The football world, and probably East Carolina most of all, may not have been prepared for Scottie Montgomery’s arrival as head coach. It wasn’t anything anyone saw coming when Ruffin McNeill was fired after six seasons with the Pirates.
Montgomery, though, was ready. All those years working alongside Mike Tomlin and Bruce Arians and Dick LeBeau and David Cutcliffe – most recently as the offensive coordinator at Duke, Montgomery’s alma mater – he was listening. Absorbing. Preparing. Waiting. For now.
“Any of those guys that I spent a long time with, every single person felt like they needed to pour into my life,” said Montgomery, 37. “Each stage that I got to. I felt I learned defensive football as well as you can learn it in Pittsburgh, preparing to coach against the best coordinator in football in Dick LeBeau. …
“Each situation that would arise, I was taking more of it. They would tell me, ‘This is what you need to do when you become a head coach. This is what I didn’t do correctly. This is what we’re doing now that we didn’t do then.’ It was unsolicited. It wasn’t like I was going to them. I just kind of found myself in the middle of a crazy, crazy time.”
On a shelf in his office, Montgomery has a white binder, 6 inches thick, prepared in anticipation of this moment, whenever it might come. Many coaches keep practice plans and notes; Montgomery stashed everything from Andy Reid’s 2002 media policy to laminated sheets from NCAA seminars for prospective coaches. There are four more just like it at home, in addition to the other binders documenting his plans for East Carolina’s offense and defense when spring practice begins March 16.
What isn’t in the binder, what cannot be documented, is Montgomery’s personality: direct, intense, purposeful. His stern, businesslike edge is in direct contrast to McNeill’s folksy down-home avuncularity. For a long time, until there’s a record upon which he can be judged, selling this program is going to be selling Montgomery is much as anything.
“Am I emotional? Absolutely,” Montgomery said. “Do I like to have fun? Yes. Demanding? Absolutely.”
Montgomery took some heat from Duke fans over the stagnation of the Blue Devils’ offense after Montgomery took over when Kurt Roper left for Florida, but the sheer force of his personality suggests he may be one of those individuals who is better suited to be a head coach than a coordinator.
Certainly, it has served him well in managing the tricky transition taking over for McNeill, a Lumberton-born and East Carolina-bred Pirate lifer. While there were certainly some persistent issues with McNeill’s program and some missed opportunities over the past two seasons, there was also a general sentiment among fans to give him at least another season.
McNeill’s firing was in large part as unexpected as Montgomery’s hiring, his candidacy pushed by Cutcliffe and Tomlin, who placed calls to East Carolina athletic director Jeff Compher. Tulane had interest in Montgomery, but East Carolina screamed out for someone like him – young, ambitious, charismatic, a proud native of North Carolina (albeit the western half of the state, Cleveland County).
Among the many adjustments for Montgomery, not having a specific group of players to work with has been the biggest. For the first time, he’s coaching his coaches instead – and scheduling a great number of one-on-one meetings with his players to help fill the void.
“It’s that loneliness. I’m getting over having them with me,” Montgomery said. “But I just enjoy it. I get so much energy from them. I learn so much from them. I’m listening.”
He may not have been prepared for that. But he was always preparing for it.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock