Howling success

Bobby Purcell has managed to bring out the beast in N.C. State boosters. Not bad for a Carolina grad.
by Tim Gray

Most people like to brag about the college from which they graduated. Not Bobby Purcell. He brags about the one he left.

Purcell heads the Wolfpack Club, the money machine that is the fundraising arm of N.C. State University athletics, but earned his bachelor’s at UNC Chapel Hill. Ask him how a Tar Heel could end up as the money man for one of Carolina’s archrivals, and he hustles to point out that he started at State and would have stayed if it had offered him the chance to study physical education or business.

“It was an academic decision. I transferred to Carolina but was a State fan the whole time, even in my fraternity house. My transferring was a hard thing for a lot of people who knew me to understand, including me.” Transferred? To Carolina? Didn’t he know that ABC doesn’t just begin the alphabet but abbreviates a key tenet of the State creed? If the game doesn’t involve the Pack, you root for anybody but Carolina. If State fans could send someone to purgatory, Purcell surely would’ve had to go before returning to Raleigh.

His sin likely has been forgiven. Since becoming boss of the Wolfpack Club in 1997, Purcell has showered State with cash. The club, officially the N.C. State Student Aid Association, has become the top athletic booster among North Carolina’s major universities. It raised $25.8 million in the fiscal year that ended June 2004, the most recent data available, compared with $15.9 million for Carolina’s Rams Club and $18.2 million for Duke University’s Iron Dukes.

Purcell’s fundraising hasn’t just paid for scores of athletes to attend State — public money isn’t used for sports scholarships at State and Carolina. It has bankrolled new facilities for football, basketball, baseball, even tennis. And money matters more than ever in the Atlantic Coast Conference. By expanding to 12 schools, the league has intensified competition in all sports but especially football, the costliest, where it added two national powers: the University of Miami and Virginia Tech.

Purcell, who tools around the parking lot in a golf cart before State football games working the crowd like a pol, is skilled at coaxing money out of alums, but he has been lucky, too. He leads Pack fundraising at a time when State’s academic strength — applied technology — has produced fortunes unimaginable a generation ago.

Two of North Carolina’s four billionaires — Wendell Murphy and Jim Goodnight — are State alumni, as are such recently minted millionaires as two of the founders of Cree, a Durham semiconductor maker. All four are club members, Purcell points out. Murphy gave $26 million for the field house that opened two years ago — the Wendell H. Murphy Football Center.

“Bobby caters to the needs of his whole constituency, not just the big givers,” says Murphy, who chairs State’s board of trustees. “He’s just as concerned about the ones who give small amounts of money. He personally recognizes just about every one of them and can call them by name.”

Purcell's booster club is behind the addition to Carter-Finley.

Over the last 25 years, State has run through a bench of coaches and athletic directors, but Purcell has endured. Football coach Chuck Amato and men’s basketball coach Herb Sendek get more ink and airtime, but neither has Purcell’s political base — the statewide network of Wolfpack Club chapters — nor his ties to big benefactors. Purcell, who’s 51, boils his life down to a tidy narrative that mixes love of sports and N.C. State with his Christian faith. A Presbyterian, he’s a deacon and a former Sunday-school teacher in his church in Raleigh and shows a touch of the well-scrubbed rectitude common among ministers and high-school principals. He rarely drinks or cusses. And his idea of a rockin’ tune is State’s fight song.

He grew up in Clinton, east of Fayetteville. His dad worked for Nutrena Feeds; his mom taught school. As a kid, he lived for baseball and football, playing first base and tight end in high school. “I wasn’t a real talented player, but I always loved competing.” His hero was an uncle, Gus Purcell, who for two decades coached football at Myers Park High School in Charlotte. He had a summer sideline — the Gus Purcell Quarterback Camp — that offered a glimpse of the possibility of making money in amateur athletics. Purcell, who worked at the camp, began to dream of working in sports.

In 1973, he enrolled at State, alma mater of his dad and his granddad. It offered neither a major in physical education nor business, and Purcell soon figured out that one of those could prepare him for a career in sports. Once he transferred to Carolina, he ruled out phys ed because he didn’t want to teach. That left business.

After graduation in 1977 came a stint with Whirlpool in Raleigh. While there, he lined up informational interviews with the athletic directors at State, Carolina, University of Georgia and Georgia Tech. He asked them how to prepare for jobs like theirs. Each said, “Get a master’s in sports management.” He did, enrolling at Georgia, where he signed on as an unpaid assistant football coach. After graduating in 1981, he landed a job that was even more thrilling for a football-mad young man — a three-month internship with the Atlanta Falcons.

