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Fans, officials hope for renewed Pirate spirit

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John Bream gained infamy late last month by flying a banner over Greenville calling for the job of East Carolina director of athletics Jeff Compher.

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By Nathan Summers and Ronnie Woodward
The Daily Reflector

Friday, March 9, 2018

The man who flew a “Fire Compher” banner across Greenville on East Carolina football game days got his wish on Friday, but even he stopped short of calling it a great day.

ECU alum John Bream poured time and money into publicly criticizing Athletics Director Jeff Compher, who formally accepted a buyout from the school to end his five-year tenure. Bream even employed an airplane advertising company to fly a banner calling for the termination of the AD.

Bream, a surgeon and graduate of the Brody School of Medicine from Salisbury, was in Las Vegas Friday but followed the events remotely, he said.

“I think that we can finally start to turn the corner and we can finally start to heal the divide in the fanbase, and I think that was never going to happen with Jeff Compher continuing to lead the athletic department,” Bream said.

Bream and other Pirate backers say Compher’s decision to fire head football coach Ruffin McNeill in 2015 was the start of a downward spiral for ECU sports, but Bream also contends Compher’s financial practices could have longer-term effects.

ECU’s athletic department had an estimated $3.5 million surplus when Compher took over and now has a deficit believed to be at least $6 million, according to Bream and other sources in the Pirate Club. An audit of the athletic department’s finances is reportedly near completion.

“I think firing Ruffin McNeill, obviously that will be the signature thing that Jeff Compher is remembered for,” he said. “However, I think the thing that most people don’t think about as much is the finances. The bigger deal that is going to take a lot longer to recover from is the financial distress that he has placed the athletic department in.”

Bream thinks a football turnaround is possible with third-year coach and Compher hire Scottie Montgomery, but it would mean doubling the team’s win totals from each of the last two seasons, and that would only dent the financial woes, he said.

Where there are Compher detractors among the fans, there are are least some supporters on the Board of Trustees, which last year gave the AD a five-year contract extension despite the losses in football. 

Board chair Kieran Shanahan said the dismissal of McNeill had no direct impact on Friday’s decision.

“That is history, as is flying the planes over the stadium,” Shanahan said. “We made this decision on what’s best for East Carolina, as did Jeff Compher. We think his service was admirable, it was just unfortunate with two losing records in football and when certain individuals are no longer the most effective messenger then you have to consider what is best for the university. Jeff also had to consider what was best for he and (his wife) Cathy.”

ECU did not name an interim AD on Friday and Staton said a pressing responsibility for athletics is continuing the Pirates’ basketball coaching search and hiring a head coach. The ECU basketball season ended Thursday night under interim coach Michael Perry.

Many in the Pirate family wished Compher well and looked forward to what the future might bring. Greenville Mayor P.J. Connelly, an ECU baseball pitcher in 2004-05, was among them.

“I wish Jeff Compher the best with his future endeavors and I wish the ECU athletic department the best with their search for a new athletic director,” Connelly wrote in a text message. “The city of Greenville views ECU as an important partner of our community and we look forward to the continuation of that partnership with the new leadership.”

Landon Minges, whose family’s steadfast support resulted in the university naming Minges Coliseum in their honor, said he trusts its leaders are doing what’s right.

“As an alumnus and faithful Pirate fan, I have to put my faith and trust in the chancellor, trustees and search committees to make the right decisions that will propel our university in the right direction,” Minges said Friday.

Bream and Shanahan agreed that Friday’s change is a chance to begin a repair process.

“What we are hoping is that by closing this chapter, we can now get on to the great things we are doing at East Carolina,” said Shanahan, who criticized some fans who have been blasting the university on the internet.

“We want to celebrate our athletes who want to win on the field and help promote the university in a positive way. For the few people who hide behind the anonymity of a computer, let’s hope that stops and we can move forward in a positive way.”

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