at Tennessee and Alabama.

“I want to earn your trust, and I think that is important initially, to earn the trust of the entire Pirate faithful,” Gilbert said. “I am who I am, and I am pretty simple. I want to win, I want to do it the right way and I want to have fun.”

The AD position had been vacant since Jeff Compher accepted a $1.26 million buyout from the university in March. Gilbert held an initial meeting with the Pirate athletics staff Monday morning.

He is taking over during a time when the university is projecting the athletics department to be at a running budget deficit of more than $4 million by the end of this fiscal year. The Pirates have struggled through four straight losing seasons, the last three by coach Scottie Montgomery before he was dismissed last Thursday and ECU lost 58-3 at N.C. State on Saturday.

“I think a lot of it does start with the health and well-being of our football program, and I could be saying that for any other athletics program in the country that it starts there,” Gilbert said. “All of our programs are important here, but we need football to be healthy in order to survive financially. I’m hoping tomorrow will help start that healing process and that we can all come together and that both myself and (Houston) can build your trust and confidence to move forward as one. That is what we all need.”

ECU owes a $175,000 buyout to Southern Miss for hiring Gilbert, and $500,000 to James Madison for Houston. Gilbert will earn an annual base salary of $500,000 in addition to bonus opportunities for academic and on-field performances. Houston’s guaranteed salary begins at $1.3 million for his first season.

Gilbert is a graduate of Lenoir-Rhyne in Hickory, where he also played college football. Houston was head coach at Lenior-Rhyne from 2011-13 before going to The Citadel and then JMU, compiling an 80-25 career head coaching record.

Gilbert had been the lead candidate for the Pirates for a few weeks. UNC Wilmington’s Jimmy Bass also was a candidate late last week. Hart said he conducted two formal interviews.

“It is very important that we have an AD in place, and Jon is not just an AD, but he is an exceptional athletics director and administrator,” Hart said. “I asked Jon early on who his top three (football coach) candidates he would like to see and he said first and foremost, if we can get him, is Mike Houston. To watch all of that play out, you have to understand how unusual that is in this profession and for all of that to happen as quickly as it happened.”

Some Pirate coaches and Board of Trustees members were at Gilbert’s public introduction, and there was a sense of optimism after the event.

“I’m tired of people being negative and don’t live in a negative world, so I’m excited for Pirate Nation to get behind Jon and behind our new football coach,” said ECU baseball coach Cliff Godwin, who served on the AD search committee. “Southern Miss baseball coach Scott Berry said that (Gilbert) is an unbelievable leader and is a coaches’ AD and he gets it. I’m just excited, as an alum of East Carolina, that we have a leader who can direct us day in and day out, because we have been lacking that.”

Gilbert and Houston both signed five-year contracts with the Pirates.

“The buyouts will come from various funds,” ECU Board of Trustees Chairman Kieran Shanahan said. “We have rainy-day funds, and the university also collects interest on money that is held for us by the university. Sara Thorndike (vice chancellor for administration and finance) is doing a great job helping us move money to be able to make those commitments.”

Hart is expected to remain at East Carolina, in some capacity, past his contract as special athletics adviser to Staton. That contract expires Dec. 15.

“I think I can help with the transition and I don’t know what else the chancellor might have in mind, but we’ll talk about that once the smoke clears,” Hart said.

Staton lauded Gilbert’s work at Southern Miss, which included hiring the first full-time nutritionist at a Conference USA school. He had been AD at Southern Miss since Jan. 24, 2017.

Southern Miss and East Carolina were Conference USA rivals before the Pirates moved to the American Athletic Conference in 2014. Southern Miss is still in C-USA.

“He understands what I think is instinctive to Pirate Nation and our athletic traditions here at ECU that we are a grass roots campus and we have a grass roots approach,” Staton said. “I think he is going to fit in very well with the stakeholders of Pirate athletics, from the eastern North Carolina fans who come to games and buy their tickets to those who invest significant resources in the athletics programs of ECU.”

Contact Ronnie Woodward at rwoodward@reflector.com, 252-329-9592 and follow @RonnieW11 on Twitter.

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