First-year East Carolina University Head Football Coach Mike Houston addressed members of the media Thursday to talk about the opening of spring drills and other matters related to the future of the Pirates’ program:
“It’s an exciting time! I thought on how to start everything as we go into spring and what to share with you guys and I really thought back to December 3, 2018. That day for me is one I will remember vividly for the rest of my life and for our program here – I would really call that ground zero.
We were a couple days removed from a very embarrassing 58-3 loss in Raleigh to NC State. The program was in transition. As I stood in this room, the room looked a lot different physically, but I’ll never forget the faces of the young men in our program and looking in their eyes. To be honest, they were lost at that point in time.
When I walked in to this building, I was astonished at the state of the facility. That can be said for several things around our football program at that point in time. The one thing I will say is since that day, everyone in this building, and I say everyone in this building because it’s not just the second floor where the coaches’ offices are located. It is very much the first floor where the players operate on a daily basis. It is very much the third floor where our athletic administration is housed. Everyone in this building has been committed every single day to doing everything humanly possible to evaluate, slightly adjust or drastically overhaul everything involved with this football program. Everything that touches our young men on a daily basis has been meticulously looked at and evaluated to see how we are going to operate moving forward.
I can tell you that just like this room physically, things are in a much better place today than they were on December 3rd. But the biggest thing, as we start tomorrow preparing for the 2019 season, there is a bright future ahead for East Carolina football. Is it going to be an easy road? Absolutely not. There are going to be tough times. There is no doubt. But you have a group that is committed to making sure we get the task done, that we accomplish the goals that we set out. Some of those we have already accomplished. But there is still a lot of work to do. Now is it going to translate overnight to exactly what we want? No. It is going to take time.
But I can promise you that as I stand here today, I could not be more excited about anything as I am about this program, the young men in this program, the support that we have from the athletic administration, the support we have from campus. Jon Gilbert has been everything that you could ever want in an athletics director as far as how he has treated me and how he has supported our program since we’ve started. I’m ready to get out there and start practicing.
Tomorrow I have in my mind how I hope it goes. Just like with a football game, you have in your mind how you hope it goes too, but once the ball kicks off, you have to adjust to what happens next and the game plan kind of goes out the window at that point. You’ve got to be able to make adjustments and react and think ahead. I do know that expectations have been laid.
There is a foundation that has been established so far with our offseason training. The players fully understand what those expectations are. We will work together in fulfilling those expectations starting tomorrow morning around 8’o clock. As you look around the room and look around the facility, you’ll see a lot of quotes, you’ll see a lot of core values and these are things that I have put together over the years, 25-plus years of really borrowing, stealing and coming up with things that go into what I believe in as far as how a football team should be run.
The point of having them up is as we talk to the players about them, the things that are really important such as our core values, I can talk about it, but every day when they walk in this door, that’s the first thing they see. It’s a reinforcement daily of what we’re going to be as a program.
The No Quarter flag in the back of the room. If we’re going to raise that flag at the beginning of the fourth quarter for home games, I’m not about fake stuff. So, if we’re going to raise that flag and talk about what it means, then we’re going to embrace that. I expect our players to respond to it. Now, I talked to them and said the goal is not to wait until the fourth quarter to start playing. You better start playing in the first quarter so we may start raising the flag in the first quarter.
I do want to embrace the traditions that are in place here. At the same time, I very much respect what the program has been, what the program has accomplished. That is in the past and we’re firmly committed to the future. We’re not really looking behind us.
With practice starting tomorrow, the one thing that I will say is that there is competition at every single position on our roster. There is no depth chart at this point. We will establish that depth chart as we start working tomorrow. When you see the players come out tomorrow, there is not a logo on the side of any helmet on that field. All of our players will earn the right to have the Jolly Roger on side of their helmet this spring. They will earn the right to represent our program. Because it is a privilege and an honor to be a member of this football program and to represent East Carolina University. It’s very important to me that our players understand that and they embrace that.
