RALEIGH — During a break from cleaning out his office last week, Lee Fowler thought for a moment about the most precious memento he acquired during his time as athletic director at N.C. State.
Fowler, whose tenure ends today, told a story about a watch his wife Carol bought him as a gift several years ago. Some of his friends had told Carol that she should purchase her husband a Rolex because every man should have one.
On the evening that she gave him the watch, he politely told her he wasn't going to wear it. He explained that the watch was beautiful, but he wanted to wear a watch he received to commemorate N.C. State's trip to the NCAA men's basketball tournament in 2002.
That was the first of former coach Herb Sendek's five straight trips to the tournament at N.C. State following an 11-year absence for the Wolfpack. Fowler had taken some criticism for keeping Sendek after the Wolfpack finished 13-16 in 2000-01, so that accomplishment was especially sweet for Fowler and the entire athletic program.
So he still wears that watch.
"It had been so long since we'd been to the tournament, and then we went five years in a row," Fowler said." That first year he went to the tournament validated not only N.C. State but him as a coach and myself for standing up for him even though I'd only done it for a year or two.
"That probably was as important a moment [as I've had] here. All the stuff we've done for student-athletes has been great, but that's probably a defining moment."
Fowler plans to conclude his tenure with a cookout today for the staff. He said he doesn't want anybody to give speeches or make grandiose presentations; he would rather just tell his colleagues thank you and farewell.
After that he will visit his daughter and 20-month-old granddaughter in Murfreesboro, Tenn., and spend time with other family members. After 40 or 50 days of re-energizing himself, Fowler said, he will begin examining his options for the future.
His contract with N.C. State will pay him $280,000 a year through Sept. 30, 2013, but he's eager to continue his career in college athletics administration.
"I have a great peace about me," Fowler said. "My wife asked me if it was sad packing up. I said, no, because I'm packing up knowing I'm going to be somewhere else. But I just don't know where it is yet. I'm waiting for that assignment, and I'm excited about it."
Fowler, 58, agreed to step down last month. His greatest accomplishment during his 10 years in office probably is the $120 million in facilities improvements that he spearheaded while keeping the budget balanced during some economically challenging times.
N.C. State's recent struggles in men's basketball (which has missed the last four NCAA tournaments) and football (four straight losing seasons) ultimately led to Fowler's ouster. But a strong men's basketball recruiting class entering school is one of many things that has Fowler enthusiastic about the future for N.C. State as new athletic director Debbie Yow leaves Maryland to lead the Wolfpack athletic department.
Fowler also recently was honored as the athletic director of the year among Southeast Region Football Bowl Subdivision schools by the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics.
"Integrity and that sort of stuff is important to me," Fowler said, "and that says what other athletic directors think about me, and that means a whole lot to me. When you're judged by your peers, people who do the exact same thing as you do, and you get some sort of award, that's kind of special."
After Yow was introduced Friday as his successor, State planned to offer her a temporary workspace through the weekend into this week before she returned to College Park, Md. Fowler said he offered Yow his office, which he had already begun clearing.
"I'd just like to wish Debbie and [her husband] Bill good luck. We worked side by side in league meetings for 10 years," said Fowler, who counts Yow among his closest colleagues.
Perhaps there's a lesson for Fowler in the recent topsy-turvy fortunes of his close friend Dan Beebe, who's commissioner of the Big 12 Conference.
A few weeks ago, when Nebraska was bolting for the Big Ten and Colorado left for the Pac-10, analysts were anticipating the demise of the Big 12. But while talking with some of his athletic director friends, Fowler predicted that the Big 12 would survive because of Beebe's leadership.
" 'He's a guy that will stand for the right things,' " Fowler said he told his colleagues. " 'There will still be a Big 12, somehow and some way.' And by George, two or three days later, it happened."
Now Fowler says he is leaving his post without bitter feelings and believes there is something wonderful awaiting him in his profession. And by George, he might be right about that, too.
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