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Houston, ruler of lands, arrives in Greenville

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No more on-the-job training. No more, at least in a coaching sense, living on a prayer.

Better late than never, Mike Houston, conqueror of college football worlds, was introduced at East Carolina on Tuesday morning as its 22nd head coach. 

As he outlined his surgical plan to repair the broken heart of Pirate football, Houston, or more accurately, Mike the Great, stared out the window to Harvey Hall at the site of one of his conquests.

That 2017 battlefield was Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, a scene where Houston led his NCAA Football Championship Subdivision James Madison Dukes into Greenville and walked out with a 34-14 win. In that game, James Madison, as Houston is prone to saying, dominated the point of contact. Streamers flowed freely from the visiting section of the stadium.

With 20 less scholarships to hand out as the defending national champions of FCS football, JMU rolled up 422 yards rushing on its way to a 614-yard output. That’s not done without whipping someone’s backside up and down the field.

But in this coaching career path that mirrors a game of Risk, Houston’s takeover of Greenville on that September night is just another small thumbtack on the map of his ever-expanding empire.

If there’s an argument to be made that football is football regardless of the level, Houston is the convincing Exhibit A.

He won or shared the Division II South Atlantic Conference championship in all three years as a head coach at Lenoir-Rhyne University, reaching the national title game in his final year.

Then, it was off to The Citadel for his first FCS job, where running the option became a necessity for survival. Houston thrived anyway, conquering the Southern Conference within two seasons. By the second year, Houston directed The Citadel to its first league title in 23 seasons.

Arriving on the scene at JMU with the Dukes coming off a share of the Colonial Athletic Association title, Houston quickly engineered his biggest takeover to date. He finished the first of two straight unbeaten runs through arguably the most demanding league in the FCS ranks and won the 2016 FCS national title. JMU lost in the 2017 FCS championship game.

For those of you scoring at home, that’s an 80-25 record in eight seasons, with at least one championship thumbtack driven into his map at every stop. Even before his collegiate coaching career, Houston’s varsity teams at T.C. Roberson High in Asheville went 42-18 in his five seasons (that’s a .700 winning percentage) and his 2004 Rams went 13-1 and reached the state 3-AA semifinals.

He speaks, you listen. 

Whether it’s an option offense or a spread attack, Houston, akin to successful coaches at the high school level, continually molds his offense to fit the personnel available. That ingenuity could well be tested in his maiden voyage with the Pirates as he inherits an offensive line that struggled to pass protect and open up any consistent holes in the running game last season.

ECU, which had not hired an active head coach from another school since luring Clarence Stasavich from Lenoir-Rhyne in 1962, finally returns to a formula that has, in fact, served it well historically. Stasavich won three consecutive bowl games with the Pirates and secured a share of the school’s first Southern Conference championship in 1966.

Even if it hasn’t been an active head coach, the 52-year bridge from Stasavich to Houston has, from time to time, yielded names with prior experience running a program. For the most part, it has worked well.

Bill Lewis went 10 years between a head coaching assignment at Wyoming and arriving at ECU, taking the Pirates to their high-water mark in school history by winning the 1992 Peach Bowl en route to a No. 9 national ranking.

Skip Holtz, coming off a stint as an assistant coach at South Carolina for his father, took the ECU job in 2005 seven years removed from being head coach at UConn, which at the time was Division I-AA — the forerunner to FCS football. That relationship produced back-to-back Conference USA titles, the first since Pat Dye’s 1976 squad.

The only fly in that ointment was Art Baker, who despite a total of 10 years experience as a head coach at Furman and The Citadel, lasted just four years at ECU and went 12-32. But before he left, Baker did leave a quarterback in the stable by the name of Jeff Blake, who turned out OK.

The ECU job has been something that Houston has kept an keen eye on along with his wife, Amanda. He told Pirate Radio 1250 & 930’s Troy Dreyfus that if the position became available, he planned to pursue it aggressively.

As Houston prepared to make the jump from The Citadel, ECU made the bold but necessary decision to move on from alumnus coach Ruffin McNeill. But the replacement hire in Scottie Montgomery didn’t work out, and a 9-26 showing in three seasons cost the latter his job. Former athletic director Jeff Compher, who got the first half of the equation right but whiffed on the second, was held accountable and resigned under pressure in March.

Had Houston come straight to ECU from The Citadel, would the Pirates have endured a miserable run in the last three seasons? It’s doubtful in hindsight. But the move to James Madison gave Houston a chance to cement his reputation as a winner, a conquering hero who arrives and imposes iron rule over his conference of residence.

That Mike the Great mentality will also make Houston an attractive candidate to move on to the next challenge if and when the Pirates are staring down at the rest of the American Athletic Conference. 

But even if Houston rides off in a few years looking for the next kingdom to fall under his rule, his time in Greenville will have ECU closer to the company it wishes to keep.

Better late than never.

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