When John Thompson was shown the door at ECU back during the darkest of days for ECU football, there were few detractors. There was little nuance to the JT story. Bad hire, bad execution, bad…bad…bad all the way around. The firing was roundly applauded and it ushered in a period of recovery for the ECU football program.
Not so much a crossroads, but rather, a bounce from hitting rock bottom…there was nowhere to go but up for ECU which turned to Skip Holtz to captain the resurrection which culminated with back-to-back C-USA championships before Holtz went off into his ill-fated good night down in South Florida.
This time, in the wake of the firing of a beloved coach in Ruffin McNeill, a former standout player and Pirate-loving alumni, the ECU football program finds itself at a true crossroads.
In his press conference, ECU Athletics Director Jeff Compher used all of the right words…he spoke of AAC championships, prominent bowl games and hints of a program aimed at national prominence…something greater down the road. He talked about academic standards and players flourishing on the field and in the classroom.
What Pirates fan doesn’t love those words?
Compher reiterated the goals during his introduction of new ECU football coach Scottie Montgomery – a former Duke football star who returned home to coach with growing football coaching legend David Cutcliffe over in Durham.
Mongomery is as a good a hire as anyone and will most likely be successful by ECU’s traditional standards, but I can’t get off of Compher’s stressing of ECU’s objectives in this hire and for the football program all the way around.
That crossroads we are at, IMO, is tantamount to a battle for ECU’s football soul.
There is a line that many schools in the P5 crossed long ago but that many below P5 level have not yet crossed – either because of lack of financial resources or by virtue of a sense of somehow maintaining a now antiquated notion of collegiate athletics being a reflection of the student body…amateur.
Like many of the American families held in highest regards – Kennedy, Rockefeller, Morgan, Carnegie, Ford, Edison – many of college football’s most esteemed and envied programs, sold their souls a long time ago and now are ballyhooed by fan bases who conveniently forget that their school’s success is rooted in anything but fair play. Winning without virtue seems to be acceptable to all who participate in the college football machine. I suppose it is part of a “gonna get mine” and “bling is all that matters” society but I have personally never found it satisfying to win when I know things were rigged for that outcome.
Can ECU be a football powerhouse? Without a doubt. That is not the operative question, though. The real question is, Is ECU (meaning all of us, the alumni donor base, corporate sponsors and the school administration) willing to step over that line?
See, UNC failed in its effort to become a powerhouse not because they didn’t cheat enough – God knows they rewrote the book on cheating – but they failed because they also felt a need to maintain a counter charade – the Carolina Way…the Southern Ivy…the, we are good people who don’t cheat (that cheat to win in sports) notion. Can’t have both. Had UNC simply jettisoned the notion of the Carolina Way and went all in…say like, Kentucky in hoops or Alabama in football, there would hardly have been a mention of the scandals. They simply outed themselves by their own arrogance.
But ECU, could, if it wanted to, take already minimal entrance requirements for athletes and bend them a little more. They could funnel alumni cash into the hands of incoming players. Market to the mentality of the kids. Promise playing time, offer parents of top prospects jobs. Spend money on the play toys that the 18 and 19 year olds most cherish and call it needed football facility improvements. In short, we could sellout for victory.
Of course, we would have go with the long play because ECU would be very late to the win-at-all-costs game which most of the P5 has been playing at for decades upon decades, and we know that the Good Ole Boy NCAA don’t take kindly to upstarts trying to get a piece of the ill-gotten pie. Slowly, but surely, we could wedge our way in.
Just got to be willing to cross that line.
I know…we don’t have the resources (i.e., money) to cheat with the big boys…and that is true, the scale at first would need to be modest. But you would be surprised how far a couple of million dollars can go, if spent correctly. Say, on a QB (ask Auburn for guidance on that one) or on a top-notch running back (anybody know the USC hotline number). Those two players came in at under $1m and imagine a few ECU seasons with that ilk in the backfield. Small price for brand expansion, no? Gotta think with a $1m you could get yourself a pretty strong O Line if that is what you are seeking…another $1m for one or two stud D-linemen and all the sudden, for far less than a capital campaign, you got yourself a team that ESPN is talking about.
Imagine…being on the phone with our buddies from UNC and N.C. State talking about how dominant our boys are out there on the field. Salivating at the thought of it. Coming off the 10th straight year of beating them…again and again. Will it be the SEC or the ACC? Oh geez, I don’t know. Maybe we should go independent…don’t want our brand to be held back nationally. Sounds very satisfying…to me at least.
Of course, the flipside kind of sucks – if you can’t ignore for your own ego.
Imagine being in Ficklen watching a dominating team but having to know that not a single kid – save the walk-ons – could give a damn about ECU? How would that sit in the craw? Or that only 60% are actually passing their classes on their own? Or that when you walk across campus or come near the team, your only connection with the players (and the coaches for that matter) would be determined by how much cash you funnel into the program?
Or, how rewarding would it be to pick up the paper on days other than Sunday morning to read about how another member of the ECU football team was arrested for punching a woman in the face, but no worries, he will be able to play on Saturday?
For me … and I am being honest here … each season I feel my passion for college football deteriorating. And the only thing that keeps me coming back is the notion that ECU is somehow a family and one that would rather lose putting up a valiant effort against a rigged system than to become part of that system. I want to win, but not enough to cross that line.
So, I am hopeful that Coach Mo can continue the family-first program we have here and that he can bring in talented kids and take them to a new level. But I am not expecting more than his predecessors because I don’t think glass ceiling can be broken without selling the proverbial soul.
What cost Glory?
And, where do others stand on this?