We need to get back to establishing what that’s going to represent. This offseason stuff, it’s really, really important because when it comes game day in the fall because tghe last time I checked – they keep score. It matters who wins. You win games in the offseason. You don’t win games on game day as much as you do right now. Right now, we’re working on what we’re going to be in 2019.
I’m excited to get started tomorrow. I expect an up-tempo practice. I expect a lot of effort. I expect a lot of discipline. I expect a lot of intensity. It’s going to be a helmeted practice. I told the players that whatever your version of a helmeted practice was before, you might as well throw that out the door. It’s going to be a full speed practice. We’re going to be demanding and we’re going to establish what it means to practice on a daily basis because those habits are going to dictate how you play on game day.
I told them we’re going to find out what kind of football team we have in my opinion at about 8:45 on Monday morning because that’s when we start “Inside Run.” Inside Run is a drill that is going to be the backbone of our program and it is not going to be for the faint of heart. We are going to be a physical football team on both sides of the ball. We’re going to practice in a manner to prepare ourselves to play on game day.
Thank you very much for being here today. I appreciate the support of all of you in the media in being here to cover our program. I want you to know that’s important to me as well. There are going to be some changes to the way we go about access and things like that. I’ve always had very positive relationships with the media in the past. I look forward to positive relationships with you guys. But I want you to know I do appreciate the coverage you give us so thanks for being here.”
On key goals he hopes to achieve during spring practice:
“I think number one to me and most importantly is that we establish our culture and attitude and the way we’re going to operate. I think that’s critical. Players are going to come and go over the years, but it is critical to me that we establish the proper culture in this program to where as players enter the program, we have to have things in place so they understand how we’re going to do things. How we’re going to operate, how we’re going to work, how we’re going to go about things on a daily basis. We’ve established some of it, but you cannot really establish it until you’ve gone through the practice portion of preparing for the sport of football.
The second thing is obviously establishing our depth chart. We do want to have an idea of where everybody fits best, what kind of abilities we have at certain spots and what things we need to work on. After going through spring practice, we’ll be able to adjust schemes according to what we have. I have looked a lot at film from last year, but at the same time, I’m trying to give everyone a clean slate. Everybody has a fresh start. I’m thinking about a couple of kids that didn’t play last year that have been fairly impressive in the offseason and I think they’re fairly rejuvenated because they see, hey I’ve got a chance. Some of the more established players, what I’ve stressed to them, is you need to earn your spot because nothing will be given. That’s the way it is in life, that’s the way it is on game day in the fall. You need to earn your keep every single day.”
On getting excited before starting spring practice:
“How can’t you? If I get to the point where I’m not excited to go out there for the first day of spring ball, then I need to go find another line of work. I believe this sport is played a certain way. If you’re going to play that way, you need to practice that way. If we’re going to play with the passion and the fire that I talk about, it all starts at the top, so I better have that when we take the field tomorrow. So yeah, I’m excited about tomorrow. I’m anxious and I want it to hurry up and get here. For helmeted practices, tomorrow is important because tomorrow is the first day. I’m excited for tomorrow. I’m really, really excited for Monday. Because that’s when you start teaching the players how we’re going to play. I talk about how we’re going to practice and how we’re going to go about doing things, but to me, it really starts on Monday.”
On what he learned during past transitions:
“I think you learn from every experience you have. This is the fifth program that I’ve been the head coach of. So, every time, from starting out at the high school level in Asheville, I don’t know how many years ago, you learn from every experience you have and it builds upon what you have to offer. I learned a lot from the transition from The Citadel to James Madison, I learned a lot when I left Lenoir-Rhyne and went to The Citadel and I’ve learned a lot from this. Every experience you use what you learned to try to be better the next time. I think that I’ve probably handled this transition better than I handled the last one because I was more prepared for it. Hopefully that helps us with what we start tomorrow.”
On Nate Harvey’s status:
“We don’t have an update from the NCAA. I do expect one virtually any day now, but we don’t have anything yet.”
