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WOODWARD: Look back brings ECU fall into focus

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Former East Carolina standout running back Chris Johnson waves to the crowd at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium during halftime against Houston. Oct. 13, 2018.

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By RONNIE WOODWARD
The Daily Reflector

Monday, October 15, 2018

It was easy to think back to East Carolina football’s successful run in Conference USA during Saturday night’s game against Houston at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

The first reminder was Houston being the visiting team. The Cougars occupied the same visiting sideline Dec. 5, 2009, for a historical moment at Dowdy-Ficklen when the Pirates hosted the C-USA championship game and beat UH, 38-32, for their second straight conference title.

Another reminder came when former Pirate star running back Chris Johnson was honored for being inducted into the ECU Hall of Fame.

Johnson played from 2004-07 and was a key player in the Pirates shedding the woeful John Thompson era (3-20 record in 2003-04) for a resurgence under coach Skip Holtz, who went to a bowl game in four out of five seasons from 2005-09 and won two Conference USA titles.

ECU is no longer a winner in its league. Furthermore, former C-USA teams have passed by the Pirates and moved to the forefront in the American Athletic Conference.

In 2009, East Carolina beat Memphis, UCF and Houston in the same season en route to winning C-USA. Those three teams are enjoying a combined 15-4 record this year, while the Pirates are seemingly stuck in their own way at the halfway point of the season at 2-4 overall and 0-3 in the AAC.

Houston’s 42-20 win on Saturday gave ECU an 11-24 all-time record in American games. It joined the league prior to the 2014 season.

Coach Scottie Montgomery is in his third season leading the Pirates and he is facing heat again after consecutive sluggish weeks in league play. He has a 3-16 career American record.

The Pirates’ previous coach, Ruffin McNeill, was 8-8.

Montgomery’s 3-16 mark is simply unacceptable for a proud ECU program, and it is getting noticed. The Pirates will likely not be favored in a game again until they host Connecticut, the team they are tied with for last place in the AAC East division, on Nov. 17.

ECU fans made a statement Saturday night with the announced attendance of 29,851 serving as the first Pirate home game since the finale of the 2005 season with a crowd of less than 30,000.

Attendance dropping as East Carolina is dropping AAC games is unfortunately a theme.

With Houston as the visitors and Johnson roaming the sideline, fans in the stands Saturday at least got to think back to ECU’s winning ways.

Johnson was a freshman in 2004 — Thompson’s final season — when the Pirates finished with a 2-9 record. As a senior, the speedy Johnson helped ECU finish the 2007 season with a thrilling Hawaii Bowl win over Boise State and an 8-5 record.

East Carolina then won consecutive C-USA crowns. Holtz and the Pirates were the kings of that league for a few years.

Now they are nowhere close to contending for a conference championship.

ECU’s best record in the American was its first year in 2014, with a 5-3 AAC mark. McNeill was fired after the next year, when ECU went 3-5 in the American and former athletics director Jeff Compher stressed that the Pirates needed to rise in the AAC.

Things have gotten worse since then, and Compher isn’t around to see the downward spiral continue.

The Pirates don’t have an AD and they are staring at a big challenge to increase their standing in their league.

Is it coaching? Is it quarterback play? Funding? Facilities? Recruiting?

There are many opinions on the reasons behind the downfall of East Carolina football, but it is clear that the winning days of Conference USA have been replaced by routine losses in the American Athletic Conference.

Contact Ronnie Woodward at rwoodward@reflector.com, 252-329-9592 and follow @RonnieW11 on Twitter.

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