Luke DeCock

Fourteen years later, East Carolina football starts at the bottom, again

Mike Houston won at Roberson High and he won at Lenoir-Rhyne and he won at The Citadel (!) and he won at James Madison. He’s going to win at East Carolina, and he’ll probably go somewhere else after that and win there. There may be a point where Houston runs into a degree of difficulty he can’t master, but it’s unlikely to be in the AAC.

With one very clever coaching hire, East Carolina is once again the sleeping giant of the coastal plain. Only time will tell how much talent Scottie Montgomery left Houston — and at East Carolina, recruiting rankings are never a true reflection of that — but he definitely left him a quarterback in Holton Ahlers, and it’s hard to think of a better place to start.

It’s only a matter of time before Houston does at East Carolina what he has done everywhere else he has coached. It may be a year or two. It might be this season. It might be Saturday. After all, even his ill-fated predecessor won his ACC debut against N.C. State, albeit in Greenville instead of Raleigh.

The Pirates have been here before, a once-proud program staggering and reeling after hitting bottom, even if the 58-3 bottom the Pirates hit at N.C. State in the final game of last season was the football equivalent of the Mariana Trench.

Skip Holtz went to a bowl game in Year 2, and that’s probably the best metric to judge progress here. The situation in 2005 was so similar to what it is now: A popular and successful coach fired, replaced by someone not up to the task, leaving the door open for the right coach to sort through the rubble and discover the foundation buried within.

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The foundation is always there at East Carolina. Football has always been and remains too important to the university, to the community, to fully collapse. There’s a current running under the surface that can always be tapped into, no matter how bad things get — and they were exponentially worse under John Thompson than Montgomery.

Holtz refilled the stands and put the program back on solid footing, only for everything to lapse back into despair with the hasty and ill-considered decision to fire Ruffin McNeill. Montgomery was in a no-win position from the start, and an undefeated (2-0) record against N.C. State and North Carolina was about the best anyone could say about his tenure.

And enough said about all of that.

There’s a shiny new tower full of luxury suites and a new press box to replace the creaking and precarious old structure, commissioned during better times and then constructed at a point when boosters and students alike had lost interest — the “no quarter” ceremony between the third and fourth quarters became a sort of “Eastbound and Down”-style parody of college sports pageantry — but as always the passion for the Pirates runs just below the surface, even when dormant. It won’t take much to trigger a resurgence.

Whether that’s this year or next year or even down the road is anyone’s guess. What’s less uncertain is that they have a coach with a history of incremental success, a program with strong and fervent tradition and a fan base dying for any reason to get excited.

They may even have some talent. Who could tell last season? If there is any still there — beyond Ahlers, a certified ace — it won’t take very long to find out.

ECU at NC State

When: Noon, Saturday

Where: Carter-Finley Stadium, Raleigh

Watch: ACC Network

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered four Final Fours, the Summer Olympics, 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.