East Carolina athletics director Jon Gilbert said during ECU Board of Trustees meetings last week that three Pirate student-athletes were allowed to stay in their residence halls, as part of nearly 100 total who are in Greenville and living off campus while sports are on hold amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Pirates have a total of 450 student-athletes. They were encouraged a few weeks ago to go home to their families if possible, which ended up varying to some degree in difficulty.
“Those three student-athletes are either international or have a living circumstance that is requiring them to be permissible in a residence hall,” Gilbert said during the Athletics and Advancement Committee meeting on Thursday. “I’m appreciative of Virginia Hardy (university vice chancellor for student affairs) for making that accommodation to us. All of our student-athletes have been practicing distance in online learning, and our academic unit is staying on track with those individuals.”
College athletic departments nationwide are turning to cost-cutting measures and also content creativity with no live sports, which for the Pirates has meant producing social media videos using social distancing with players and coaches along with a rebroadcast of the 2007 ECU-North Carolina football game on WNCT-9 to help fulfill sponsorship agreements. The Pirates won the game 34-31 on a last-second field goal by Ben Hartman.
Sponsorships are part of various revenue streams, which also include private giving and ticket sales, that Gilbert is in the process of evaluating in order to implement fiscal changes.
“I do anticipate, moving forward, companies not as willing to invest from a sponsorship standpoint due to their own financial circumstance,” he said. “Lastly, obviously with our institutional support that we receive from campus, I want to be mindful of that knowing that the institution could potentially have some reductions across the board. Athletics will certainly participate in that.”
ECU originally projected final numbers of $43,440,503.00 in athletics expenses and $36,039,243.00 in revenue for this fiscal year. The numbers are certain to be affected by the coronavirus impact.
“We anticipate March, April and May, under normal circumstances, to be our heavy months as it relates to Pirate Club renewals and football season tickets,” Gilbert said. “Obviously in the state we are in right now, that is in flux at this point.”
The quarterback room
Pirate second-year football coach Mike Houston used a recent online question from a fan about incoming quarterback signees to reinforce his confidence in rising junior starter and Greenville native Holton Ahlers.
Houston held a Facebook Live Q&A session with fans last Friday. One question was specifically about talented Myrtle Beach, S.C., signal-caller Mason Garcia, who was ECU’s highest-rated recruit signed in December. Garcia is still a senior in high school and was not one of the Pirates’ 10 early enrollees to arrive before the spring semester.
“The thing you have to understand about the dynamics of the college football game is it’s hard for any freshman to come in and really compete against an upperclassman who is established,” Houston said. “We are very fortunate that we have one of the top quarterbacks in the (American Athletic Conference) in Holton Ahlers, and I expect him to have a huge year this year. ... I am really excited about the quarterbacks in that class and I do think they are going to set us up to be solid at that position for the foreseeable future. That’s what we really wanted to accomplish.”
Ahlers is entering his second season as the full-time starter. He produced 27 total touchdowns (21 passing, six rushing) as a sophomore with 10 interceptions.
Garcia, Ryan Stubblefield (Richmond, Texas) and Taji Hudson (Cedartown, Ga.) were signed in December as rookies to add quarterback depth and competition.
Houston ended the Q&A with a message to Pirate Nation about remaining positive during these difficult times.
“We’re all hoping to get rid of this disease, and I just want to stay with everybody to stay positive and make sure you are taking care of yourself mentally,” he said. “It can be very easy to go a bad place there, but keep your optimism up. I know our country is facing some scary times, with the economy or whatever else, but I do know this about America that we have faced scary times before and we’ve always come back strong.”