Five college football coaches sat on stage during the 15th Annual Bill Dooley Pigskin Preview.
Among the coaches was legendary quarterback whisperer David Cutcliffe, the head coach at Duke. Sitting to Cutcliffe’s left was his protege, second-year East Carolina head coach Scottie Montgomery. At the end of the table sat coaches from rival schools: North Carolina’s Larry Fedora and N.C. State’s Dave Doeren. Between Fedora and Doeren sat N.C. Central’s Jerry Mack.
If the casual football fan looked at the stage and was asked to pick the most successful of the five, who would it be? Cutcliffe’s had his fair share of success, first as the head coach at Ole Miss and for the last 10 years at Duke, giving life to a Blue Devils program that was constantly at the bottom of the ACC. He tied for a division title as the Rebels head coach, and won the ACC Coastal Division in 2013.
Fedora took over a North Carolina program at a dark time, right when the team was under heavy fire from the NCAA. Despite that, Fedora led the Tar Heels back to the top of the conference, winning the Coastal in 2015. Doeren won two MAC conference titles at Northern Illinois, but has not had that kind of success since taking over in Raleigh.
Mack, however, stands out from his coaching counterparts. As pointed out by emcee Jeff Gravley, Mack was the only coach in the building who won a conference championship last year. Mack was sporting his 2016 MEAC ring, the latest piece of hardware to his collection. Since arriving in Durham in 2014, all Mack knows is winning, collecting three consecutive league titles. Mack, 37, has won 24 games entering his fourth season, and last year the Eagles were ranked in the FCS Coaches Poll for the first time in school history. After sweeping the MEAC, Mack led N.C. Central to its first bowl game. By comparison it took Cutcliffe four years before the Blue Devils became bowl eligible. Other coaches, as it turns out, have taken notice of what Mack has been doing.
“Unbelievable,” was Montgomery’s reaction when asked about Mack winning three straight league titles. “Very hard to do. The real reason it’s hard to do is turnover; that means player turnover, staff turnover. He’s been able to do it consecutively with local kids. He, like me, likes to recruit the state and make sure our kids get a better opportunity. I love Coach Mack.”
The job Mack does possibly goes unnoticed, coaching at the FCS level at an HBCU. Sometimes, as unfair as it might be, coaches in conferences like the MEAC don’t get the respect they deserve nationally. When athletic directors are looking for a new coach to turn around a program, coaches like Mack are overlooked. And while the casual fan will look at Mack’s 0-2 record against Duke and 0-1 mark head-to-head with ECU and instantly think he can’t coach against the big boys, the big boy coaches realize what an excellent job he has done.
“He has the respect of all of his peers,,” Montgomery said. “Those of us who watch the tape and turn on the film realize he is a great football coach. He’s a great mind and his kids are doing better every year.”
Mack said it’s “humbling” to share a stage with coaches from Power 5 programs, and at the end of the day their jobs are very similar. They have experienced success and so has he. But at the end of the day, it’s those programs that get the notoriety in the Triangle. Mack puts it all in perspective and has no problems with that.
“I’m not different from all of them,” Mack said. “I just happened to have success at this moment, next year it can be something different.”
Mack called Cutcliffe a mentor and when the series between the Eagles and Blue Devils ends, he plans to get over to Duke’s campus to pick Cutcliffe’s brain. Sitting next to Fedora, who runs a similar offense, Mack used that time to quiz the UNC coach on how he does things, calling that moment “a great learning experience.”
All the coaches are busy with their own programs, but being in such close proximity with one another, the comparisons are going to come, if not from outsiders, from the coaches themselves. Mack won’t say he compares himself to the coaches, but he does check to see how his program measures up.
“We look at their programs and try to mimic as much as we can,” Mack said. “I hope that they are able to learn and watch from afar and steal some of our stuff as well.”
Montgomery settles in for second season
In his first year at East Carolina, Montgomery led the Pirates to a 3-9 finish.
After getting off to a 2-0 start, including a win over in-state rival N.C. State, ECU dropped five in a row and didn’t get their third win until the last weekend in October. Starting year two of the Montgomery regime, the Pirates hope to have more stability now that everyone is a bit more familiar with one another.
“We know what to expect, we know our kids a lot better,” Montgomery said. “We know our conference a heck of a lot better than we’ve ever known it.”
The biggest thing from year, Montgomery said, is patience. Montgomery is trying to implement a culture in Greenville. The system is in place and the staff can coach more football, but a little more patience is required to get the culture in place.
Montgomery’s biggest question mark is will his team be able to run the ball efficiently. The question fans wanted to address, however, is who will play quarterback? Duke transfer Thomas Sirk is on the roster, but should be in a battle with Gardner Minshew when camp rolls around. Montgomery would like to have that settled before the Pirates take on James Madison in the season opener.
“We’re blessed to have Thomas Sirk compete for a starting role, but as we speak right now Gardner Minshew is our starter,” Montgomery said. “We’re going to go into camp and let them battle it out. We see no sense in having a two quarterback system, we want to have one.”