It is going to cost the athletic department at N.C. State University about $900,000 to pay off the contact of Lee Fowler, who has been fired as athletic director. He deserves the money, because he's upheld his end of the bargain of 10 years ago - to run a clean program and to oversee the expansion and improvement of facilities while balancing all the challenges of setting priorities, emphasizing academics and being a superb public representative of the university.
The decision is apparently the result of pressure from big donors to the university's sports programs, who weren't happy with the Wolfpack teams' performances in the last few years, particularly in men's basketball and football. There's some sad irony there, because football coach Tom O'Brien, charged with rebuilding a troubled program, has his team on the upswing, as does basketball coach (and NCSU alum) Sidney Lowe. Perennially powerful athletic programs aren't built on short notice, and are subject to ebb and flow.
But N.C. State athletics weren't exactly in a downward spiral when, The News & Observer reported, interim Chancellor Jim Woodward, who came in after the resignation of James Oblinger, told Fowler he needed to look for a job. New Chancellor Randy Woodson's arrival on campus came shortly thereafter. He did the formal deed with regard to Fowler's departure, a tough baptism in decision-making. Apparently, it had been no secret that disgruntled Wolfpack supporters had been throwing high, hard ones at Fowler for a while.
Woodson took responsibility, and he did so with admirable candor and without trying to dodge the issues involved. Even those who disagree with this decision have to grant him that. Now he must look carefully for the new athletic director, trusting his own judgment.
Woodson's quite right in saying that the university should expect a strong performance in athletics. NCSU is a major university with a great history in sports and ought to compete at the highest level. And it is a reality that the millions and millions of dollars that must be spent, and raised from boosters whose patience often runs short, have given coaches a shorter rebuilding period than they might have had years ago, when the money wasn't so ridiculous.
That said, the university doesn't cover itself in glory when it dismisses someone like Lee Fowler, who worked hard to unite all the members of the university community and alums, who had the respect of the faculty, who did by all accounts (even those of his critics) a terrific job in overseeing some facilities upgrades that have given NCSU a showplace for football, and in partnership with the Carolina Hurricanes (and taxpayers) also a palace for basketball.
What in the world, then, did the man do wrong? Some boosters are apparently grumbling about recent football teams. Others expected a quick resurrection of the basketball program. The not-so-subtle translation of that dissatisfaction is a fear on the part of university officials that big contributors will tighten their purses.
One of Fowler's great assets at this point in his career is his experience. He's witnessed the explosion in both the financial side of college athletics and in the pressure on all involved to win. He's demanded the best academically of N.C. State. Some school will be lucky to land him. N.C. State would have been wise to keep him.