New ECU AD aims for titles in final C-USA run

Jun. 13, 2013 @ 09:34 PM

Jeff Compher was the athletic director last year at a mid-major school with a football team that played its way into the national rankings and a BCS bowl bid.

Now at East Carolina, he's getting a familiar question from fans at his new job.

"I hear that a lot: When are you going to do that for us?" Compher said with a chuckle.

Compher has been athletic director for about a month after leaving Northern Illinois to replace Terry Holland. He's inheriting a 19-sport program that is preparing for its final year in Conference USA before moving to the new American Athletic Conference. In the past month, he's attended meetings for both leagues, started work on plans to restructure the athletic department and made the rounds at Pirate Club events to meet donors who weren't shy in sharing their vision for athletics here.

"I think the early returns are that people want us to be one of the elite programs in whatever league we're in, whether it's competitive, academic or leaders within our conference," Compher said in an interview with The Associated Press. "And people really expect that. They feel like this is a special place. The fan base is extremely strong and supportive, and therefore there's no reason we can't be one of the best programs in whatever conference we're a part of."

Holland had been AD since 2004 and has shifted into an emeritus role reporting to chancellor Steve Ballard until his contract ends in December 2014. He said Compher is the right choice to build on his work of the past eight-plus years.

"Clearly, Jeff has done his homework before and since his arrival and is carefully shaping the department around his own skillset," Holland said in an email. "He is a very impressive speaker who delivers a consistent and clear message about his expectations for the future and is carefully drawing the road map that will allow ECU to reach those expectations."

Earlier this week, Compher joined Arkansas' Jeff Long, Duke's Kevin White and Kansas State's John Currie as athletic directors of the year for the Bowl Subdivision, as recognized by the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics.

Among the biggest challenges facing Holland was to help the Pirates position themselves in a stable conference amid years of realignment. Now Compher is telling his coaches to finish strong in the school's final season in Conference USA.

"This isn't a forget-about-it year," Compher said. "This is a bring-home-some-championships year in our final year of Conference USA, and then looking forward."

Compher had spent the past five years at Northern Illinois, leading a 17-sport program that won four Mid-American Conference championships in his last full season there. The football team, led by new North Carolina State coach Dave Doeren, won the league title for a second straight year and reached the Orange Bowl to face Florida State.

"We need to think big and not put limitations on what we can accomplish," Compher said. "If we would've put limitations on us at NIU, we would've never accomplished what we did."

That's a path that appeals to a football-focused fan base at East Carolina. The Pirates have won two Conference USA titles, reached six bowl games in seven years and regularly faces BCS-league teams in nonconference play.

One of Compher's first personnel decisions here was to give football coach Ruffin McNeill a contract extension through the 2017 season, a deal announced last week. McNeill has guided the Pirates to a pair of bowls appearances in his first three seasons.

Compher's most pressing facility issue is completing a basketball practice building outside Minges Coliseum, a project that finally got moving under Holland — the former Virginia men's basketball coach — and is scheduled to open later this summer. It's been a long-awaited upgrade for a men's basketball program that is trending upward under coach Jeff Lebo, who guided the team to 23 wins to tie the school single-season record to go with the postseason tournament title.

From there, Compher is eager to guide East Carolina to a smooth transition into its new home.

"Every day I wake up and I feel somehow confirmed that this was the right decision for me — whether it be the interaction I have with our fans, the students on our campus, the people I work with daily," he said. "... Every day, there's been something that says, 'Wow, no doubt, this was a great decision on my part.'"