East Carolina quarterback Thomas Sirk (10) plays against West Virginia on Sept. 9, 2017, in Morgantown, W.Va. (AP Photo/Raymond Thompson) Ray Thompson AP
East Carolina quarterback Thomas Sirk (10) plays against West Virginia on Sept. 9, 2017, in Morgantown, W.Va. (AP Photo/Raymond Thompson) Ray Thompson AP

Luke DeCock

Can East Carolina recover from its latest self-inflicted football mess?

By Luke DeCock

ldecock@newsobserver.com

September 12, 2017 4:53 PM

If there’s any consolation for East Carolina fans, it’s that their football team has been here before, 13 years ago, and needed only five years to get back to where the Pirates expect to be. That won’t make it any easier to endure the rest of this season, but at least it’s an indication that there may be a way out.

In any case, there’s no question the feelings are familiar in Greenville after an 0-2 start that includes a lopsided home loss to FCS James Madison and a no-contest road loss at West Virginia, with players pointing fingers at each other and the defensive coordinator summarily fired Sunday in a spasm of desperation.

The disarray resembles, in too many ways, the bottoming-out season of 2004, after which John Thompson was fired with a career record of 3-20. It took some miracle work from Skip Holtz to resurrect the program into what it was as recently as three years ago, under Ruffin McNeill.

Scottie Montgomery is 3-11 early in his second season, with the stunning upset of bowl-bound N.C. State last season his first win and only notable triumph so far. Up next? Sixteenth-ranked Virginia Tech on Saturday. In years past, the Pirates would have been salivating at the prospect of getting a shot at the Hokies in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. This year, they’re a three-touchdown underdog. The line may be generous.

In both cases, the precipitous decline can be traced to an athletic director bowing to antsy boosters and firing a successful coach with the ambition of finding a better one, only for the bottom to fall out immediately.

In 2002, Mike Hamrick replaced Steve Logan with Thompson after one losing season and ended up escaping for UNLV a few steps ahead of the mob. He might have gotten away with firing Logan, given the general downward direction of the program, but whiffing on his replacement was catastrophic.

Athletics director Jeff Compher has done admirable work in other regards at East Carolina – the long-awaited upgrades to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium will be a bullet point on his resume forever – but his decision to fire McNeill after the 2015 season hit the football program right in the sweetbreads.

Certainly, the buck stops with Montgomery and the results are unacceptable by any standard, but Compher bears the majority of the blame for the baffling decision to bail on McNeill after a 5-7 season amid grumbling from a portion of the fan base, throwing the program into upheaval and leaving Montgomery set up to fail.

He missed out on his chance to promote offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, who left for the same job at Oklahoma a year earlier and is now, at 34, head coach of the Sooners. Had Compher waited a year and the situation did not improve, there would have been much less concern over his decision to cut loose an alum who went 6-8 against ACC teams and cared deeply about both the school and community, not to mention his players – one hired, it should be noted, by Terry Holland, Compher’s predecessor, always a tricky dynamic.

Those hypotheticals can’t save East Carolina now. At the time, Compher acknowledged it was an unpopular decision. He needed results to vindicate him. They have not.

The Pirates have found their way back from this situation before, but whether that task falls to Montgomery or someone else, it won’t be easy to do it again.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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