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New coach, new AD — a new era for Pirates

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A new era of East Carolina athletics has arrived.

Arguably the two most instrumental positions in the ECU athletic department were officially filled Monday when new director of athletics Jon Gilbert and football coach Mike Houston had their contracts formally approved by the Board of Trustees. 

The two personalities were then introduced over two separate press conferences in less than 24 hours, with Gilbert speaking on Monday and Houston being welcomed on Tuesday.

Gilbert, the former athletics director at Southern Miss, entered into a contract agreement with ECU in an official capacity in the early part of the weekend, and traveled to Harrisonburg, Virginia, on Sunday to meet with Houston, the head coach at James Madison University. Around 24 hours after formally accepting the position, Gilbert had reached a verbal agreement with Houston to be ECU’s next head football coach. Houston replaces Scottie Montgomery, who was fired this past Thursday after compiling a career record of 9-26 with the Pirates.

NOT JUST ANY AD

Athletics advisor Dave Hart spent much of the past few weeks putting tighter a plan to hire Gilbert and the program’s next football coach. Gilbert previously worked under Hart at Alabama and Tennessee, leading to his position at ECU. Hart then got the work started with the hiring of Houston, and Gilbert finalized things.

“It’s very gratifying because it’s very important that an AD is in place, but Jon isn’t just any AD,” said Hart, who previously was ECU’s athletics director in the 1990s. “He’s an exceptional athletics director, exceptional administrator and person. I asked Jon early on who were the top three candidates he’d like to pursue and he said first and foremost if we can get him, Mike Houston.

“So to watch all that unfold, and how unusual it is in this profession. For all that to be able to happen as quickly as it happened, it’s something special. Both Jon and Mike wanted to be here and it all fell into place.”

UP THE COACHING LADDER

For all the mistakes previous athletic director Jeff Compher made when hiring Montgomery — an unproven head coach and one who had very little experience among other college environments — Houston looks to be the opposite. 

A one-time high school coach who worked his way up the coaching ladder the hard way, Houston has compiled a remarkable 80-25 record at the collegiate level. He also went 42-18 in high school at T.C. Roberson in Asheville before making the jump to college coaching. While the head coach at Division II Lenoir-Rhyne, he led the Bears to their first playoff win in 50 years. 

He then took The Citadel to the playoffs for the initial time in 23 years, and earlier that season, led the Bulldogs into Columbia where they upset South Carolina for arguably the biggest win in school history. At James Madison, all he did was win the national championship in Year 1 in 2016, and went 37-6 in his three seasons.

On Sunday, Houston and his family decided it was time to move on to the next challenge at East Carolina. The Pirates were once one of the Southeast’s proudest college football teams. But ECU has been anything but in recent years, going 3-9 each of the past three seasons under Montgomery and just 4-20 in AAC play. Still, that’s not to going to stop Houston from setting the bar high.

“It’s important to me that we’re able to connect the past, the tradition of East Carolina football, our current roster, and the future of what this program is going to be,” Houston said during Tuesday’s introductory press conference. “We’re going to have lofty goals. I can promise you that no matter what the expectations of our athletic director, our chancellor, the fan base, the media, or anyone else, I don’t care what their expectations are, they will not match the internal expectations of this team and myself will have for this program.

“We are not going to back down from that. We’re are not coming together to be just average. We want to build a program that will, year-in and year-out, compete for the American Athletic Conference Championship and compete nationally against any and everybody.”

FAMILIAR FACES RETURN

Houston, 47, is expected to bring most of James Madison’s veteran staff to ECU with him, including long-time Pirate assistants Donnie Kirkpatrick (offensive coordinator) and Steve Shankweiler (offensive line), and veteran defensive coordinator Bob Trott. 

Houston will make $1.3 million in his first year as the Pirates’ head coach. He signed a five-year contract.

While Houston captured most of the headlines, Gilbert stole the show in some respects on Monday. Prior to his introductory press conference, Gilbert went around the room introducing himself to everyone personally. That was a welcome change compared to Compher, who at times was standoffish to the average fan.

“I want to earn your trust,” Gilbert said to the Pirate Nation. “I think it’s really important initially that I earn the trust of the entire Pirate faithful. I am who I am, and I am pretty simple. I want to win. I want to do it the right way. And I want to have fun.

“I really think this is a great job and I’m really excited to get started at director of athletics.”

Gilbert, who signed a five-year deal, will be paid an annual base salary of $500,000. 

“I feel great for Pirate Nation, I really do,” Hart said. “Because this is what we really needed to to take the next step. Not to have these voids, it was time to move forward. We have a lot of good people here, but there will be some new direction, some new faces.”

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