Late in the annual Pigskin Preview, with a touch of levity, each of the five college coaches on hand were asked about a most memorable nightmare.
North Carolina coach Larry Fedora swore he doesn’t dream -- not a one in his life, he said. N.C. State’s Dave Doeren said his sleep is so sound that if he does dream he doesn’t remember any.
East Carolina’s Scottie Montgomery said one nightmare came during his days as an offensive assistant at Duke, something about dreaming he had the game plan all set and then getting to the stadium to discover all the quarterbacks missing.
Montgomery didn’t mention the past two seasons at ECU, his first as a head coach, but could have. Both ended with 3-9 records and the Pirates’ play on defense last season was the stuff of nightmares, an endless string of big plays allowed and big point totals being scored against them.
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But Montgomery, who turned 40 in May, didn’t show up Monday with a somewhat apologetic, excuse-filled analysis of what has gone wrong his first two years. He carries himself well, answering questions with a confident gaze and tone, eager to look ahead at what might be and not dwell on what’s behind him.
“I wouldn’t say I didn’t expect them to be as challenging,” Montgomery said of the two seasons. “I didn’t expect them to be easy. I would have liked the outcome of a lot of the games the last couple of years to be different.
“But also I don’t think I would have expected us to be able to turn in recruiting and some of the things we’ve been able to do, to grow so fast and so quick. And to win a lot of battles here in-state. I didn’t necessarily think that was going to happen this fast. So hopefully some of that offsetting of recruiting will have a great impact on what we’re doing this year.”
At last count, the Pirates had 19 commitments in the class of 2019 -- 12 from North Carolina -- and were ranked first in the American Athletic Conference and 47th nationally by 247Sports, one spot behind UNC. Compare that to the class of 2018, rated eighth-best in the league and 87th nationally.
“It’s always about people ... and selling our program,” Montgomery said. “What we have right now is a building program. It’s very easy to get into situations where you can’t see growth from the outside. But the kids who are visiting so much can see the internal work that we’ve had and the growth we’ve made.
“They know it’s just a matter of time before this thing explodes.”
The firing of former ECU coach Ruffin McNeill caused an explosion of its own within the fan base. McNeill, who played at ECU under coach Pat Dye, was loyal to the school and well-liked by most Pirates fans. He was one of their own.
The coming of a new athletic director, Jeff Compher, resulted in McNeill being ousted after a 5-7 season in 2015 and Montgomery, a former Duke wide receiver and assistant coach, being hired. After the back-to-back 3-9 records, after going 3-13 in the AAC, Compher is gone, ECU looking for a full-time AD and season-ticket sales lagging, with Montgomery’s position perhaps shaky and the pressure sure to build.
“I’ve been feeling pressure since I was 9, 10 years old, every time I stepped onto a football field or basketball court,” Montgomery said. “I love the way that it feels, to have to go out and perform every single day.
“As far as pressure, some people say you apply it. We’re going to apply it to our guys and our program this year and make sure we’re where we need to be at the end of the year.”
Montgomery made staff changes after last season, bringing in another former ECU player, David Blackwell, to be the defensive coordinator. Blackwell’s job: revamp a defense that allowed 50 or more points in six games in 2017, including the 70-13 beating by Memphis in the final game of the season.
Montgomery promised the Pirates would be “really tightening down” on defense. Any improvement should be noticeable.
“Waking up after a Saturday, and losing, is never easy,” Montgomery said. “But I’ve been in a lot of places where we had to consistently work through things. You don’t get off the page with the plan. You continue with the plan and do it a little more precisely.”
Duke football coach David Cutcliffe learned that lesson many years ago as a head coach and has applied it again at Duke in building a winner. He expects Montgomery, his former offensive coordinator, to do the same at ECU.
“It never gets easy,” Cutcliffe said. “Scottie is incredibly talented, gifted. I think one of things is just getting all the right pieces of the puzzle. That’s not an easy task. We have to continue to work to hire the right people and get people in the right places. There’s no better teacher than experience.”
Montgomery looked at ease Monday on the dais with Doeren on his right and Cutcliffe to his left. N.C. Central’s new coach, Granville Eastman, made his first appearance at the Pigskin Preview, held each year by the Bill Dooley chapter of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame.
ECU opens the season Sept. 1, hosting North Carolina A&T. UNC comes to Greenville the next week and then the Pirates go to Virginia Tech. It will be upon them quickly.
“I’m happy and excited about this year and getting started,” Montgomery said. “It’s football time.”