New coach Mike Houston brings candor, winning track record to ECU football

There’s no brown liquor allowed on the team bus, not even after a 55-point loss to end a miserable season.

There’s no such rule against Google.

On the ride back to Greenville after East Carolina’s 58-3 loss at N.C. State on Dec. 1, quarterback Holton Ahlers fired up his smartphone to learn more about coach Mike Houston, who was rumored to be a candidate for the Pirates’ job.

Ahlers, who is from Greenville, grew up an ECU fan and wants the proud program to get back to the better recent days of Ruffin McNeil, Skip Holtz and Steve Logan after a three-year lull under Scottie Montgomery.

“We definitely did our research,” Ahlers, who started five games last season but missed the N.C. State loss with an injury, said recently at ECU’s media day.

The more Ahlers and his teammates read about Houston, who led James Madison to a national championship at the Football Championship Subdivision level in 2016 and helped Lenoir-Rhyne reach the Division II title game in 2013, the more they liked.

“We knew that he had a proven track record of changing programs and winning,” Ahlers said. “He was the guy we wanted.”

Two days after the disaster at N.C. State, the Pirates got their man. Houston, who had also considered taking the UNC Charlotte job, signed a five-year deal worth $7.38 million with ECU on Dec. 3.

Mike Houston’s history of instant success

While Montgomery floundered in his three-year run at ECU with a 9-26 record and was fired before the N.C. State game, Houston had a 37-6 mark at JMU and one of the wins was 34-14 at ECU to open the 2017 season.

It’s a move that echoed what N.C. State did in the mid-1980s when it had hired Dick Sheridan from Furman, after he beat the Wolfpack with the Paladins.

Sheridan turned out to be one of the best coaches in N.C. State history. Houston’s track record suggests he could be a home-run hire for the Pirates.

In eight seasons as a head coach at three different Division II and FCS programs, he won 76.2 percent of his games (80-25). His teams made the NCAA playoffs six times and had a winning record in all but one season.

“You look at his track record and he has been successful at every level,” Donnie Kirkpatrick, who worked with Houston at JMU and his offensive coordinator at ECU, said at media day.

“There’s an energy and determination to the way he coaches that players respect and like.”

In each of his first three stops, it hasn’t taken Houston long to make an impact. He went 14-1 and won the FCS title in his first season at JMU and 7-3 in his first season at Lenoir-Rhyne. Even the 5-7 record in his debut season at The Citadel is impressive.

“We started 0-3, but we finished strong,” Houston said at media day.

So what’s the trick to turning a program around in a hurry?

“I don’t know,” Houston said. “We just try to come in and be who we are. We’re not fake. We don’t blow smoke at people. The kids know they can trust us. They know we are going to be straight with them.”

An honest approach

Senior defensive end Kendall Futrell described Houston’s style as intense but upbeat. There’s a “real-talk” quality to Houston, and after losing 17 games under Montgomery by at least 20 points, the Pirates could use it.

“Sometimes I’ll just sit back and watch him in team meetings, and I can see like goosebumps on his arms,” Futrell said. “He is intense, but he gets his point across and is deliberate with it to the team. I like his message. I like what he’s doing.”

Houston, 47, grew up in the western part of the state, in Franklin, and played football at Mars Hill. He didn’t have a direct connection to ECU before he was hired.

He has been a quick study and endeared himself to the ECU faithful with his candor. In an interview with a Triad sports-talk radio show earlier this month, Houston encouraged ECU fans to “take the spread” in the opener against N.C. State (the Pirates are a 16 1/2-point underdog).

Earlier this week in his on-campus news conference, Houston said when he watched the film of ECU’s 2018 loss to N.C. State, the lack of effort and enthusiasm by the Pirates “made me absolutely sick to my stomach.”

Houston is not about to apologize for his directness or his value of honesty.

“Our ‘yesses’ mean yes and our ‘nos’ mean no,” Houston said. “It’s our way.”

The importance of quarterback Holton Ahlers

Much of Houston’s ability to turn another instant makeover will hinge on Ahlers, who was outstanding when healthy, and cajoling improvement out of a defense that ranked No. 101 in yards allowed per game (439.8) and No. 120 in scoring (37.3 points per game).

In his first three starts as a freshman last season, Ahlers threw for 406, 449 and 360 yards. In his fourth start, he threw for 242 yards and ran for another 130.

His versatility can hide some of ECU’s faults up front, and his leadership and understanding of the program’s history have provided a needed morale boost to what was a sagging program under Montgomery.

Montgomery’s teams figured out how to beat Connecticut (three times), UNC and N.C. State (2-0) but were 4-26 against everyone else before he was fired two days before the ill-fated trip to N.C. State.

If that misery was the price to get Houston and a quick reboot, it was a trade many inside the program are willing to make.

“We’re not expecting this to be a rebuilding year,” Ahlers said. “We’re expecting this to be a winning year.”

ECU at NC State

When: Noon, Saturday

Where: Carter-Finley Stadium, Raleigh

Watch: ACC Network

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Joe Giglio has worked at The N&O since 1995 and has regularly reported on the ACC since 2005. He grew up in Ringwood, N.J. and graduated from N.C. State.
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