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ECU fires Scottie Montgomery, probably should have never fired Ruffin McNeill

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After an odd firing, McNeill’s replacement never got off the ground.

East Carolina v West Virginia Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

ECU is firing head football coach Scottie Montgomery, the school announced Thursday.

His firing was a long time coming, and this move formalizes what most fans and media had expected for a while. It finally came down shortly after Saturday’s loss to Cincinnati dropped the Pirates to 3-8. They’ll play a hurricane makeup game at NC State on Saturday but decided not to wait for that to make a move.

News had come out Wednesday that Charlotte, another Group of 5 team in their state, would hire JMU’s Mike Houston. Reports to that effect still haven’t gotten confirmation, though, and according to SB Nation’s Steven Godfrey, that’s related to this.

Montgomery won’t coach the finale, per what the school called a “mutual agreement by all parties.” Defensive coordinator David Blackwell will coach in his place. Montgomery’s buyout will be about $1.2 million, according to USA Today.

Why’s he out? It has a bit to do with his predecessor.

Montgomery didn’t win a lot of games — never more than three in a season. This is one of the worst teams in FBS right now. He might have been fired no matter the context.

But more than that, Montgomery didn’t meet the bar set by the popular coach who came before him, whom ECU fired in hopes of moving to the next level.

The Pirates had a pretty decent thing going under former coach Ruffin McNeill when they fired him after 2015. McNeill was coming off a 5-7 year, but in the two years before that, he went 18-8 — once winning 10 games in the Pirates’ last year in Conference USA, then winning eight in their first year in the new AAC, 2014. They were two games off the conference leaders that year.

ECU was regularly competitive against Power 5 teams, including winning streaks at various points against Virginia Tech, North Carolina, and NC State. Few mid-majors were as good at punching above their weight class as McNeill’s ECU was.

The school announced McNeill’s firing with a bizarre press release that, in addition to noting championship goals, called out the coach for finishing behind certain schools:

Since the Pirates accepted membership in the American Athletic Conference in 2014, ECU has posted an 8-8 league mark, which includes a recent 3-5 ledger and fifth-place East Division finish this fall. During its inaugural year in the AAC, East Carolina was 5-3 and stood fourth behind Cincinnati, Memphis and UCF.

Fine, but McNeill’s was a odd firing.

ECU struggled a bit this season. The Pirates finished 5-7, thanks to a challenging non-conference schedule that included close losses at Florida and a 9-3 BYU and a victory over proto-rivals Virginia Tech. Before the season started, they lost their star offensive coordinator (Lincoln Riley) to Oklahoma, new projected starting QB Kurt Benkert to a season-ending knee injury, and all-everything WR Justin Hardy to the NFL Draft.

Given that the Pirates can’t have a roster stacked with blue-chippers, that kind of attrition plus this schedule would lead to a regression year for a lot of coaches.

It’s also worth pointing out that McNeill isn’t a lot of coaches. For one, he’s an ECU graduate and letterman, a member of the team that made the school’s first modern bowl game (1978) under Pat Dye. He’s beloved by his players, his community and other coaches.

McNeill’s now at Oklahoma, where he’s the assistant head coach and, after Mike Stoops’ firing at midseason, the defensive coordinator.

Jeff Compher, the AD who fired McNeill, has since taken a buyout and left the school. Since Compher’s departure in March, ECU hasn’t had a permanent AD. In October, it appointed a search committee to find one. Acting AD Dave Hart, whose title isn’t actually “acting AD,” but “advisor,” is under contract until Dec. 15. The school said Hart and the school’s board of trustees were both involved in the decision to cut ties with Montgomery.

Montgomery’s teams lost a lot, and expectations had been set higher.

To understand the expectations this football-proud school had for Montgomery, we have to consider how high ECU implied the bar would be set when it fired McNeill. The athletic director who canned the last guy was gone by the time Montgomery is gone , but the people pressuring the athletic director presumably haven’t changed much.

By any measure, Montgomery did worse than the guy who got weirdly fired before him. In a vacuum, he might’ve been fired. In context, there was no way he wouldn’t.

Moving on seems like the right, inevitable move.

Montgomery put together a pair of 3-9 records in his first two years and wasn’t thriving this year. His teams started two seasons in a row by losing to FCS teams, albeit good ones (James Madison in 2017, North Carolina A&T in 2018). The best thing for ECU was to make a change.

Montgomery, a former Steelers receivers coach and Duke offensive coordinator, was a well-regarded assistant when he got to ECU. He’ll be in demand somewhere.

It’s possible to win at ECU. McNeill did it, and the Carolinas are a good recruiting region. They’re also not too far from other talent-heavy states Georgia, Virginia, and even Maryland. You can get good players to ECU and win games there if you’ve got the right guy.

As Montgomery exits, let’s quickly savor some good moments.

ECU fans will always have a 2016 win against NC State, which moved the Pirates to 2-0 before they lost nine of their last 10 in Montgomery’s first year.

Plus, under Montgomery, the Pirates’ graphics department issued to recruits these extremely good scholarship offers that looked like actual pirate scrolls.

Those were great. His tenure generally did not live up to what ECU needed.