Mike Houston was announced as the 22nd head football coach of East Carolina University on Dec. 4, 2018. His first season at ECU marks his ninth year as a collegiate head coach after three successful seasons at James Madison University.
As the Dukes’ head coach, Houston led JMU to the 2016 FCS Championship and racked up back-to-back 14-1 campaigns. Overall, he posted a 37-6 ledger while at James Madison, solidifying his 80-25 all-time record at the helm of college football programs.
With a National Championship title under his belt, Houston did something on Saturday he has never done before, coach without his father watching. On Tuesday, just days before the Pirates opened their home schedule against Gardner-Webb University, Houston’s father passed away.
“My dad passed away this morning (Tuesday) at my home in Franklin,” Houston said during his weekly press conference. “It’s the home I grew up in. He was with my mom. I was able to see him last night. One of the last conscious things he did this weekend was watch our team play against NC State.”
Houston went on to explain how much of an influence his father was to him growing up and his obsession with ECU football due to his son’s role with the program.
“He taught me how to care about people. He taught me how to see people for who they were on the inside and not judge them by the way they were on the outside, Houston said. “He was a good dad and he was a good man.”
“He kept up with our teams, he was the biggest fan I had. He read everything there was about East Carolina football and he was excited for me to be back in the state of North Carolina,” Houston said.
While Houston’s first victory as ECU’s head football coach eluded him against the Wolfpack, the Pirates pulled off a rousing 48-9 win over Gardner-Webb on Saturday to even their record at 1-1.
“Obviously a lot more enjoyable night tonight than last Saturday,” Houston said of the win. “You get in these ball games, your home opener and have all these visions of how it’s supposed to go and it’s just it’s very refreshing when your team comes out and plays the way you know they can.”
As a team, ECU racked up 365 rushing yards, 134 on the legs of junior running back Darius Pinnix, Jr. Sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers was solid, accounting for 195 passing yards on 18 completions, 78 rushing yards on 10 carries and three total touchdowns (two rushing, one passing). All told, the Pirates had five rushing touchdowns and north of 500 total yards on offense in a 39-point blowout.
“Anytime you get your first win, especially under a new coaching staff, is big. Anytime you win is big, especially at home in front of our fans,” Ahlers said following the game.
After such a trying week that included the threat of a hurricane as well as his father’s funeral, Houston made sure to credit his players for a successful conclusion to a tough seven days.
“Certainly the aspect of the family, it’s been tough. I’ve just tried to focus, when I got back here, on the players and the game and all that and I thought the kids did an excellent job,” Houston said. “Our staff, I knew that they would be able to handle everything when I had to leave for a day. I thought the kids handled it with tremendous maturity. The way they responded this week is just really incredible, it speaks a lot for their character.”
For Houston, this week brought together his Pirate family and his biological family, making the first-year ECU coach feel that much more grateful for his support staff.
“It kind of punches you in the gut a little bit. But the support of the fans, the support of the staff here, my staff, the administrative staff, everyone, is just really incredible, Houston said. “It makes me sit back and really count my blessings that I’ve got a lot of really good people in my life and I’m very very fortunate.”
For obvious reasons, Houston will not soon forget his first win as a Pirate inside Dowdy-Ficklen stadium. Saturday will always represent Houston’s first game without his biggest fan, but it will also harken memories of a tremendous athletics department that has grown as close as a family over a short amount of time.
The Pirates’ next game will be on Saturday against the United States Naval Academy. Kickoff in Annapolis, Maryland will take place at 3:30 p.m.