The news was stunning, if only because of its timing.
There were plenty of hints that Jeff Compher might be on his way out as East Carolina’s athletic director, as subtle as the murmurs of discontent echoing quietly from members of the university’s administration and as obvious as the recent sale of his house.
But with the Pirates approaching a critical juncture in their search for a new basketball coach, one they hope will finally change the direction of a program stuck in a perpetual cycle of malaise, a move so dramatic as the removal of the man in charge figured to be anything but imminent.
Then came Thursday afternoon and the news that ECU’s Board of Trustees had reached an agreement to buy Compher out of his contract, a deal that was extended by five years just last June. An official announcement came a day later when the Trustees formally approved what is being portrayed as a mutual parting of the ways, but is really anything but.
According to a release issued by the university, Compher will be paid up to $1.26 million to walk away, payable over five years. If the payments are made in full, they will amount to 50 percent of his base salary and 50 percent of the supplemental pay he would have received had he served out the entire length of his contract.
The amount will decrease if he gets another job in athletic administration.
Those are the things we know about the seismic tremor that has shaken ECU’s athletic department.
What has yet to be determined are the more important questions of how the sudden leadership void will be filled and what this change means for the Pirates going forward — both short and long term.
And most of all, why did this had to be done now?
It does not appear that Compher was fired for cause or that any single event or incident precipitated the abrupt move. One would think that if Chancellor Cecil P. Staton or the Board of Trustees felt so strongly that a change needed to be made immediately, they would have had a replacement already in mind and ready to go before they pulled the trigger.
As it is, Compher’s outster could potentially negate the head start ECU once enjoyed in its coaching search, thanks to Jeff Lebo’s early resignation in November. The hiring process could still be hampered, or worse, derailed, even if the internal committee assisting the search firm Compher hired to screen candidates is able to continue its work without interruption.
It’s doubtful that any coach would want to enter into such an uncertain situation, not knowing who his boss will be and how their philosophies and personalities might mesh.
Or not mesh.
Compher will not formally step down until May 1, but Staton has made it clear the outgoing AD will no longer participate in the basketball coaching search.
In an open letter to Pirates Club members, the chancellor pledged “to find an extraordinary individual who can lead our program forward.” But he has offered precious few other details as to when that might happen, either on a permanent or interim basis, other than to say he hopes to name a special advisory committee for the search sometime this week.
In the meantime, representatives for Florida Gulf Coast’s Joe Dooley, UNC-Greensboro’s Wes Miller, East Tennessee State’s Steve Forbes and all the other usual suspects are likely being contacted for other jobs that are coming open literally by the day. Just in the last week, positions at Georgia, Pittsburgh and ECU’s American Athletic Conference rival UConn have become available.
Too many fans have gotten their hopes up too high over the opportunity to finally breathe some life into the Pirates’ basketball program to botch this hire.
Sadly, that now appears to be an all-too-real possibility.
Undoubtedly, there are those that are happy ECU has parted ways with an athletic director that had become an increasingly more polarizing figure as the months have gone on — particularly because his departure means that football coach Scottie Montgomery is almost certain to be the next one out the door.
But if the benefits of Compher’s departure are ultimately outweighed by the negative impact it could have on the still active basketball coaching search, will the move have been worth it?
Especially when there was no good reason it couldn’t have waited another month or two.