Before Mike Houston celebrated his first victory as East Carolina’s football coach and brought much-needed joy to Pirate fans, he already had won over Pirate Nation.
What unfolded Saturday at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, whether viewing from a fresh seat inside TowneBank Tower or a traditional bleacher spot on the opposite side of the stadium, was classic Houston.
His ECU football team knew it had a major advantage against Gardner-Webb and it capitalized, getting physical with the Bulldogs and controlling the line of scrimmage for a thorough 48-9 victory.
But the real-life sequence from four days earlier was more important than executing a trick play or making the correct call on a fourth down.
An emotional Houston, 47, began his Tuesday weekly news conference by announcing that his father, Bill, died earlier in the day. Unbeknownst to the coach, his authenticity during those three minutes of delivering difficult words drew him closer to ECU fans.
More so than any other news conference or game, that day is when Houston officially became East Carolina’s head football coach. It is a position he can hold for as long as he wants.
In the hours after his emotional address, ECU players, staff members, fans and Greenville citizens used social media to rally behind Houston. For a man they have really only known since December, they wanted to support their coach.
It was a breakthrough moment for Houston and Pirate fans, who too many times since Skip Holtz left in 2010 were agitated and not unified in their thoughts about ECU football coaches and administrators.
On Saturday night after Houston received a game ball from athletics director Jon Gilbert, who like Houston was hired in December and was quickly embraced in Greenville, the new coach sang the East Carolina fight song and smiled and jumped around with his players. He was composed and proud during a demanding, trying and yet rewarding week.
“It has been tough,” he said. “When I got back here (after the funeral in Franklin on Thursday), I just tried to focus on our players and the game. ... Certainly I felt it and the way they responded this week was incredible and it speaks a lot about their character. They were constantly checking on me.”
Many challenges remain, on the football field, for Houston and the Pirates. Most immediately is a tricky matchup at Navy this Saturday, and inevitably there will be losses by ECU in the American Athletic Conference.
But Pirate Nation showed since Tuesday morning that it is ready to ride with Houston. Together again, they are prepared to face all wins and losses.
Contact Ronnie Woodward at email@example.com, 252-329-9592 and follow @RonnieW11 on Twitter.