One year ago, Mike Houston inked a five-year contract to become the 22nd head coach of East Carolina University’s (4-8, 1-7 AAC) football team. Nearly a year later, Houston stood at the podium inside the Ward Sports Medicine Building with a disappointed look on his face.
His team had just lost to the University of Tulsa (4-8, 2-6 AAC) by a score of 49-24, capping off a 4-8 season on an extremely sour note.
“We expect to be competitive with any team in this league,” Houston said on Saturday. “We expect to be able to go out and play games at a very, very high level and be able to win any given Saturday. Because of those expectations that we have created within the program, days like today are very disappointing.”
Despite a lackluster 1-7 conference record that mirrored last season’s 3-9 Pirate team, a pair of losses late in the year inspired a new sense of confidence rarely found around ECU’s program over the last three campaigns.
At their peak, the Pirates were 2-1 on the season following a rare road win, one of two such victories gathered in 2019. The valley, however, came quickly after in the form of back-to-back losses, the latter of which was a 45-20 loss to the University of South Florida (4-8, 2-6 AAC) on homecoming in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
For most programs, a blowout defeat to a team that just recently fired its head coach would have wrecked their morale and cast a negative attitude over the remainder of the season. For the Pirates, the opposite was true as the next two games against nationally ranked opponents showcased a rebuilding team not far away from success.
Losing by a combined 11 points to the University of Cincinnati (10-2, 7-1 AAC) and Southern Methodist University (10-2, 6-2 AAC) instilled what Houston talked about, the sense of being able to play with anyone in the conference at a competitive level.
“Is it (the program) in better shape than it was a year ago? Yes. Anybody that doesn’t see that or doesn’t say that, obviously is not paying a whole lot of attention,” Houston said. “At the same time, are we where we want to be? Not even close. We have very high expectations for East Carolina football. This is a great place, I think that we can get there, there’s no doubt and we will get there.”
Obviously, that doesn’t start with a 25 point loss to a team that ultimately won four games. Where that does start, however, is behind the scenes. In the weight room, film room and practice facilities is where the Pirates, under Houston’s guidance, will make their greatest jump, because that is where this most recent jump originated from.
Development, on both sides of the football, has been a staple of Houston’s first season at the helm of ECU’s football program. Sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers finished the year 11th in the nation with 3,387 passing yards and tied for 34th with 21 passing touchdowns.
Freshman wide receiver C.J. Johnson cracked the top-40 in the FBS with 908 yards, and while the Pirates failed to record a 1,000-yard receiver, they racked up three wide-outs with at least at least 500 receiving yards.
“When we eat pregame meal, it blows you away, because we eat by class,” Houston said. “When I tell the freshmen to go get something to eat, half the room stands up. We’ve got to continue to grow them up, teach them how to fight and overcome adversity. Teach them how to play this game the right way.”
While the offense is chocked full of budding standout players, the defensive side of the football has been a sticking point. A season-high 669 yards and 49 points allowed to the Golden Hurricane ensured the Pirates would finish 119th out of 130 FBS teams in total defense (469.3 yards allowed per game) and 110th in points allowed per game (33.7).
Despite inheriting three seniors on the defensive line, ECU was gashed for an average of 6.52 yards per play, effectively mitigating any positive performance on offense.
“We got to get bigger, faster and stronger is the biggest thing,” Houston said. “Certainly, philosophy-wise, myself and my predecessor are drastically different on what we envision we want on that side of the football. You look at our size versus the size of some of the teams in this league, and we’ve got to continue to develop our guys.”
Develop. That word showed up a lot in Houston’s final postgame press conference of the season. With such a young roster and a solid recruiting class set to sign on Dec. 18, a lot of development is needed to return this program back to its former glory.
Nevertheless, so much progress has already been made, mostly in the way players are developed and how they go about honing their craft when the lights are not shining on them.
“I think coach Houston has done a great job coming in and just making this place look like a championship culture,” senior defensive lineman Alex Turner said. “He’s done just a great job changing the habits of players, changing their attitude, making us work differently than we ever have.”
That culture shift, something Houston has talked about as being the most important first step in turning a program around, works hand-in-hand with off field preparation. Rediscovering that love for the game that most players possess is a driving force in pulling a team out of a spiral like the Pirates were in prior to Houston’s hiring.
On game day, that shows up in the play of the men on the field and ultimately in the final result. Despite ending the season losing six of their final seven games, Ahlers racked up four straight games with at least 300 passing yards while senior defensive end Kendall Futrell finished the campaign ranked 12th in the nation with 11 sacks.
Nevertheless, the offseason is about adjustments and evaluating things that worked and things that did not, for players and coaches alike.
“Obviously we’ve got to take a look, I’ve got to take a look at everything we’ve done,” Houston said. “Just because it worked for us some other place, doesn’t mean it’s what we need to do here. I do think we accomplished a lot, I think we grew so much. It’s obvious that we got to continue to still develop.”
Mistakes often signal to a coaching staff that development is still needed to be successful. In the Pirates’ two tight losses to nationally ranked teams, late-game miscues hampered their efforts while a slew of defensive mistakes allowed Tulsa to play pitch-and-catch with its receivers for much of the second half.
With experience those mistakes will dry up, but don’t discount the progress that has already been made by this coaching staff in year one.
“The culture in our locker room, the work ethic, the commitment to each other, the unity, just so many positives off the field,” Houston said. “There’s so much positive about the group that we have right now. We just got to continue to push forward and we got to continue to develop and we got to continue to fight to get our program to where we want it to be.”
In the win column, Pirate Nation can cling to tangible improvement as the program received its fourth win in a season for the first time since 2015 two weeks ago with a win over the University of Connecticut (2-10, 0-8 AAC). Nevertheless, behind the scenes, so many more strides have been taken, ones that should begin to pay-off in 2020.