ECU Football

Tulsa’s Keylon Stokes, right, is tackled by East Carolina’s Tank Robinson at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium during the Pirates' final game of 2019.

East Carolina football players left for spring break early in March on the heels of what Pirate second-year coach Mike Houston described as a stellar offseason to that point in terms of player strength and other areas.

While in a moment of reflection less than a week ago, as Houston was conducting a conference call with local reporters Tuesday on COVID-19 and the nationwide stoppage of sports, he admitted a frustrating part of mid-March was stopping some offseason momentum for his team.

The Pirates were scheduled to start spring practice March 17, but that and all other practices have ceased as ECU’s fields are closed to players until further notice.

“That is the thing that is a little disappointing, to me and for the kids, too, because they all felt it, is that we were in such a positive place with the program,” said Houston, who has an 84-33 career record after finishing 4-8 in 2019 in his first season with the Pirates. “Now, we’ve had to hit the pause button with some stuff. When they come back, they’ll certainly have that optimistic and excited attitude, because they’ll know what they invested back in January and February and the early part of March.”

Some of that optimism is attributed directly to workouts with director of strength and conditioning John Williams.

“When you look at our numbers in the weight room this offseason compared to last offseason, we were drastically stronger,” Houston said. “We were a way more athletic group.”

ECU went 1-6 in October and November to finish last season, then Houston made defensive changes to his staff that included dismissing Bob Trott as coordinator and replacing him with Blake Harrell from Kennesaw State. Steve Ellis, formerly at South Florida, was brought in to coach the Pirate cornerbacks, and Roy Tesh shifted from outside linebackers coach and special teams coordinator in 2019 to defensive tackles coach for this year.

Also during his teleconference, Houston showed a sense of humanity and thoughts beyond football. He discussed supporting local businesses and each other in the community.

He also voiced excitement in games returning to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, which for now is scheduled to start Aug. 29 when the Pirates are set to host Marshall in a marquee nonconference matchup accompanied by an ESPN linear broadcast.

“My biggest message to Pirate Nation is that we are all in this together, and certainly I hope everyone is functioning in a positive manner right now,” Houston said. “We are excited about the football program and excited about next season. ... I can’t wait to get back in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in front of our fans and to get out of this isolation, so that we can all spend the time together that we’ve become so accustomed to each year as a group.”

Contact Ronnie Woodward at or 252-329-9592.