With a budget crisis at hand, NC State University Chancellor Randy Woodson needs to save the money and not hire a national search firm to find a replacement for ousted Athletics Director Lee Fowler. Woodson, new to the campus but up-to-speed on the situation and process, should form a Search Committee made up of members of the Board of Trustees, the Chairperson of the Faculty Senate, the faculty representative to the Athletics Council, a few additional selected high-rolling boosters of the athletic program, and the student body president. Then, Woodson, who should chair the group, should hire Wolfpack Club Executive Director Bobby Purcell to replace Fowler. No more discussion.
Hiring of Purcell, who was runner-up 10 years ago when Fowler was picked, would be a similar choice to that of the selection of Willis Casey in the 1960s. No doubt that Casey thus far has been the best Athletics Director NC State has ever had. Some coaches hated him but loved him. Many boosters despised him but respected him and his decisions. His peers thought Casey as a genius in the business though behind his back and away from his presence some spoke ill of Casey while, at the same time, as they slapped their own forehead, wishing they had thought of and acted as Casey did on many issues. He was demanding, but he had a soft spot.
Casey was the NC State swimming coach at the time when Chancellor John Caldwell, without a doubt the best Chancellor NC State has ever had, had to appoint a successor to the retired Roy Clogston. While deciding, Caldwell named basketball coach Norman Sloan as interim athletics director. Eventually, Dr. Caldwell told Sloan he could have one or the other, be the Athletics Director or the basketball coach. When Sloan chose the latter, Casey was selected to lead the department.
He was smart, understood the business aspects of athletics, understood coaches, understood athletes, understood campus politics. He would scold coaches over budgets and coaching techniques, chasing them from his office upset, even ready to leave the school. But those same coaches, after returning to their offices, would understand what had just happened and express love for the man instead of hate. Credit Casey for hiring Lou Holtz from William and Mary and for hiring Jim Valvano from Iona, two of the best hires NC State has ever had. Casey knew coaching talent. The coaches understood Casey.
The stories about Casey could go on and on, but the point here is that NC State needs someone right now who can gain the respect of the coaches without fear of dismissal unless justified because of lack of effort, team performance or wrong-doing, one who can keep the fans coming to the events that matter—football and men’s basketball—and keep those same fans reaching deep into their pockets to supply the funds needed.
I believe Bobby is the right person but not just because of his qualifications. The short bio on the Wolfpack club website just touches on his abilities which we know are deeply rooted in raising millions of dollars to build the facilities that are the legacy Lee Fowler leaves behind. Bobby’s flair for generating money would have done no good if Fowler had not pursued the building effort. But great facilities are only half the battle in college athletics success. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: When looking at the whole picture, NC State has no less than the best facilities—venues for competition, offices, training sites, etc.—in the Atlantic Coast Conference and probably among most schools in the nation, but overall, NC State has a mediocre athletics program, at best.
By far, Bobby alone didn’t raise the money for those facilities. He has surrounded himself with an excellent staff. Even when assistants moved on to other schools and other jobs, Bobby knew what to do, from elevating others to prominent positions and to calling a former staffer who was in the top fundraising position at another school, asking that he return to be a top assistant at the Wolfpack Club. He did because of Bobby.
Bobby’s also a people person, knowing how to talk with disgruntled contributors to keep them giving when the donors were not happy with athletics results. Bobby understands what it takes to be successful with people. It means getting in front of the fans and being the face of the cause without distracting from the main event. It wasn’t always that way for him. Early in his start as head of the Wolfpack Club, he was slow to return phone calls and emails, spending much of his time listening to a few and learning a better way. Now he knows when and where to fight the battles and to how make hay. His not getting the job 10 years ago gave him time and incentive to be better, to be qualified to take over. Now is that time.
I worked for a short time with Bobby. He joined the NC State football staff in 1981 and moved to the Wolfpack Club in 1987. I started with the Wolfpack Club/Sports Information Department in 1977 and moved to private business in 1987. During that time, and I believe Bobby understands my position here, the enthusiasm for NC State athletics came from inside the program and pushed its way outside to the fans though the Athletics Director, through the Sports Information Department, through the coaches, through the players and through the overall University administration.
But today, that enthusiasm comes from outside the program, from the fans who try to push that exuberant feeling back into the athletics program, only to find a thick wall that cannot be penetrated. When the program turns its back on the fans—and many believing Fowler did that regularly—the fans turn vicious and/or just go away. Many fans that used to buy tickets to football and basketball game tell me they’ll buy no more until Fowler is no longer in charge, no matter the success of those teams. The feeling from outside the program is that those inside NC State athletics are just doing a job without contagious passion. They come to work, punch a clock, complain about the long hours, and show no emotion. That’s unacceptable in private business, even in government jobs. That’s unacceptable in NC State athletics.
And, the Athletics Director is the point person on this zeal. If he’s just a numbers person who knows how to balance a budget, he’s not the person (could be a woman) for the job. He needs to be able to reach out to the fans, to the University community, to his staff, to the athletes. He needs to be in command, especially over the football and basketball programs, putting in his two cents when needed.
One more Casey story. In 1976, the Wolfpack football team was 1-4-1 headed into a mid-October game at North Carolina. It was Bo Rein’s first year as head football coach. The two—Casey and Rein—were having a regular weekly meeting when Casey asked about Rein’s idea for his first play on offense for that game. With Ted Brown, then a sophomore, in the backfield, Rein said a run off tackle with the ball in Brown’s hands would be the call. Casey suggested a pass play. Rein repeated the Brown selection. Casey, more emphatic, once against suggested the pass. It was the third time through, with Casey being much stronger with his “suggestion,” that Rein got the message. Sure enough, on State’s first play on offense, a pass was attempted. It caused the Tar Heels’ defense to move away from the line for the remainder of the game; it opened up State’s offense; Brown had a fabulous day running the ball; State won 21-13.
The professionals in the college athletics business, those who think the choice has to come from a sitting athletics director, one who has national status and stature, will not like the choice of Bobby Purcell, but that’s not the need here. NC State does not require a Kevin White, tabbed in recent years by Duke away from Notre Dame, to fill the position. White was excellent for Duke, but NC State is different. It has a good base of facilities; it has a fabulous and loyal fan base. We need a leader who knows the lay of the land and how to make it better, much better, better than mediocre, not someone who will not have to go through a learning process and get to know the fans.
Woodson, because of his background in a similar institution of higher learning, seems to be the right man to lead NC State from Holliday Hall, and hiring from outside for that spot was just fine. In this case, the best candidate, for me anyway, is already at home. So Chancellor Woodson, don’t waste the money on that national search firm. If I were in your position—and with all due respect to others who may be equally qualified and desire the job—I’d turn to Bobby Purcell and make the offer. He’s the right man for the job.