Fan disdain reaching dangerous levels

Published 7:34 pm Sunday, September 17, 2017

GREENVILLE — Bad got worse on Saturday as East Carolina’s defense one-upped its already-dismal season as it gave up 675 yards of offense in a 64-17 loss to Virginia Tech.

The Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium crowd — nearly 44,000 strong — was bright for the parent’s weekend “Paint it Gold” game. The scene was visually optimistic. Fans roared in approval as tight end Stephen Baggett hauled in a pass over the middle to set up Davon Grayson’s touchdown on the Pirates’ first drive. Electricity was palpable as Trevon Brown exploded for a 76-yard score that was a flashback to the highlight reels produced by the likes of Shane Carden and Justin Hardy not too long ago.

But it was short lived. The Hokies took control in the second quarter and never looked back. Even though it was a one-touchdown game, the students dispersed from the Boneyard during halftime.

A sea of gold turned into a checkering of fans before long. It wasn’t a mass exodus from the stands. Instead, ticketholders steadily departed, opting to spend their Saturday afternoon elsewhere.

One remnant of the sparse crowd had a simple message. Max Crotts, a 32-year old who has lived in Greenville his entire life, draped a banner in the front row of the student-section end zone that read “Fire Compher.” It was a visual representation of the growing disdain the fan base has for athletics director Jeff Compher and the ECU administration.

“I’m just tired of the poor product on the field,” he said. “I love the players. The players are doing great. Management is not doing a good job. It’s time for a replacement. It’s time for a change.”

ECU chancellor Cecil Staton had released a statement during the week leading up to the Virginia Tech game. He outlined his support for the student-athletes, saying that he and his wife “never lose sight of the fact that it’s a rare privilege to spend time with people who work so hard to be the best they can be on the field, at the same time working hard to earn an education at a top national university.”

At the same time, Staton condemned the fan base’s behavior. “We live in a time when people can hide behind the anonymity and say hurtful things they’re unlikely to say face to face. That’s the downside of social media and radio call-in shows,” Staton said.

The overwhelming majority of criticism has been directed at the coaching staff and administration, though.

“I love the players. They’re doing a great job. They’re trying hard,” Crotts responded. “It seems like the chancellor is trying to deflect the issue with the athletic director and the coaching. The players are doing a great job. We love the players. We need to address the issue, and that is the athletic director and the coaches.”

Other fans shared similar sentiments. “You’ve got Scottie Montgomery in there. I don’t think he was necessarily prepared to be the head coach of a major program. … I don’t think the coaching staff prepared the players to compete appropriately,” said a fan that wished to remain anonymous.

The season has already been a disappointing one. Fan disdain is approaching a level comparable to the 2003-04 seasons with John Thompson at the helm. Of course, the program rebounded when Skip Holtz took over. He led the Pirates to consecutive Conference USA championships during his five years as coach. Ruffin McNeill succeeded him, coaching ECU to four bowl appearances in six years.

The timing of this downturn couldn’t be worse. ECU is in its fourth year in the American Athletic Conference. Recruiting to be competitive has been a focus, but it’s going to be a tough sell to prospects that watch the Pirates get blasted each weekend.

Moreover, the athletic department is in the midst of expanding the stadium. A third losing season in a row combined with the supposed tone deafness of the administration could set the program back further than just a few years.

Still, though, there remains a dedication portion of the fan base. Jimbo Shiver has been a fan since 1979. He waited until the final whistle of Saturday’s game and applauded the Pirates as they left the field.

“I’m a Pirate fan. If you’re with somebody, you’re with them until the end. Win or lose,” he said.

Recent graduate Dani Naftali added, “I came back for a reason. I wanted to watch the whole game.”

ECU fans have endured troubling times in the past. It’s hard to fault a fan base that has experienced so much losing across the board in the past year. Even so, passion for the football program has withstood each trial. However, each major fall the program has been accompanied by some kind of change of guard.

The ship will be righted eventually, but how much damage will be done before things are back on track?