Last season showed the college football world a little bit of what the East Carolina Pirates are made of.
Gritty wins at Marshall and Memphis, and heartbreaking losses at South Carolina and Houston led the Pirates to a 7-5 record in head coach Mike Houston’s third-year in Greenville.
But such is life in the American Athletic Conference. And this upcoming season, a home game against NC State and road dates with BYU and Cincinnati provide the perfect opportunity for ECU to continue that upward trajectory Coach Houston has become famous for.
“Now it’s real,” said Houston of the schedule release back in February. “You know, you talk about how we are opening with this team, or we gotta play this team this year but when you see it and put it up there – we’ve got it up on a board outside of our locker-room so the kids see it every day, it just makes it real.”
The upcoming season starts off fast and fun with a home game when in-state “rivals” NC State come to town. The Wolfpack are coming off a 9-3 season, returning a deep, healthy squad led by Devin Leary at quarterback.
“We have a tough conference schedule and the American Athletic Conference is a challenging conference to play in,” admitted Houston. “And then you throw in our home opener against NC State which is a pretty heated rivalry between East Carolina and NC State and then you’ve got that late season trip to Provo, Utah to play BYU. So, it puts it in perspective and makes it real for everybody.”
The Pirates do find solace in the four home-game streak to start the season, facing Old Dominion and Campbell before kicking off the AAC with Navy. Much like in golf, Houston agreed that order and pace of play matter.
“I think particularly playing Navy as our conference opener, you know we are really excited that it’s at home – that would be really challenging going up there,” admitted Houston. “And yeah, I’m glad we have a bye week before we play Cincinnati. Being the team that’s been the team to beat the last couple of years in this league, it’s good to have a bye going into that game.”
Looking at a schedule from a pragmatic, functional perspective is key for teams like ECU with what feels like non-stop heat on their calendar. It’s all about taking note of the little things - like substantial home-game stretches and perfectly placed bye weeks.
“Right now, we’re completely focused on our own team,” said Houston. “But I do use the schedule, I mean I talk about dates – the opener, the conference opener, a tough road trip somewhere, if we have a bad weather day you know ‘hey, we’re going to have to play in weather like this in this part of the year or this opponent on the road.’ It gives you some talking points.”
The American is rich in tough road environments as Houston was quick to share.
“I think there are several places – last year, I thought going into UCF, it’s always challenging,” disclosed Houston. “That’s just a tough place to play. This coming year – I think on the road at Cincinnati is going to be tough. They’ve got a fan base that’s really energized by the performance of their program the last several years and I expect it to be a great atmosphere to play in.”
It’s true that many dread Nippert at night. But not all road trips need to be negative – there are positives too. These include trying local delicacies and reconnecting with old friends.
“Willie Fritz and I go back a ways, I’ve always respected his programs, his teams, how they play,” said Houston of the Tulane head coach. “We faced each other when he was at Georgia Southern and I was at The Citadel and then obviously coming into this league. It’s very much a respect thing – I would call him a friend and mentor to me and I just have a lot of respect for the way he runs his program.”
Fritz and Houston clearly bonded over their small-ball roots.
“He and I have talked about that, how our journey is different,” explained Houston. “He and I both understand that it was not easy to get to where we are. Our path has given us a different perspective on things. I’ve painted a field, I’ve cut the grass, I’ve done equipment, I’ve done operations – you’ve done a little bit of everything if you’ve been at those small places.”
The two will face off in early October in New Orleans. Until then, the Pirates are focused on themselves. For Houston, that means figuring out what success continues to look like.
“I think showing improvement over last year, showing an upward trajectory for the program, which I would expect,” explained Houston. “We look like a good football team, an experienced football team out there practicing this spring. We have not had that. So, this has been enjoyable because we go out there on offense and we can function. It’s been a great spring; we certainly have a lot of work to do and we have tremendous improvement that is needed but it’s just great to have guys that have played a good bit of snaps out there on the field.”