The coronavirus era has brought to life fears of a year without entertainment, and the looming proposition of a fall without the very thing that makes it the most wonderful season of the year: College Football. Talks are happening daily regarding what the fall football season may look like, and there are no doubts that the “Big Dawgs” of college football, the larger-than-life Power 5 schools that live in the top-25 each year, will survive whatever storm is brewing over the second half of 2020. Those of us who have pledged to support the “Major” and “Mid-Major” football programs that make up College Football’s middle ground face dire stretches in our programs’ histories. As an East Carolina Alum and football fan, whether due to COVID-19, conference realignment, poor management, or the rise of other programs in the Carolinas, our future is murkier than ever.
I lived in Greenville, NC, from August 2008 to December 2012, and was able to witness several of the greatest highlights in ECU football history. The first game of my ECU tenure featured a blocked FG against Va Tech to seal a victory. The next week, I was on the field for ECU’s 24-3 upset of then-ranked 7 WVU for my first ever live Pirate football game, also the last time ESPN’s College Gameday visited Greenville. As an Athletic Trainer, I worked with the team in Ruffin McNeil’s first season (with Lincoln Riley as an upstart Offensive Coordinator), and was able to experience an ECU football season from the sidelines and inside the locker room. In my time as a Pirate, we defeated “Power 5” members such as Va Tech, WVU, NC State, and UNC, and gave South Carolina, Arkansas, and Kentucky nightmares. Unfortunately, as many programs in the middle ground of college football know, success comes in waves, and we Pirates find ourselves in the unenviable position posting losing seasons without bowl games for 4 years straight. Is this a sign of the future, or just a natural lull in our program’s history?
The College Football landscape has been changing at a rapid pace over the last decade. I’ve been stuck in countless debates over ECU’s football future, mostly against SEC fans who feel we should be demoted to a second division with no shot or even right to play for a CFB National Championship. The conference expansion of the 2010’s led to discussions of “Super Power 5 Conferences” which would expand the perceived top conferences up to 16 teams each, and I have laid out the case for ECU to be included in these conferences more times that I’d like to admit. Albeit, at the time, our level of play on the field backed up my off-field opinions. While it wasn’t an invite to the SEC or ACC, I was thrilled when the Pirates joined the American Athletic Conference in 2014. The AAC is the right place for us to prove ourselves as a solid football program. It places us not among the smaller schools battling in the mid-major conferences, and not floundering in a power 5 after a larger leap than we could handle, but settles us in a “Goldilocks” conference, a true major conference right in the middle. But as I stated before, our future in college football will truly be decided on the field of play.
Ruffin McNeil was an excellent football coach, and not the usual coach that comes through East Carolina. With Terry Holland (the man, the myth, the legend) as AD, Ruffin was brought in as a true Pirate: an alum and truly one of our own, with no plans to build his resume and jump to a power conference coaching opportunity. Jeff Compher replaced Terry as AD in 2013, and quickly decided to move on from Ruffin and company, setting ECU Football on our current course. Compher wanted “his guy”, and with eyes bigger than his stomach, he believed we should be a better program than the one skip holtz/ruffin led to 8 bowl games in 10 years. The Scottie Montgomery experiment was a huge mistake, and led to 3 straight 3-9 seasons in a pivotal stretch for ECU to establish ourselves in the American Athletic. With Jon Gilbert in as AD now, and Mike Houston at the helm, Pirate fans everywhere hope we’ve got our guys to lead the program back to glory and bowl games in the 2020’s, but is it too late?
ECU’s schedule and rivalries have changed significantly over the last 15-20 years. It was once commonplace to have schools like NC State, South Carolina, Virginia Tech, WVU, and UNC on the schedule each year, and the Pirates would often play 2-3 games per season against these power 5 schools. However, feuds with NC State (Debbie Yow’s “it just means more to them than us”), Va Tech (Hurricane Florence scandal), and UNC (just plan disinterest, also see ECU’s 71-40 victory in 2014) have led to a changing dynamic in ECU’s future out of conference slate. South Carolina is on the schedule in 2020 and 2021, and NC State is on for ‘22, ‘25’ and ‘28, and we have a few scheduled highlights with Michigan, WVU and Wake Forest over the coming years, but many of those power 5 games have been replaced with names like Charlotte, Appalachian State, and Marshall.
Here is where I will likely go the other way from many Pirate faithful: I’m ok with these changes for the most part. One noted Which Carolina member points to the rise of Charlotte and Appalachian State as primary reasons for ECU’s recent woes: primarily because they compete regionally for recruits, but they also seek similar out of conference games and could infringe on TV opportunities. However, in the changing tides of today’s Carolina football landscape, where the traditional powers such as NC State, UNC, and Va Tech no longer desire to play ECU, I’m perfectly ok with building true regional rivalries that ECU has lacked for a long time.
Historically, our best regional rivalry was NC State, with 31 games scattered throughout the last 50 years, and many of them quite competitive and memorable. We last battled in 2013 and won’t play again until 2022. If you ask an NC State fan about the ECU/NC State rivalry, you’ll likely hear them deny it’s very existence, as they always have their sights on UNC and Duke. Similar story with Va Tech, UNC, and WVU, although WVU fans are always pretty quick to note that they respect and have enjoyed the ECU battles over the years.
The idea of building a true in-state rivalry with Appalachian State? A university that shares a comparable academic profile with similarly avid, blue collar fans? That sounds great! Add in the likes of Charlotte as an up-and-coming Division 1 program, and a regenerated rivalry with Marshall, and I’m all for the future of ECU out of conference games. The AAC is strong enough that we can afford to build some true, passionate regional rivalries rather than constantly seek to prove ourselves against power 5 teams.
The immediate future of ECU athletics has nothing to do with what happens on the football field, and everything to do with ECU’s finances. We don’t generate the mega millions that are paid out to SEC and ACC teams each season with conference rights. We have certainly upgraded in the AAC, but if football is disallowed in 2020 due to coronavirus, it could very well be a disaster to ECU athletics. Facing budget shortages already, the conference champion ECU men’s and women’s swim and dive team was recently disintegrated, as well as the men’s and women’s tennis teams. That brings ECU down to 16 total sports teams, which matches the minimum requirement of the AAC. ECU fans have long talked about ascension into the power 5, but with our current losses, that dream could truly be an impossibility. I’m always an optimist, and hope the season will happen, but with reduced ticket sales, food/beverage, etc, the future and stability of ECU football (and athletics in general) is a huge concern.
I believe in Mike Houston, and we’ve witnessed improvements on the field over the last year that have led many ECU fans to believe that we are on our way back to winning seasons and bowl games. I, for one, am excited at the out of conference schedules we have over the next decade, with the potential for regional rivalries to blossom and power 5 games sprinkled in as an opportunity to prove our worth. More threatening than anything though, is the looming impact of COVID-19 on the future of ECU football. I hope and I pray that the Pirates find a way on the field in 2020, because the future of our program may be in grave danger if we don’t. Thanks, and as always, Go Pirates.