GREENVILLE — Mike Houston had just coached what would be his final game at James Madison last December, a 23-20 loss to Colgate in the second round of the FCS playoffs.
On the flight home, knowing he’d be interviewing for the East Carolina job the next morning, he decided to do some advance preparation by checking out the score of the Pirates’ makeup game against NC State that same day.
What he saw shocked him.
The team he was about to inherit didn’t just lose. It got embarrassed to the tune of 58-3 in a game that was so lopsided, the Wolfpack let offensive center Garrett Bradbury line up in the backfield and score a touchdown.
“That’s a noncompetitive outcome,” Houston said. “It probably painted a true picture of what I was getting ready to discuss becoming a part of. It probably isn’t a bright spot, but it kind of gives us a starting point for where we were when I was hired on Dec. 3.
“That’s Ground Zero as far as the program under our leadership, and we’ve made drastic improvements since that day.”
Though the bar hasn’t been set particularly high considering the starting point, Houston and his players will get a chance to find out just how much improvement they’ve made since the coaching change when they take on NC State in a rematch at Carter-Finley Stadium on Saturday.
It isn’t often that the same two teams that finished one season against one another play again to start the next one. But as Houston is quick to point out, the only real similarities between the bookend matchups are the logos on the helmets and the venue at which the game will be played.
“That game is such an outlier when you look at it,” the new coach said of the hastily scheduled game that served as a replacement for earlier cancellations caused by Hurricane Florence. “They lost their head coach three days before and certainly the program was in disarray. You go into that with a lot of injuries against a really good football team, it was a recipe for disaster.”
Houston, who replaced Scottie Montgomery after a third straight 3-9 season, said it makes him sick to his stomach every time he watches a replay of the rout in Raleigh. Specifically, he’s more upset with the Pirates’ lack of pride and effort in the game than he is at State for inflicting such a beating.
“That’s a tough situation that those kids were put in last year,” he said. “I think we’re in a different situation now and there’s more stability in the program today. That’s obvious.”
Not only will the Pirates return to Carter-Finley with a new coaching staff, but they’ll also line up with a full complement of players — something they weren’t able to do the last time because of a rash of debilitating injuries.
Among those sidelined for last year’s debacle was quarterback Holton Ahlers, who in addition to throwing 12 touchdowns with only three interceptions as a freshman, also led the team in rushing.
While Ahlers and his teammates still feel the sting about what happened last December and are anxious to get another shot at the Wolfpack, they’re not consumed by thoughts of revenge. Rather than trying to make amends for the past, they’re more interested in looking ahead and making the most of their opportunity for a fresh start.
“We remember that (State game), and we’re excited that it’s our first game this year,” Ahlers said. “But we’re going to focus on us because we know it all comes down to us. If we do our job, we’ll be in the game.”
Houston is so confident that ECU will give a better accounting of itself on Saturday that he’s taken to Twitter to “guarantee” the final score won’t be anything close to 58-3.
“It’s been a long time since I was part of a game like that, and I have no interest in going backwards,” he said. “I have no interest in going through that ever again, so hopefully there’s some internal motivation there.”
East Carolina Pirates
2018 Record: 3-9 (1-7 AAC)
Coach: Mike Houston (80-25 career record)
Points Per Game: 22.8
Points Allowed Per Game: 37.3
Key Returning Players: Soph. QB Holton Ahlers; Jr. S Davondre Robinson; Sr. PK Jake Verity
Key Departed Players: DE Nate Harvey; WR Trevon Brown, OT Garrett McGhin
Key Additions: Fr. CB Ja’Quan Mcmillian; Fr. RB Demetrius Mauney
Key Game: NC State, Raleigh, Aug. 31