East Carolina athletics director Jon Gilbert received a text message from an ECU football player last Sunday, one day after the Pirates’ season ended with a 49-24 loss to Tulsa at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
The player wanted to meet with Gilbert, who immediately thought about the NCAA transfer portal and any possible damage control if the player was unhappy.
The meeting was actually about a class project. After the student-athlete interviewed Gilbert for his class assignment, additional conversation led to Pirate football, and Gilbert was swept with a comforting feeling.
“He had been here a couple of years, so I asked about what could we do better as an athletic department to serve our student-athletes, and then specifically, I asked about football,” Gilbert said Tuesday after passing his first full year as the Pirates’ AD. “He talked about the culture in the locker room and being held accountable and having responsibility in one another. He was disappointed in where we finished (a 4-8 overall record after losing to Tulsa to finish the season), but he also said that, ‘Man, coach (Mike) Houston is doing a really good job.’ We just haven’t done it on the scoreboard yet.”
The Pirates’ record was better than their 3-9 mark each of the last three years under previous coach Scottie Montgomery. They still finished 1-7 in the American Athletic Conference for the second straight year and three out of the last four seasons.
Houston came to ECU from James Madison, where he went 37-6 in three seasons, and this year was only his second losing season in his head coaching career that began in 2011 at Lenoir-Rhyne. He went 5-7 at The Citadel in 2014, then 9-4 the next year.
Next year’s nonconference schedule will feature home games versus Marshall and Norfolk State, and challenging road matchups versus South Carolina and Georgia State.
“We have the right people in place,” Gilbert said. “I told coach Houston when we met on Monday that I feel as good about him today as I did when I first hired him. It is because of what I see every day and in the locker room and from kids around campus and around the building. ... He’s building it the right way.”
Gilbert lauded some of the Pirates’ late-season highlights as big positives. ECU struggled with 57 total points in its first four games against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents, but November included scoring 43 versus Cincinnati and 51 at SMU before winning 31-24 at Connecticut to surpass the three-win barrier.
The Tulsa game was another downer during a rebuilding campaign in which Houston and the Pirates’ long-term mission is to return to winning consistently.
“Saturday’s loss was disappointing for everyone — players, coaches, staff — but we still came to work on Monday,” Gilbert said. “We still have to invest and develop and grow. I’m really proud of how this football program grew over a year, but I think coach Houston would even tell you that he is not satisfied with where we are.”
Coaches are busy on the recruiting trail ahead of the Dec. 18 national signing day.
Gilbert said he plans to meet again with Houston after this important recruiting period.
“When you are 4-8, you evaluate everything and I feel really good about how we’ve evolved, and we want to make sure from an administration standpoint that we are doing all the things that we can do to support our program and help move it forward,” Gilbert said.