Donovan Varner and Korrin Wiggins both knew Scottie Montgomery long before he was the head coach at East Carolina.
Varner and Wiggins were teenagers, one in Miami, the other in Durham, when Montgomery was selling a downtrodden Duke program as an assistant coach.
Even then, they noticed something special.
“He always had the juice, the sauce or what the young kids now call the swag,” said Varner, a former Duke wide receiver who’s now a graduate assistant under Montgomery at ECU. “He was always straightforward, professional but at the same time could relate to the kids. I think that’s a great character trait that Coach Mo has.”
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Montgomery spent six years as an assistant at Duke, helping to rebuild the Blue Devils’ football program. He’s now in his second season as the head coach at ECU, charged with rebuilding a program that went 3-9 last season.
Varner followed Montgomery to Duke back in 2008 and was one of the ACC’s best receivers for four seasons (2,660 yards, 2008-11), when the Blue Devils were one of the worst teams in the league.
Wiggins, a star cornerback at Hillside High School, ended up going to Clemson, spending four years (2013-16) there as a nickelback. He redshirted in 2015 after suffering a torn ACL during the preseason. This season he has joined Montgomery and Varner at ECU as a graduate transfer.
Montgomery first impressed Wiggins as a straight-talking, transparent, driven assistant. Now he sees first-hand the impact Montgomery is having at ECU.
“The players love each other around here, man,” Wiggins said.
Last season, the first as ECU coaches for both Montgomery and Varner, the Pirates went 3-9.
This season, Montgomery, Varner and Wiggins want to get the Pirates back to a winning season and a bowl game.
Montgomery, 39, has not lost his faith.
“Just because you’ve had a setback I don’t want you to give up on your goal,” said Montgomery, who was born in Shelby and attended Burns High. “If you give up on your goal when you have a setback. It’s like slashing your other three tires when you have a flat. That’s not what we are going to do.”
Montgomery, who was a wide receiver at Duke from 1996-1999, has seen what it takes to take a program from the bottom to the top.
In 2006 and 2007, his first two seasons at Duke as a wide receivers coach, the Blue Devils went 1-23.
When head coach Ted Roof was fired in 2007, Cutcliffe took over and retained Montgomery. Duke went 4-8 and 5-7 the next two seasons.
Those seasons, were Varner’s first two at Duke. But last season, ECU reminded Varner plenty of his early seasons with the Blue Devils. He said Montgomery has responded well now just like he did then.
“One play here, one play there and we could have won the game,” Varner said. “Being in that situation before has helped him now. This year, even in the spring and summer, guys are really buying in. Off the field issues that schools have, we’ve been doing a tremendous job with that. I think that carries on to the field.”
Montgomery left Duke in 2010 to join the Pittsburgh Steelers as a wide receivers coach. He worked for head coach Mike Tomlin for three seasons, including the team that lost to the Packers in Super Bowl XLV.
Montgomery returned to Duke in 2013 as offensive coordinator when the Blue Devils posted three consecutive winning seasons. The 2013 team went 10-4 and won the ACC Coastal Division before losing to Florida State 45-7 in the ACC championship game, then losing to Texas A&M 52-48 in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
In 2014, the Blue Devils went 9-4, and lost to Arizona State 36-31 in the Sun Bowl. The 2015 team finished the season 8-5, and posted the school’s first bowl win since 1961 with a 44-41 overtime win over Indiana in the Pinstripe Bowl.
Quarterback Thomas Sirk played for Montgomery those three seasons at Duke and is now a graduate transfer backup quarterback at ECU. He sees Montgomery building ECU into a program similar to Duke.
“He has high standards and expectations for the team and what we are trying to achieve,” Sirk said. “It’s no different from Duke. Duke is trying to win a conference championship. We are trying to win a conference championship. We are trying to be the most prepared team when we step on the field for game one.”
When the season begins Saturday when ECU plays James Madison, Montgomery and the rest of the Pirates expect the improvement to start showing in their record on the field.
“We have unity in our team, unity in our staff,” Montgomery said. “We’ve been aligned for a long time, but I really think this is a team that is aligned spiritually for the first time. I’m really excited where we are and looking forward to the start of the season.”
James Madison at ECU
When: 6 p.m., Saturday
Where: Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, Greenville