On what Harvey is allowed to do:
“Talking to Nate, the things that we’ve discussed is that, either way, he has plans to play football next year. So right now, he’s preparing to play football next year. That’s how he’s approaching everything. No matter what the decision is that comes down, we’re going to support Nate Harvey fully. I’ll do everything in my power to make sure that he is on the field playing. So, I hope it’s here with us, I believe it will be. If it’s not, we’re going to help prepare him for what’s next in his life.”
On the status of Holton Ahlers, Branden Pena, and Blake Proehl:
“Holton is full go. Pena is full go. Blake will be fairly full go. There are certain things that he won’t be able to do for parts of the spring. Those guys have recovered well.”
On what he has seen on film from a schematic standpoint:
“I’m a firm believer that it is not what you do, but how you do it. That’s the biggest thing we’ve got to change is how we do it. The problems in the past were not what they were doing, but very much how they went about it. I can promise you that our team will not look the way they looked last fall when we take the field on August 31. There’s going to be a different style of play defensively. We’re going to be a disciplined, gap-sound, physical defensive front and we’re going to play with a chip on our shoulder. The same thing offensively. We are going to attack people. You can use some trickery and some misdirection and things like that, but we are going to go right at people. The same thing for special teams, we are going to be aggressive. What I saw on film, scheme wise, X and O wise, I don’t see those as the problems. I see the execution and the style of play as being the biggest things we need to get fixed.”
On his philosophy of the timing of spring practices:
“It’s not what we’re doing this spring. The time of the spring that you do things is going to be different year-to-year based on when your season ends. This spring we’re a little bit later, mainly because of the transition. I wanted to give our coaches time to really mesh together and see what we can do. I want to have more time in the weight room with the players and Coach Williams, and I want to have more time to get to know the players, so we did push it back a little bit. Ideally, I would go Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays instead of Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays so that way you never have those back-to-back days and you always have that film day, that teaching day, in between practices.
Ideally, I would probably practice in the afternoon. But when you make a transition, you inherit what has been set up by the previous staff because class schedules and things of that nature dictate a lot. We will make it work this spring. I am excited about the spring game on April 13. The combination of the Pigskin Pigout and Pirate Fest going on that weekend, I think that is a great opportunity for us to work with the city of Greenville to make that a really special weekend, not just for ECU football, but for Greenville in general. I think it is going to be a fantastic weekend. We’ve invited our football alumni back and we have some special things going on with them. We’re really trying to reconnect with our former players. I’m really excited for the timing of that. It’s one of those things with every transition that you want to change everything at once, but you’ve got to change things incrementally based on timing. Spring practice this year is set, it’ll probably look a little bit different next year.”
On the format of the spring game:
“I’ve been asked that a couple of times. I’ll tell you about a week out because the biggest thing it depends on is the health of your roster. Ideally, you would want two teams playing and having a true spring game. A lot of times in the spring the depth of your roster, whether it be due to health or you don’t have all of your incoming players yet, you don’t have the depth to do that yet, so it becomes offense vs. defense. If it is offense vs. defense, we have a scoring system that we use. It’s one of those that you need a math degree to understand sometimes but it’s worked out pretty well. No matter what the spring game format is, we’re going to compete. There’s going to be a winner and a loser. I’ll talk a little bit more about that when we get to it, but everything is a competition.”
On the stability of the roster:
“I feel like it has been fairly positive. When you look at our players, the one thing when I stood there on December 3 vs. standing there tomorrow morning, I can promise you that none of them want to go through what they went through last year ever again. They want to get this thing fixed. I think that my track record and some of the things our programs have done, and they also know some of our former players, I think that’s given us a little bit of credibility to where they’re excited about the opportunity to get things fixed and turned around. Now is everyone going to be here on August 31? Probably not. The expectations for accountability on a daily basis are very high and I cannot sit here and tell you that everybody has met those expectations every day. There may be some players that aren’t with us tomorrow morning that you’re expecting to be there. The thing is, the ones that are in the uniform and on the field come August 31, I can promise you that those guys are going to play and represent East Carolina University at a high level.”
