In a stunning move considering the circumstances, East Carolina has decided to buy out the contract of athletic director Jeff Compher.
The official announcement, which was first reported on Thursday, came Friday morning following a closed session meeting of ECU’s Board of Trustees.
“Today we are sharing the news that Jeff will soon step down as ECU’s AD,” chancellor Cecil P. Staton said in an open letter to Pirate Club members. “With that announcement we move forward and begin the process for selecting the next AD and building a program focused on achievements and success.”
According to a release issued by the university, Compher’s buyout will be up to a maximum of $1.26 million, payable over five years. If the payments are made in full, it will amount to 50 percent of the base salary and 50 percent of the supplemental pay he would have received had he served out his entire contract. The amount will decrease if he gets another job in athletic administration.
The statement did not specify a timetable for Compher’s departure or name an interim replacement, other than to say that Staton is committed to “find an extraordinary individual who can lead our program forward” as soon as possible.
Among those being mentioned as potential interim replacements are Lee Workman, ECU’s senior associate athletic director for administration, former AD Dave Hart, who retired as athletic director at Tennessee last spring, and former ECU football star and Wisconsin-Green Bay athletic director George Koonce
Although Compher has come under fire recently from a fan base increasingly frustrated by the Pirates’ lack of success in its highest-profile sports — to the point that a plane flying a “Fire Compher” banner was seen flying over Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium during a football game last fall — the timing of his departure seems curious.
Not only was Compher given a five-year contract extension back in June, but ECU is currently in the middle of a search for a new basketball coach. No indication has been given as to who will now conduct that search and how the abrupt change of leadership will affect any potential hiring.
Compher was due a “longevity bonus” of $140,000 if he was still on the job at the end of April. According to sources, the decision to part ways was a mutual one.
“I think he was tired of the negativity,” Henry Hinton, a former member of the UNC Board of Governors and Greenville radio host who has been a staunch supporter of Compher, told the North State Journal.
The 59-year-old, who was hired by ECU from Northern Illinois to replace the retiring Terry Holland in April 2013, was responsible for major improvements to ECU’s athletic facilities — including the construction of a new basketball practice facility and the current renovations to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
The university also signed a lucrative apparel deal with Adidas and added a women’s lacrosse team under his watch whiles both revenue and academic performance have improved.
But despite those achievements, Compher ruffled some feathers with his personnel decisions, specifically the firing of popular football coach Ruffin McNeill in 2015. The replacement he hired, former Duke assistant Scottie Montgomery, has gone 3-9 in each of his first two seasons.
The men’s basketball program has also struggled. But unlike McNeill, he showed unusual patience with coach Jeff Lebo by keeping him on after only two winning records in seven seasons with the Pirates.
Lebo resigned six games into the current season. Shortly thereafter, Compher announced that he had retained the search firm College Sports Associates and formed an in-house advisory group to help conduct the search and interview process for a new coach.
“Jeff Compher is an honorable and talented and highly respected member of the AD community nationwide,” Staton said in his statement. “His commitment to greatness for the Pirate Nation has never waned and he could be commended for his efforts.
“I know Jeff and everyone who cares about Pirate athletics is disappointed that we have not achieved more, but it has become clear that the time is right to move on.”