Whether or not Mike Houston is a good football coach shouldn’t have been up for debate for East Carolina fans, boosters or pundits. Though it wasn’t at the Division I FBS level, the 50-year-old had been a winner at each one of his previous head coaching stops: Division II Lenoir-Rhyne University, and The Citadel and James Madison of FCS.
The question, really, was if Houston was the right fit for ECU after leading the Dukes to a national championship in 2016 and a title appearance the following season.
Getting that answer took longer than Pirate Nation would have liked, but it finally came Saturday, more than two years and 31 games into Houston’s tenure, as ECU won 30-29 in overtime at American Athletic Conference foe Memphis (5-5).
The victory over a strong Tigers team and program secured bowl eligibility for the Pirates (6-4, 4-2 AAC), whose last postseason appearance was a close 2015 Birmingham Bowl loss to Florida.
Houston’s overall record at ECU is 13-18 — there’s still some work to do. He’s not ready to join Vance County’s Eddie Hicks in the ECU Athletics Hall of Fame quite yet. Will Houston ever be Pat Dye, Bill Lewis or Steve Logan?
But much as Skip Holtz did from 2005-09, Houston is successfully reviving a proud and ambitious program that had been on life support since Ruffin McNeill was dismissed as head coach in 2015.
Even under McNeill, the Pirates had some head-scratching conference results that left leaders wanting more, prompting the ill-fated coaching switch to Scottie Montgomery.
Houston hasn’t had the flashy wins that McNeill, and even Montgomery, had over in-state ACC opponents, but ECU has had chances to win every game it has played this season with the exception of a 33-19, season-opening defeat to Appalachian State (8-2). The Pirates have a three-point loss to South Carolina, a four-point defeat at UCF (6-4) and a seven-point overtime loss at Houston (9-1).
Finally, against Memphis, ECU defeated a league opponent, out-gaining Memphis 502-341 on offense and temporarily denying the Tigers a bowl appearance.
ECU’s 0-2 start this season included a 20-17 loss at home to South Carolina. The Gamecocks (5-5, 2-5 SEC) weren’t thought of as very good then, but now have a chance to reach bowl eligibility themselves by beating Auburn or Clemson in their final two weeks of the season.
After the South Carolina loss, Houston and his tough, talented and inconsistent starting quarterback Holton Ahlers felt the heat from frustrated fans, and Houston has fired back through the media on multiple occasions, including in his TV interview on Saturday.
Amid the early-season dissension, Houston seemed to have lost sight of why the Pirates’ fanbase was ready to jump ship: They demand a winning team.
Right now, they have one.