Mike Houston, sporting a purple tie highlighted with East Carolina’s logo, stepped to the podium and said all the right things to win Tuesday’s press conference as the right fit as ECU’s new football coach.
He noted he’s from Franklin, N.C, and has long understood the passion of Pirate Nation from his football playing days at Franklin High. He also was tight end at Mars Hill University near Asheville, and as a high school coach in Asheville he met his future wife, Amanda.
“When we stepped off the plane there was overwhelming feeling we were home,” he said. “To be back in state of North Carolina and to know how special football is at East Carolina is something I’m excited about it; my whole family is excited about it.”
Houston, 47, went on to characterize his offense as high-powered but able to run the ball, a 4-2-5 defense that will be physical and demands his players understand they are representing ECU on the field as well as off it.
Really, though, all he had to do to affirm ECU’s appeal to him was point to his family seated in the front row of the audience.
His wife wore a stylish fluffy purple scarf. His sons Owen, 10, and Reid, 6, were dressed in purple ECU sweatshirts. When the media session broke into mingling, Owen and Reid tossed a football back and forth. Reid was throwing as a natural lefty, same as returning starting quarterback Holton Ahlers. He also spells his first name uniquely, same as backup quarterback Reid Herring. He’s got both QBs covered.
“That was the first thing I asked Reid – how he spells it,” said Amanda. “It’s challenging moving with two young kids, but this is a great opportunity. Mike has always felt ECU would be a great job.”
Houston said his immediate task is to prepare for this weekend’s official recruiting visits with the help of former coach Scottie Montgomery’s assistant coaches. The Pirates at one point had 22 oral commitments, but it is down to 19 following de-commitments as the season unraveled from 2-2 to a third-straight 3-9 record under Montgomery.
Houston brings a long track record of success with an 80-25 overall head coach record at three schools.
In three seasons at JMU he was 37-6. He took a team coming off back-to-back trips to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs in 2014 and 2105 and elevated the Dukes. JMU won the 2016 FCS title, finished 2017 as the FCS runner-up and advanced to the second round in 2018.
JMU had a triple-option offense history, but Houston transitioned the program to the spread offense with a running game that the Dukes featured the past three seasons.
“We’ll run spreads; we’ll throw it around and run the ball, too,” said Ahlers, who attended the media session. “We’re really excited; we’ve bought into him.”
In Houston’s two previous years at The Citadel he was 14-11. The Bulldogs had had only two winning seasons in the previous 10. His 2014 Bulldogs were 5-7, but the 2015 The Citadel went 9-4, won its conference title and advanced to the FCS playoffs.
His first head coaching job was at Lenoir-Rhyne University, where he spent three seasons at the NCAA Division II private school in Hickory. In his last season in 2013, he guided the Bears to a NCAA DII runner-up finish.
ECU’s Monday press conference introducing Jon Gilbert as the new athletic director, a position that had been vacant since March, and Houston as the football coach 24 hours later concluded a whirlwind Monday and Tuesday that had followed a chaotic Thursday-through-Saturday last week.
Montgomery was fired after Thursday morning’s practice, two days before traveling to N.C. State to end the season with a 58-3 loss under interim coach/defensive coordinator David Blackwell.
On Sunday night, Houston met with his new roster to list his expectations. He told them he understands Montgomery, as well as previous coach Ruffin McNeill, who was fired after the 2015 season, were beloved mentors.
“I told them I know Scottie and I know Ruff,” he said. “Ruff and I are good friends. I said they will never hear me talk negatively about a former coach. Those two guys gave East Carolina everything they had. I respect that. Players on my team now are here because of former coaches. I know they have an emotional attachment to them, but I look forward to building on what my predecessors have done here.”