SUMMERS: An expensive five years
By Nathan Summers
The Daily Reflector
Saturday, March 10, 2018
Jeff Compher went all-in when it came to spending East Carolina's athletic dollars, but today he is just another expense for a university with a slew of them.
The director of athletics accepted a buyout to leave the school on Friday. The same ECU Board of Trustees that five years ago put him in the position and last year gave him a monster contract extension finalized his ouster.
The transaction comes as the athletic department already is in cost-cutting mode — including not hiring new communications staff members, reportedly cutting back on daily player nourishment during football season and serving “media meals” that are gone an hour before games begin.
Not only is Compher's buyout a nearly $1.3 million expense — though trustees members said that cost will not land on the athletic department — it also comes with the need to re-hire the top position in a department also in need of a basketball coach.
It was an expensive five years for ECU athletics.
From being first in the American Athletic Conference to pounce on paying full student-athlete cost of attendance (which Compher later admitted was tougher to fund than initially expected) to embarking on a $60 million football stadium project with a losing team and declining attendance to reportedly splurging on expensive dinners for Pirate Club members on road trips, no expense was spared.
ECU is left holding the bag.
The athletic department had an estimated $3.5 million surplus when Compher was hired to replace Terry Holland in 2013 and now has a deficit believed to be nearly twice that number, according to multiple Pirate Club members.
Despite plenty of wining and dining, there was not much winning in that time.
Compher fired Ruffin McNeill as football coach in 2015 after a 5-7 season, citing the need to adhere only to a championship standard at ECU. Yet, plenty of other ECU coaches were not in the same galaxy as an AAC title.
To date, football coach Scottie Montgomery — Compher's most significant hire along with winning baseball coach Cliff Godwin — has produced six wins in two seasons, meaning the Pirates will need to double that total this season to live up to the coach's 2018 postseason prediction. If not, yet another coaching search could be under way.
Last year, 'Fire Compher' banners flew across town on multiple game days, but there weren't many people in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium to see them as attendance dipped to decade lows. If fans don't buy into the school's new premium seating and parking strategy, one high-ranking Pirate Club member said ECU's debt will grow substantially in a hurry.
When Jeff Lebo stepped away very early from the ECU basketball team that was on its way to a 10-20 finish to the season, Compher offered to throw money at the problem by indicating a desire to bring in a name coach for the critical hire that has yet to be made and now will be made by someone else.
And ECU spent on Compher, too.
The Board of Trustess granted Compher a five-year extension last year that paid him $435,000 annually, and the reasoning behind it, they said, was primarily the AD's skills at fundraising.
As the expenses piled up, there were summer concerts planned to help foot the bill. The recent announcement that would-be concert-goers for the long-since canceled Blake Shelton show were being reimbursed, however, was the end to another sad, corny song for an athletic administration that never genuinely connected with ECU fans.
The school borrowed $55 million from BB&T for the stadium project, and one source estimates that at 5 percent interest, ECU will have to pay back $2.7 million annually in interest alone. Declining season ticket sales will not help in that effort.
It seems Compher had a gift for wooing certain donors, and it was probably easier when his football team was a winner and a stadium filler, even though a majority of the seats were just run-of-the-mill aluminum bleachers then. Those days will have to be resurrected somehow, and with a new leader.
Compher will likely never see an ECU game from one of the luxury suites in the stadium he helped to redesign.
Unfortunately for a Pirate sports program facing a long, difficult redesign of its own both on and off the playing field, neither will a lot of other people.
Contact Nathan Summers at firstname.lastname@example.org, 252-329-9595 and follow @NateSumm99 on Twitter.