On biggest challenge so far and biggest challenge moving forward:
“There’s been a lot. Number one, I think we’ve got to change our mindset. When I say that, it’s not as easy as it sounds coming off the lips. I’ve seen a lot of teams win games that they probably shouldn’t or maybe couldn’t have, just because they thought they would. We’ve got to get more to a mindset of believing on game day and having confidence in ourselves. Now that confidence comes from doing things well on a daily basis. I’m a firm believer that you build confidence by having successes. Success may be your academic performance. Success may be seeing growth and change in your body. Success may be seeing yourself in a challenging task on the field or in practice and seeing yourself be successful in that situation. I think we need to change our mindset and the belief in ourselves individually and we need to establish a better trust collectively.
One of our core things is do your job. Obviously, it comes from the Patriots, and the last time I checked, they’re pretty good at doing that. You look at their team over the years, they’re never the most talented but somehow they keep winning Super Bowls. Because that culture up there is do your job. We’ve taken that over the years and applied that.
The other part of that is to trust your teammates to do their job. If you’re a great linebacker or you’re a great defensive end – if you’re Nate Harvey – you need to make the plays that are yours to make. If you go out there and try to make every play, you’re going to create some big plays for both sides. You’re going to create some big plays for us and for them. Learning how to play together, learning to be very committed to what you’re assigned to do every single snap, every single day, everything in their life. Then trusting the guy next to you that he is going to do the same. That is critical. That’s a big challenge.
Another big challenge are the facilities. This room is night and day from what it was when I stood in here on December 3. As we walk around this facility, you’re going to see some places that look the way they should. This whole building should look like this, as far as upkeep. You’re going to see some areas where we still have some work to do. That is no different from our football program, our team that is. We’re a work in progress. Our building is a work in progress. The stadium out front is obviously a work in progress. Our practice fields are a work in progress. You have a lot of challenges right now, so when you say what’s the biggest, I don’t know what’s the biggest because there’s a lot of them. The thing I will say is that in each of those challenges, you can see progress and that’s what is exciting.”
On how much of the “do your job” mentality comes from his time at The Citadel:
“You can date it back further than that. Certainly, it fit in well at The Citadel. I’ve told many people, I was in Charleston about a week ago and spent some time with some close friends there, including Captain Geno F. Paluso, who is the Commandant of Cadets down there. I told him that job is a great job. It’s also the most challenging job you can imagine having as a college football coach, because on a daily basis the volume of things that come across your plate is sometimes staggering. But you learn how to manage it and you learn how to prioritize. Certainly, that experience was tremendous for me and I think it will help me with this job.
But that philosophy, it goes back farther than that, back to the Lenoir-Rhyne days to when I was a young coach in this state. I was joking with some of the App State fans, they’ve been conscientious about what the quote above my head says (“Today I Will Give My All To ECU”). But really, that didn’t come from Appalachian State. I got it from Coach Sparky Woods, who was the coach at the time at Appalachian State, but he got it from the coach at Tennessee. So, I think all of us learn from our past experiences and bring things that help us do our job on a daily basis.”
On John Spellacy:
“John is with the program. He is recovering. When you say update, there is no definitive update on his status as a player on the field or not in the future yet.”
On the physicality of spring practices:
“I certainly hope they are. They better be. The big thing is that I want to see us improve, every single day. When you talk about physicality, it’s not just go out there and run into each other. It’s 10 times more than that. It’s learning how to play physical. It’s learning how to play the game the right way. In doing that, there’s so many fundamentals and techniques and how you go about playing the sport. It is about being a good football player. Because you look at the teams that win consistently at the highest level, whether it’s Alabama, Clemson or the Patriots, all of those teams share those same traits. They are physical at the point of contact and they play at a very high level. They’re very disciplined. They don’t make the critical mistakes that cause you to lose football games. They don’t have the enormous amount of penalties or bad ball security or whatever it is. There is a certain formula to winning football games and so the biggest thing I want to see is us improve on a daily basis. From practice one to practice two and from practice two to practice three. Hopefully on April 13, we see a much-improved version of what we saw on the field in the past.”