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AD: ECU will feel financial crunch next 2-3 years


Alex Keddie, East Carolina University’s senior associate athletics director for compliance, stands behind ECU athletics director Jon Gilbert during a presentation on Thursday during ECU’s Board of Trustees meeting.


Nathan Summers

Friday, July 12, 2019

East Carolina athletics director Jon Gilbert is forecasting a couple of lean years ahead for ECU, but he said on Thursday the university’s sports program is on the upswing again and he expects that to continue.

The school’s new AD has yet to experience his first football season with the Pirates. But he is touting a rise in season ticket sales and his belief in new head coach Mike Houston as the principal players in an ECU athletics recovery after a period of losing football and a multi-million dollar operating deficit nullified by a transfer of university funds late last year.

“We’ll be in a budget recovery process for a couple of years,” Gilbert said on Thursday morning following a presentation to the ECU Board of Trustees. “You can’t go four seasons of a losing record in football at a school like East Carolina and not feel the effects of that for a couple of years.

“I am really encouraged because our football season tickets were already ahead (this summer) of where they were last year with about a month and a half left to sell, so I feel like our numbers are trending upwards,” he said.

Gilbert said 13,000 season tickets have been sold to date, also noting the school has collected $566,000 in parking revenue in the first year ECU has sold premium passes. He also noted a Pirate Club donation uptick of $260,000 compared to this point last summer.

“We’re going to continue that positive momentum and try to get people in our venues,” he said.

Still, Gilbert acknowledged the season ticket base must be rebuilt and admitted he thought a lot of fans were still in a “wait- and-see” mode in terms of renewing their tickets.

The AD said it will be imperative to find new ways to engage with fans and particularly with students.

Hired away from Southern Miss to replace the fired Jeff Compher, Gilbert did not hesitate to remind the trustees that fixing the athletics finances for the long term is an ongoing process. He noted that ECU is in the bottom third of the American Athletic Conference in funding and coach salaries.

“That is not going to preclude us from being competitive but the reality is we do need to work on selling more tickets, making sure all of our contracts help us from a competitive standpoint,” he said. “We need to generate more revenue.”

Last year, ECU announced the athletics department was receiving a total of $20 million in university funds to wipe clean a deficit and also make substantial facility improvements. The university reported Friday that the transfer was actually $13.2 million, none coming from the ECU Physicians accrued fund balance.

A winning football team is still the best way to make the athletics department self-sustainable again, and Gilbert feels like he has the best remedy for that problem in Houston.

The overall feeling of stability around the program has helped to build positive momentum in Gilbert’s eyes.

“I think there is a renewed sense of energy and hope,” he said. “We’ve got good leadership in our head coaching positions across the board. I think we are catching a lot of our head coaches in their prime right now, so I do feel like there is stability among our coaching ranks.”

Gilbert and Houston both were hired on Dec. 3, following the ouster of Compher and head football coach Scottie Montgomery, who compiled three straight 3-9 seasons.

The AD also acknowledged his desire to try and keep coaches around due to their successes rather than firing them for their failures and paying out their contracts.

“I think it’s important as an AD to have a list (of coaching candidates),” Gilbert said. “You’re going to have successful coaches that are going to be recruited by other schools and when that happens, you have to be prepared. I look at that as a very positive thing because that means they’ve done a very good job at East Carolina and somebody else wants them.”

Baseball head man Cliff Godwin, an ECU alum, has been at the forefront of coaches fielding offers from other schools in recent years but has remained with the Pirates. After ECU baseball hosted an NCAA regional in consecutive years for the first time in school history this year, Gilbert said earned $100,000 in revenue after netting $70,000 in 2018.

The last successful ECU coach in a major sport to leave under those circumstances was football coach Skip Holtz a decade ago, when he opted to take the coaching vacancy at South Florida following the 2009 season.