PIRATE PREVIEW: Turn optimism into better results
By RONNIE WOODWARD
The Daily Reflector
Saturday, August 24, 2019
New East Carolina football players reported to preseason camp on Aug. 1, about eight months after athletics director Jon Gilbert and football coach Mike Houston reported to Greenville as instant leaders of a new era of Pirate athletics.
It is in many ways still a rebuilding project, which Gilbert and Houston were aware of when they left their previous institutions for the Pirates after ECU continued to slip in the American Athletic Conference and last December finished with a third straight 3-9 overall record in football.
There is a general feeling of optimism and hope among Pirate fans, and the hope begins with Gilbert, who was Southern Miss’ AD and in his college years played football at Lenoir-Rhyne. Houston, whose college head coaching career began at Lenoir-Rhyne in 2011, was most recently at James Madison and compiled a 37-6 record in three seasons.
JMU won the 2016 Football Championship Subdivision national championship. The next year, the Dukes came to Greenville and beat ECU 34-14 despite their lower-tier status.
There are still challenges, and season ticket sales at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium this fall are not going to reach all-time marks from when ECU was often a frontrunner in Conference USA under Skip Holtz (2005-09) and Ruffin McNeill (2010-15), but season tickets are up compared to last year as the Pirates collectively are trying to win fans back. A $60 million Southside Renovation Project also was completed in August for the new TowneBank Tower press box and premium seating to give East Carolina’s 51,000-seat stadium a spruced-up look.
“I am fired up to see Dowdy-Ficklen, because I haven’t been to a game here,” Gilbert said earlier this month. “For me, I have heard from a lot of people who are from East Carolina but also people who have no affiliation but they have been to a game here and they talk about what a special environment it is.”
One sentence sums things up for Houston.
“They love their Pirates,” he said of ECU fans.
Gilbert has said there is still a wait-and-see approach by some Pirate fans entering this season. ECU’s last home game saw an announced attendance of 27,234 for a 55-21 win over lowly Connecticut that was part of the Pirates’ 1-7 finish to the season.
The Pirates’ first year in the AAC was 2014, when they finished 8-5 overall and 5-3 in the league. It has been four straight losing seasons since then, including McNeill being fired at the end of 2015 and Scottie Montgomery being dismissed last year.
For this year’s senior class, that losing sequence makes motivation come easy.
“The thing that motivates me the most is my senior year, and the last three years have been kind of rough at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium,” defensive lineman and team leader Alex Turner said. “I just want to win in my last year and show out for Pirate Nation to show them what we are made of. With this new coaching staff, we are hopefully going to a bowl game this year and everyone will get to see it.”
Plenty of people, especially in Greenville, are excited about the potential of sophomore quarterback and Greenville native Holton Ahlers. The unique left-hander was a big-time recruit out of D.H. Conley High School who shunned Power Five offers to stay home in hopes of playing a central role in a major uptick by the Pirates.
“We want to win and bring fans back to fill up this stadium,” Ahlers said. “I grew up here and the games were sold out every single time. That is what I want to bring back to and why I came here.”
Houston, a Franklin native, owns an 80-25 career record entering ECU’s Week 1 matchup versus rival N.C. State.
His first preseason camp at East Carolina focused on physicality and discipline. Consistency also has been a sticking point and will be important for the Pirates as they begin an emotional opening four-game slate of playing N.C. State, Gardner-Webb, Navy and then William & Mary.
Three of ECU’s first five games will be on the road, beginning with being an underdog against the Wolfpack at Carter-Finley Stadium.
“When you are trying to change a program from what has been very finesse and pass-first and the perception as a soft football team to be what we want to be, you can’t let your foot off the gas and you have to stay on them,” Houston said. “We can’t let up and we have to overcome mental weakness and overcome what has haunted our program in the past. We can’t be distracted and can’t look back.
“It starts with your roster and then developing your roster. I also think having chemistry within the coaching staff is important. You need to build continuity and confidence throughout your roster, and that doesn’t happen overnight.”
While Houston remains focused on the day-to-day tactics and habits of his football team, Gilbert has the big picture in mind with the Pirates. He is interested to see what kind of emotions will come about during his first start to a critical Pirate football campaign.
“I’m really here to serve student-athletes and the coaches, and I am excited about that,” Gilbert said. “The transition has been really good for my family and I. The community has been wonderful, so I’m just excited about fall sports kicking off.”
Contact Ronnie Woodward at email@example.com, 252-329-9592 and follow @RonnieW11 on Twitter.