Back in 2015, East Carolina made a curious decision. The Pirates finished with a disappointing 5-7 record, but had made bowls the previous three seasons, including a 10-win campaign in 2013.
ECU’s administration decided this wasn’t good enough and fired head coach Ruffin McNeill. You might recognize that name now, since he was just named Oklahoma’s DC. ECU’s decision was not well reviewed on this website. After all, McNeill had an above-.500 record, was beloved by fans and the community, and routinely beat ACC teams.
Now, it looks like ECU has another decision to make, as new coach Scottie Montgomery has struggled mightily. After the Pirates were smashed by 43 points at the hands of an average Temple squad to drop to 2-3, let me offer some different advice.
ECU should probably go ahead and pull the plug on the Scottie Montgomery era.
The Pirates fired McNeill because they weren’t satisfied with just being good. ECU now plays in the AAC, so with programs like UCF, USF, Houston, and Cincinnati improving significantly on the field and in institutional commitment, it’s at least understandable why ECU’s administration might have been worried about being complacent.
But they weren’t able to swing a home run hire, and instead grabbed former Duke assistant Montgomery. In his third season, he’s failed to match even the worst McNeill campaign, and he probably won’t this year.
The Pirates went 3-9 the last two seasons and sit at 2-3 this year (with a blowout win over a reeling UNC and a close win over 1-5 Old Dominion), with the bulk of their difficult conference games ahead of them, plus a newly scheduled game against surging NC State, unless the Wolfpack are in the ACC Championship on that day. They’ve lost to FCS opponents two years in a row and fielded the worst scoring defense in the country last season.
That won’t happen again this year (thanks, UConn!), but they’re still giving up over 30 points a game, and with high-powered offenses like Memphis and UCF still to go, there’s a good chance that ticks upwards.
This could be forgivable if the Pirates were recruiting very well. But they’re not really.
The Pirates signed just the No. 9 recruiting class in the AAC last season, behind SMU and Temple, and No. 6 (buoyed in part by a large number of signees) in 2017. They’re ranked No. 4 right now for 2019, but that’s because they have 21 currently committed recruits, more than anybody else in the league but Temple. On a per-recruit basis, ECU’s class is No. 6.
ECU probably can’t aspire to sign the best classes in the conference, since they haven’t claimed a national title like UCF, haven’t played in a major bowl like Houston and others, and don’t sit in a major metropolitan area close to lots of good recruits, like much of the conference does.
ECU does have one of the larger, more passionate fanbases in the AAC and a strong record of historical success. Recruiting to the middle of the conference should be the expectation, not the reason to keep a struggling coach longer.
ECU has new athletic leadership, and Montgomery’s buyout isn’t THAT big, btw.
ECU’s athletic director Jeff Compher left in May, in part thanks to criticism about how he handled the football program. Without Compher, Montgomery loses a major administrative voice in his corner, and the new AD will probably want to make their own hire.
According to the USA TODAY salary database, Montgomery’s buyout is about $1.2 million. That’s not an insignificant amount of money for a school like ECU, an institution that can’t spend nearly as much as its biggest AAC peers, but as far as college buyouts go, it’s pretty reasonable. And letting an entire season go by with paltry crowds (Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium holds 50,000 — about 35,000 were reported to attend the ODU game) and declining interest could be nearly as expensive. With an interim coach, at least ECU could sell “change” to fans.
Rather than let Montgomery play out the string, ECU should pull the trigger soon.
There’s little reason to be optimistic about the rest of this season. This squad is currently 112th in S&P+, doesn’t do anything especially well, and could be blown out several times over the next few weeks, with each blowout serving up bad headlines for the program. It would shock almost everybody if Montgomery was to return for a fourth season, so why prolong the inevitable?
Ripping off the band-aid early would buy back needed goodwill within an angry (or worse, disengaged) fanbase, and give ECU’s administration extra time to reach out to candidates and put themselves in the best possible position to make an excellent hire.
For example, perhaps they could make a few calls to Norman?
Oklahoma’s new defensive coordinator could be a guy worth looking out for. (I’m joking, since he left his alma mater on bad terms just a few years ago. But kind of not joking, because there’s since been a leadership change there.)