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Weeks of speculation and rumors turned to reality this past Friday when ECU Director of Athletics Jeff Compher agreed to a buyout to step down from his position, effective May 1.
The settlement, approved in an ECU Board of Trustees closed session conducted by Chancellor Cecil Staton, is worth up to $1.26 million for Compher, who was owed more than $2 million in base salary over the next five years.
Word began to spread weeks ago that Compher was working on a buyout amidst a toxic climate where fans had started to turn on ECU’s athletic administration that’s overseen a downturn in football and basketball results on the field, as well as a financial pitfall that produced a 10-percent budget cut for every sport heading into the 2016-17 fiscal year.
With immense pressure from the fan base on his shoulders, Compher actually initiated the buyout talks, according to Staton.
“It was just several weeks ago Jeff and I had a conversation and he brought up the idea that maybe given where things are at the moment, anticipating our search for a basketball coach, that it might be a time to think about this,” Staton said, “So the conversations began at that point, which led us to today.”
Staton said the buyout, which can be reduced if Compher finds other employment in the coming years, won’t negatively affect the athletics budget, which is already in a financial hole.
ECU could have avoided owing Compher anything if not for some questionable decision-making last summer. With his contract set to expire in April of 2018, the chancellor and board of trustees surprisingly signed off on a five-year extension through April of 2023, handing Compher a $70,000 raise in the process. The extension was met with backlash from the fan base and is still questioned.
Still, when asked if the trustees regretted the decision it made, chairman Kieran Shanahan stuck up for his group’s decision, placing some blame on fans and the media.
“First thing everybody needs to know is an athletic director should not be judged solely on wins and losses on the field,” said Shanahan, pointing to the increased GPAs of student-athletes under Compher’s watch. “What’s happened is, unfortunately with the Pirate Nation so passionate about football, sometimes they can’t see other things. And when you lose them, it’s very frustrating because it’s so important to our great university.
“Let me add that unfortunately a very few people, who claim to be Pirates, have taken to social media in a very negative way. And those things hurt to undermine our university, especially when they are based on falsehoods, half-truths and fake news, as we now call it. What we’re hoping is by closing this chapter, we can now get on to great things at East Carolina, celebrate our athletes, both on and off the field, and help promote the university in a positive way.”
Compher’s departure doesn’t come at an ideal time. ECU is in the midst of a men’s basketball coaching search and a $60 million campaign to expand the southside of Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium that will add premium seating, a new press box and more.
While ECU hasn’t named an interim athletics director quite yet, sources indicate former Pirate AD Dave Hart is in talks with the school’s leadership to return in some type of short-term capacity to help right the ship.
Staton said Friday he hopes to name a new person to the athletic administration staff as soon as this week.
“It’s my intention at this time to have conversations with some people who may be able to become a special counsel to the chancellor to provide me with advice and assistance as we move forward, particularly with the basketball coach search and in the search for the next AD,” Staton said. “I think (soon), we will hopefully be in a position to make further announcements about that.”
When Scottie Montgomery takes the field on Sept. 1, it will be the first time he coaches an ECU game without the man who hired him roaming the sidelines.
To no surprise, many of the initials questions asked to Montgomery following Monday’s practice were in regards to his take on Compher’s resignation. One media member also asked Montgomery if he felt responsible for the AD stepping down after consecutive 3-9 seasons.
“At the end of the day, you always wish you could win more football games and we want to win as much as we can,” Montgomery said. “As far as the responsibility, there’s only one person responsible for that. It’s his decision. I hate that question would arise from you, but that’s something we have to deal with and we understand as coaches and players we have to play better football around here.”
Head baseball coach Cliff Godwin, who has led ECU to two postseason berths in three seasons and has the Pirates ranked this year, also commented on Compher’s departure. Godwin was one of the first coaches Compher hired back in 2014.
“I just want whatever’s best for East Carolina and if that’s what’s best for East Carolina, then I want to move forward,” Godwin said. “I really appreciate Jeff and everything he’s done for me, but my loyalty is to East Carolina University and us moving forward. I know Jeff is going to land on his feet and do very well with whatever he does next.”
Although Compher has recused himself from the process as a result of his resignation, the Pirates haven’t stopped their search for the basketball program’s next head coach, according to Staton.
University officials and the search firm are conducting the process as planned, and outside help via the special council Staton hopes to appoint will play a direct role in the search.
“Time is of the essence,” Staton said. “We certainly understand that. I don’t know that we will take the traditional route that everyone is assuming, an interim. It may be under a different format. But we are going to bring in someone that I think will give great confidence to Pirate Nation. Someone that will have an incredible amount of experience, that’s what I’m looking for.”
Former ECU head coach Joe Dooley, now the coach at Florida Gulf Coast, is a top candidate for the position, as is UMBC head coach Ryan Odom, according to sources. Former Charlotte head coach Bobby Lutz is also in the mix.
Dooley coached the Pirates from 1995-99, compiling a 57-52 overall record before being fired by then-AD Mike Hamrick. Dooley went on to spend 10 years as Bill Self’s top assistant at Kansas before taking the head coaching gig at Florida Gulf Coast in 2013. Dooley has led the Eagles to the NCAA tournament twice and 21 or more wins all five seasons.
Odom is the son of former ECU, South Carolina and Wake Forest head coach Dave Odom. The 43-year-old has quickly turned around a UMBC program that had only seven wins the season before he took over, orchestrating a 21-13 record his first year in 2016-17 before leading the Retrievers to 24 wins and an NCAA tournament bid this season.