June 27, 2007
RALEIGH It shouldn't have come as a surprise when N.C. State recently announced a three-year contract extension for athletic director Lee Fowler that will take him through 2013.
State has given out several contract extensions in recent months, including those to men's basketball coach Sidney Lowe and women's basketball coach Kay Yow, so certainly Fowler was in line for a reward of his own.
He has navigated the department through much upheaval and uncertainty with its revenue-making sports over the past year. He hired Lowe last spring, after Herb Sendek left for Arizona State in April. He hired Tom O'Brien as the football coach this winter, after Chuck Amato was fired. Fowler has dealt with Yow's continued battle with cancer in a delicate, appropriate manner.
At the same time, he kept the athletic department's spending in the black despite paying off Amato and incurring other unexpected bills and continued renovations and facilities upgrades for various sports. By the end of the summer, work should be complete on a softball venue and a complex for the soccer and track teams. The enclosing of the north end of Carter-Finley Stadium was finished before the 2006 season.
State boasted three ACC championship teams in 2006-07, in wrestling, men's cross country and women's cross country. The men's and women's basketball teams reached the ACC Tournament finals before losing.
"I think it was an unusual year, because you usually aren't changing high-profile coaches, and then you throw in Kay and her sickness and her leaving, so we had a pretty full year in our three major sports," Fowler said. "I just feel very blessed to get through it and get Kay back, No. 1, and get Sidney in place and get Tom O'Brien in place. I really feel excited about the future of our top three programs. It's bright, and we're really excited."
Fowler said he considers next year to be the start of a new era, in the sense that the coaches will be firmly in place and the facilities with improvements estimated at $120 million among the various venues since Fowler took over in 2000 will be complete.
"We've got good staffs in place," Fowler said. "Our budgets are in good shape. We're moving forward with the last part of our facilities, with softball, track and soccer. And so I think that everybody kind of feels that now is our time and we're ready to be very successful.
"Of course, it's different in different sports, and how long it takes them to get up and running with the facilities and hopefully improve the recruiting to a higher level. But most of our sports now have gotten better facilities, and the ones who have had them two or three years are showing marked increases in their wins and how competitive they are."
It's the one-two combination of coaches and facilities, Fowler said, that will enable State to maintain the success it has attained in some sports and become competitive again in sports it has struggled in recently. State hasn't won an ACC football title since 1979 and hasn't won the ACC men's basketball championship since 1987, but O'Brien and Lowe give State fans hope again.
TEAMS, FINANCES MOSTLY SOLID
In the non-revenue sports, the men's tennis team reached the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history, then won one match to finish in the top eight. The women's tennis team made the NCAA field. The baseball team made the NCAA Tournament for the sixth straight year. Wrestling and both cross country teams obviously are elite programs, and the softball team finished second in the ACC.
The "down" non-revenue sports are men's golf (the only ACC program not to make the NCAA field this year), men's soccer (last in the ACC), women's soccer (eighth) and volleyball (0-22 ACC, 2-29 overall). But all but golf either have new coaches or new facilities in the works.
Fowler uses the example of football, with O'Brien coming into a situation with excellent facilities and competitive salaries, as his vision for how the entire department will grow in the future. Amato was fired after going 3-9 last season, ending the year on a seven-game losing streak.
"I think where we've ended up in football is a great place, and I think most Wolfpackers would agree with that," Fowler said. "To get a head coach with Tom's background and his organizational skills, and his staff has been with him so long, that's something I think it's not only impressive now but for the future.
"We have a program that in 10 years when Tom retires, or seven when he says he's going to retire, down the road we'll be able to hire that kind of coach from now on. That's one thing, I think, without the facilities in the past and without salaries at a competitive level, it was difficult for N.C. State to maintain hiring successful people. My goal is to get this program in the Top 25 and maintain it, and I think to do that you've got to have good coaches."
Financially, the department is sound.
Fowler said that despite buying out Amato's contract, exceeding the football recruiting budget when the new staff arrived, and facing unexpected expenses when plumbing problems caused damage to the Murphy Center, the department still should be in the black at the end of the fiscal year on June 30. The official report should come out in August.
"We had a very good year last year," Fowler said. "The Wolfpack Club supported us well. We had a little issue with the flood in the Murphy Center, but we were able to negotiate through that. We just kind of shut down spending on some things just to try to make ends meet, and I think we're going to end the year positive.
"Then next year looks better, with none of those type things to deal with. Any time you're replacing your football staff, the new staff comes in and re-recruits the kids. So basically they went back out to all the high schools, and you have increased spending across the board. But because of football and the sellouts and basketball revenue and conference revenues, we were able to get through it. And the future looks bright."