After a year on the hot seat, ECU fires football coach Scottie Montgomery

ECU’s Montgomery faces challenges

East Carolina football coach Scottie Montgomery discusses the challenges of a 6-18 record in his first two seasons, recruiting the 2018 season before appearing at the annual Pigskin Preview in Cary on July 16, 2018.
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East Carolina football coach Scottie Montgomery discusses the challenges of a 6-18 record in his first two seasons, recruiting the 2018 season before appearing at the annual Pigskin Preview in Cary on July 16, 2018.

For East Carolina’s last two home games, a loss to Memphis and a win over Connecticut, Lee Workman stood with a poker face at a side door to a team meeting room that doubles for post-game media sessions.

Workman has been serving as the ECU athletic department’s acting chief operating officer in the absence of an athletic director. His facial expressions differed little when head coach Scottie Montgomery answered questions after a disappointing loss or an encouraging win.

That may have been the best indication Montgomery had little chance to save his job, even though ECU Chancellor Cecil P. Staton announced before the Memphis game a decision on his future wouldn’t be made until after the season finished.

The year-long speculation ended when Staton released a statement on Thursday afternoon that Montgomery won’t return for a fourth season of his five-year contract. The university stated his buyout clause pays him his $400,000 base salary for the final two years.

Montgomery, 40, won’t coach the final game when ECU (3-8) plays N.C. State (8-3) Saturday at Carter-Finley Stadium. Defensive coordinator David Blackwell will lead the program through the final game and the recruiting process until a new head coach is named.

“As much as we would have liked the outcome to be different, the progress of a program is ultimately measured by its competitiveness, win total and championships,” Staton said in the statement. “It is our decision to move in a different direction with new leadership.

“He cared deeply for his players, was an outstanding mentor, and always focused on the word ‘student’ in student-athlete. We wish him all the best.”

The release also stated that the ECU Board of Trustees, which met Wednesday night presumably to discuss a new athletic director, and Dave Hart, a former ECU athletic director serving as an “adviser” to athletics were involved in the decision.

Power 5 wins

Montgomery was 3-9 his first two seasons and 3-26 overall. He was 1-7 in the American Athletic Conference this season and 4-20 combined. The Pirates’ only 2018 conference win was over Connecticut, which is 7-29 and 3-21 the past three seasons. Three of Montgomery’s conference wins were over UConn.

Montgomery, 40, was named a head coach for first time on Dec. 13, 2015 after spending 2014 and 2015 as Duke’s offensive coordinator and 2013 as a wide receivers coach.

Former ECU athletic director Jeff Compher hired Montgomery shortly after he fired Ruffian McNeill following a 5-7 season that had been preceded by records of 10-3, 8-5 and 8-5. Compher was criticized for the move by fans; he was fired in March.

Montgomery played at Duke out of Burns High in Lawndale. He was a Blue Devils wide receiver from 1996-99 and then played four NFL seasons for three teams, including the Carolina Panthers in 2000.

He began coaching at Duke as a wide receivers coach from 2006-09. He moved to the NFL with the Pittsburgh Steelers from 2010-12 until returning to Duke.

There were Power 5 wins at home over N.C. State in 2016 and North Carolina this year, but ECU’s poor conference records hurt attendance. The 50,000-seat stadium was less than half filled for the final two home games, despite announced crowds of 29,127 against Memphis and 27,234 against UConn.

Montgomery lost the administration and fans, but his players stood by him throughout the season, including a demoralizing season-opening loss at home to N.C. A&T, a Football Championship Subdivision team.

“He has flipped the culture here,” said senior offensive tackle Garrett McGhin after the UConn victory. “Guys and coaches are holding people accountable. If you saw the way we lost games last year, this is completely different. We weren’t in games; this year we’ve been in it until the fourth quarter. A lot of little things are being built upon to translate into wins.”

Holton Ahlers

Montgomery’s recruiting landed quarterback Holton Ahlers, a coup as a hometown kid from rom D.H. Conley. Ahlers, a true freshman, took over as the starting quarterback for the season’s final six games.

“He deserves it,” Ahlers said of another season after the UConn victory on senior night. “He loves us and we love him we want to win for him just as much as we wanted to play for these seniors.”

One bright note to the season was defensive end Nate Harvey’s season that earned AAC Defensive Player of the Year. His 24 tackles for a loss set an AAC record and also lead the nation. Harvey was a walk-on junior college transfer as a backup fullback last year until he was switched to defensive end.

“I’m hurting for the players that the made the announcement before the final game,” said Zelinka Harvey, his mother. “I personally liked Coach Mo. I was hoping he’d get another year. He was getting more recruits of stature. Nate and the whole team were fond of Coach Mo.”

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