The celebration inside the East Carolina locker room on Saturday was going to be an emotional one no matter what.
The 48-9 victory against Gardner-Webb was the first for the Pirates under new coach Mike Houston and the first at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium since the opening of the impressive new Towne Bank Tower.
But the numbers on the scoreboard and the hopeful atmosphere in the stands had little to do with the tears Houston shed among his players and again as he addressed the media during his postgame press conference.
Rather, they were an emotional release at the end of a difficult week that saw Houston’s father pass away on Tuesday after a prolonged illness.
“To me, that’s the highlight of the day, it really is, to be able to share that with those kids,” Houston said of the victory and the celebration that followed it. “I think back to Dec. 3 last year, in this very room right here, seeing the looks on their faces the first night I talked to them, then celebrating with them in there. That was incredible, that was special. We’re trying to build something special here. That bond we have in that locker room is a big key to it.”
Houston learned of his father’s deteriorating condition on Monday and immediately left to visit him in his hometown of Franklin. He made a return trip for the funeral three days later while coordinators Bob Trott and Donnie Kirkpatrick prepared the team for its home opener.
The Pirates did what they could to comfort their grieving coach by putting on an inspired performance that included two backs rushing for more than 100 yards each, sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers accounting for three touchdowns and a defense that intercepted two passes while holding the opposition to a single score.
Afterward, Houston was awarded a game ball by athletic director Jon Gilbert, who hired him only days after his own arrival in Greenville last December. He responded by singing the ECU fight song and joyfully embracing his players as they celebrated their victory.
“Him being able to go out there and coach a football game under the circumstances he and his family have gone through, it means a lot to us,” Ahlers said afterward. “Obviously, we’re praying for him. We’re always playing for him.”
It was a gesture that resonated with Houston — and not just because it was an outward sign that his players, most of whom were recruited by his predecessor Scottie Montgomery, are beginning to form a strong bond with him and are buying into the program he’s attempting to build.
“The way they responded this week is just really incredible,” the former James Madison coach said. “They were constantly checking on me and I don’t want them doing it, I want them focusing on the game. But it says a lot about them that they have those thoughts.”
Those thoughts have now turned to the next game on the schedule, Saturday at Navy.
Houston said that ECU will have to play much better than it did against last week’s FCS opponent to have a chance at beating an American Athletic Conference rival. But for all the mistakes that need to be cleaned up, the Pirates’ coach said his late father would have been proud of the effort his team put forth under such difficult circumstances.
“He would have found something we could have done better, I promise you that,” Houston said. “But he was always proud of the way our teams competed. When I think back to growing up, I think that was the thing he tried to teach me. No matter what, you’re always going to go out and compete. I think he would’ve been proud of our team tonight and the way they competed.”