East Carolina University Athletic Director Jeff Compher will leave his job with a $1.26 million buyout, less than a year after his contract had been extended.
The university's Board of Trustees voted unanimously Friday for the deal, which was described as a mutually beneficial resolution.
Compher will step down May 1, but in the meantime ECU Chancellor Cecil Staton will appoint a special counsel to oversee the search for a new basketball coach to succeed Jeff Lebo, who resigned in November. The university will also begin to look for Compher's replacement.
The buyout compensates Compher for about half of what he would earn if he remained employed through the end of his contract. The money will not come from tuition proceeds or state appropriations, ECU officials said. The payout, over a five-year period ending in 2023, will be reduced if he gets a job elsewhere.
It came after increasing pressure from Pirate fans angry about the football program's performance. The team was 3-9 the past two seasons under Scottie Montgomery, who was hired by Compher in 2015. Compher had been sharply criticized for his firing of the popular previous coach, Ruffin McNeill, who posted a 42-34 record during his six years at ECU.
Compher was hired in 2013 to take over after former longtime AD Terry Holland stepped down. Last year, ECU extended Compher's contract for five years — a move that was widely ridiculed by fans.
Last fall, one ECU alumnus raised money on a GoFundMe page to fly a "Fire Compher" banner near the stadium during two home games at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. He also ran an anti-Compher Facebook page with 2,000 members.
That alumnus, Dr. John Bream of Oak Ridge, has undergraduate and medical degrees from ECU. He said Compher's departure was an important development for Pirate Nation.
"It was certainly a good day overall for East Carolina athletics, and I think it's a day the divided fan base can start healing," Bream said, adding that he hopes disgruntled fans will now renew donations and season ticket purchases.
Under Compher's tenure, ECU moved from Conference USA to the American Athletic Conference in 2014. Compher also oversaw a flurry of building expansions, including a basketball practice facility. He inked a 10-year shoe and apparel deal with Adidas, and the university launched a $55 million renovation of the football stadium.
"I want to thank Jeff Compher for his service to ECU and Pirate Nation over the past five years," Staton said in a statement. "Jeff has worked hard and has accomplished much in his time here, and our athletics department and student-athletes are far better off as a result of Jeff’s efforts. I'm particularly proud of the success our student-athletes have accomplished during Jeff’s tenure."
Compher was previously the AD at Northern Illinois and also held athletic and administrative positions at University of Washington, Western Carolina, Vanderbilt and N.C. State universities. A university spokeswoman said Compher had no comment Friday.
Kieran Shanahan, a Raleigh lawyer who is chairman of the trustee board, acknowledged that there had been frustrations for ECU fans.
"Every football team, and every sport over time, can suffer some transition seasons and some losses that you'd like to avoid but I think the trajectory is good," he said in an interview this week. "The Pirate Nation is going to be excited this fall and yes, it'll help to win a few games. But we're behind Scottie and believe that he's had a good recruiting season."
He said Compher had been behind an increase in academic achievement, with current athletes posting the highest grade point average in ECU history, and called him one of the "highest regarded" athletic directors in the country.
"An athletic director should not be judged solely on wins and losses on the field," Shanahan said. "At this university, we're about turning out students."
But, he added, "What's happened is, unfortunately, the Pirate Nation is just so passionate about football, and sometimes they can't see other things."
Shanahan said that some people "who claim to be Pirates" have taken to social media in a negative way with "falsehoods, half-truths and fake news" to undermine the university. "What we're hoping is that by closing this chapter, that we can now get on to great things that we do at East Carolina," he said.
The stadium project was launched when the team was losing, and members of the UNC Board of Governors had raised questions about the timing and expense.
Staton described ECU as the "workhorse of the state," producing doctors, nurses, teachers and business and engineering graduates.
"When we lose sight of that, it's very unfortunate," Staton said Friday.
"We will win again," he added. "We're committed to that. Athletics is a very central part to this university. I'm committed to it personally; it means a lot to me. But we also have to keep a perspective here and the long-term view that we are America's next great national university and we're not going to be sidetracked on that journey, or that aspiration, by these kinds of things."