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Scottie Montgomery was set up to fail at East Carolina from the start

ECU’s Montgomery faces challenges

East Carolina football coach Scottie Montgomery discusses the challenges of a 6-18 record in his first two seasons, recruiting the 2018 season before appearing at the annual Pigskin Preview in Cary on July 16, 2018.
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East Carolina football coach Scottie Montgomery discusses the challenges of a 6-18 record in his first two seasons, recruiting the 2018 season before appearing at the annual Pigskin Preview in Cary on July 16, 2018.

It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to fire Scottie Montgomery two days before East Carolina comes to N.C. State for what was going to be the Pirates’ final game of the season anyway, but what does make sense at East Carolina these days?

Even if the university was racing to hire James Madison’s Mike Houston before Charlotte can – a fascinating scenario given the Pirates still have no permanent athletic director and an under-fire chancellor – there’s no reason that process couldn’t have gone on behind the scenes with Montgomery on the sideline Saturday.

A botched and baffling firing was a sadly appropriate end to a three-year tenure that was doomed from the start, really from the moment then-athletic director Jeff Compher caved to pressure to fire Ruffin McNeill.

Montgomery was set up to fail, caught in a perpetual power struggle that had nothing to do with him and tasked with cleaning up a mess others made for no apparent reason.

Could he have done better at East Carolina? Sure, although 2-0 against N.C. State and North Carolina is nothing to sneeze at, upholding a proud purple tradition of punching up.

Watch East Carolina football coach Scottie Montgomery's postgame press conference after the ECU Pirates defeated the UNC Tar Heels.

Was it an impossible task from the beginning? Probably.

By the end of Montgomery’s tenure, the athletic director who hired him had been given $1.2 million to go away in large part because of his handling of the football program, his chancellor was rumored to be leaving imminently and the $31,000-a-month interim AD had been in charge for eight months while living out of state.

Montgomery wasn’t even on East Carolina’s list at the beginning of the process, after McNeill was fired from his alma mater after missing out on a bowl game for only the second time in six years. The Pirates wanted a big name and no big names were interested in working at a place that would treat an alum like McNeill, who deeply loved the university and his players, with such rank disdain.

A Duke grad and longtime Duke and NFL assistant coach, Montgomery may not have been quite ready to be a head coach. But he certainly wasn’t ready to be a 37-year-old first-time head coach amid this quagmire of dysfunction. It would have taken a veteran coach with experience not only as a program rebuilder but a back-hallway politician to navigate this Greenville, even before considering how the move from Conference USA to the American Athletic Conference substantially increased the quality of opposition.

The next head coach, whether that’s Houston or Butch Jones or whoever, may not even have the benefit of being the choice of the new athletic director and all the security that comes with that. Southern Mississippi’s Jon Gilbert is rumored to be close to the job, but only East Carolina would even consider hiring a new football coach before it hires an AD. Even if Jones and Gilbert are a package deal thanks to their Tennessee connections to interim AD Dave Hart, it’s still going to be a long rebuilding process at East Carolina, and that really hasn’t changed since McNeill was fired.

Along the way, Montgomery nearly got Dave Doeren fired – that 2016 loss still ranks as the worst of Doeren’s tenure, and Doeren needed the win at North Carolina that year to make up for it – and contributed to Larry Fedora’s firing with September’s 41-19 win over North Carolina. But neither win was enough to save Montgomery’s own job going 7-26 against everyone else.

East Carolina never should have fired McNeill, and that was true at the time without the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. Compher had to get the right guy to replace McNeill, but there were very few people alive who would have been the right guy in that difficult situation. Montgomery wasn’t it, but he was at least willing to take on the challenge.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.

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