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Some ECU football fans are upset. And they're dragging down their school.

ECU’s Cecil Staton is not a ‘status quo’ chancellor

Amid athletic controversies and libelous dossiers, ECU Chancellor Cecil Staton has high hopes for turning ECU into the next great national university. Staton spoke with the editorial board at The News & Observer on Thursday February 8, 2018.
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Amid athletic controversies and libelous dossiers, ECU Chancellor Cecil Staton has high hopes for turning ECU into the next great national university. Staton spoke with the editorial board at The News & Observer on Thursday February 8, 2018.

Cecil Staton, the chancellor at East Carolina, is an Old Testament scholar who must feel a bit like Job as he perseveres through one tribulation after another. Except that Job didn't have to deal with angry football fans.

Staton has a bold vision for ECU that includes increasing the number of medical school graduates by 50 percent and raising the health and economic well-being of Eastern North Carolina. "We’re going to become America’s next great national university," Staton recently told reporters and editors at The News & Observer. "We have all of the components to do that."

But he's having trouble getting his message heard because of a din of complaints about, of all things, football. The Pirates have had back-to-back 3-9 seasons. That followed the firing of Ruffin McNeil, a popular former ECU player who had 42 wins against 34 losses in six seasons as head coach and regularly beat the big boys from the ACC.

The firing of McNeill in late 2015 was puzzling then and is even more so now. But that wasn't Staton's call; he took over in mid 2016. McNeill was fired by athletics director Jeff Compher, who recently was pushed out with a $1 million severance.

That Staton didn't fire the popular football coach hasn't stopped overzealous ECU fans from taking their frustration out on him, as The News & Observer's Jane Stancill reported. A 35-page document posted anonymously questioned the hiring of Staton and cites the disappointment of fans as they suffer "unbearable losses amidst questionable decisions."

In Greenville and surrounding parts, Pirate football is the biggest game around. ECU football fans might be the most passionate in the state, and game day at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium is a memorable, day-long bolt of energy.

But let's evaluate our priorities here. The football losses might seem unbearable but what's really unbearable is the lack of economic opportunity and declining populations in much of Eastern North Carolina. ECU exists not to play football but to serve the people of North Carolina — especially the people of Eastern North Carolina — and Staton is making a good faith effort to build ECU's capacity to serve.

Staton, who received divinity and theology degrees from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, has gently reminded ECU supporters of what's most important. When the football team got off to a bad start last season, Staton wrote an open letter to the community, urging them to support the team and refrain from the harsh, anonymous criticism that rules on social media and talk radio. "I am too often appalled at what I see and hear in these venues," he wrote.

That took some courage. It's been a long time since the leader of a major university in North Carolina confronted his or her school's fans and attempted to bring some perspective to the excesses of big-time college sports.

Staton's critics have raised other issues that don't amount to much, including that the ECU Foundation will spend $1.3 million to buy a residence for the chancellor. For university leaders, raising money is a top priority and they believe they need to host large events at their homes. Again, this wasn't Staton's decision, just as it wasn't NCSU chancellor Randy Woodson's decision to spend $3 million for a new house for State's leader.

If there was a flaw in the hiring of Staton, it was that the search committee didn't use an open process that brought two or three finalists to campus for a couple of days to meet students, faculty, staff and the community. John Stiller, chairman of the Faculty Senate, faulted "highly secret searches that don't have appropriate faculty and other constituency input."

Staton didn't get the benefit of getting buy-in from the ECU community and he's going to have to work harder to earn their trust. He's not a folksy type and he'll need to figure out how he can forge stronger connections.

If he does that and keeps the faith, perhaps the most vocal Pirates fans will worry less about the passing game and more about how we can get more primary care physicians to live and practice in Eastern North Carolina.

ECU Athletic Director Jeff 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.

Drescher, opinion/solutions editor, is at jdrescher@newsobserver.com; 919.829.4515; @john_drescher.