There he got a break. He became friendly with Bill Jobko, a scout and former teammate of Monte Kiffin, State’s football coach at the time. As the internship wound down, Kiffin happened to call Jobko. He wanted to know if the Falcons would consider an N.C. State kicker. “Jobko told Kiffin, ‘We’ve got a kid here who’s a big State fan. I’d like for you to give him a look, too.’ So [the kicker] got a look from the Falcons, and I got one from Kiffin. He hired me over the phone.”

Purcell became a part-time assistant coach: “I was a gofer.” That lasted until State canned Kiffin in 1982. A few days later, one of the assistant athletic directors walked into the football office and told Purcell that athletic director Willis Casey wanted to see him. Purcell figured he was being fired, too. When he entered the office, Casey stayed seated, eyeing Purcell over his bifocals. “I’ve been watching you, and you’ve done a good job,” he said. “You’re now a full-time assistant coach. Your salary is $18,000 a year.” He slid open a drawer of his desk, lifted a set of car keys and tossed them to Purcell. “There’s a gray Plymouth sitting out there,” he growled. “Get your butt on the road, see every recruit we’ve been talking to and tell them not to make any decisions until we hire a new coach.”

“I went from making $3,300 a year to making $18,000,” Purcell recalls. “It’s the biggest percentage increase I’ll ever see.” Under the next coach, Tom Reed, he became an assistant and recruiting coordinator — a salesman, in effect, for State football. It was apt preparation for his current job. Reed’s tenure, however, crumbled like Kiffin’s. State ditched him after the 1985 season.

Once again Casey intervened, telling Purcell that he still had a job, at least until the next coach was hired. When Dick Sheridan came to Raleigh that same year, he offered Purcell a tryout as recruiting coordinator. A month into it, Sheridan told him he could stay. “Coach Sheridan had a profound impact on me,” Purcell says. “He’s very thorough and detail-oriented. He never raised his voice or used profanity. And he treated everyone with respect.”

During the early ’80s, as State football stumbled, men’s basketball had surged under Jim Valvano, who with his “Cardiac Pack” won the 1983 National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament. Valvano also was athletic director and goosed along Purcell’s move to courting donors in 1987.

It began when a friend of Purcell’s at the Wolfpack Club approached him about a job. He was interested; he thought he had done what he could as a recruiter. His friend recommended him to Charlie Bryant, then the club’s boss. Bryant ran his name by Valvano, who gave it a thumbs-up. “It was hard leaving football — I still have a thank-you letter for my time with the team from Coach Sheridan in my safe-deposit box — but a couple of people said it would move me more toward an A.D. job,” Purcell says. And that’s where he wanted to go. Money, he understood, had come to mean as much as muscle and motivation in college sports.

Purcell, in essence, switched from being a traveling salesman to a manager in a statewide retail business, which the booster club resembles. Like a retailer, it sells a product (State sports) over which it has limited influence. Its challenges therefore are marketing (boosting the State brand via media and gatherings) and distribution (handling tickets and parking for club members). It collects revenue through donations and rewards its best customers with prime seats and parking spots. In extreme cases, it chisels their names on buildings. The customers also get tax deductions.

Bryant says he hired Purcell for his people skills. The man is a natural politician. Chat with him, and he acts as if he can spare the day. He neither peeks at his watch nor heeds his chirping cell phone. Asked about his history, he first wants to know yours. “He has a very strong suit in building relationships, and ultimately fundraising is about relationships,” says Joe Hull, head of the University of Maryland’s Terrapin Club, who once worked for the Wolfpack Club.

One way Purcell has done that is by creating subclubs like the Student Wolfpack Club, which cultivates future donors. He dreamed up the Junior Wolfpack Club for children, Varsity Club for former State athletes and Women of the Wolfpack. He insists on personally returning calls from any of the approximately 19,300 members or, for that matter, any State alum. The club’s size has long been a point of pride. In the ACC, only Clemson and Florida State have bigger booster groups.

In 1997, Bryant retired. Purcell inherited a vital club, but many of State’s sports fields and structures were antiquated. A push for a new basketball arena had started under Bryant and came to include local and state government. The RBC Center, which opened in 1999, now houses Wolfpack basketball and the National Hockey League’s Carolina Hurricanes.

Football’s needs, however, fell to Purcell, and he began raising money for the field house that would become the Murphy Center. Its construction took on urgency in 2000 after State hired Amato from Florida State. Amato insisted that the school needed better everything — offices, locker rooms, weight rooms. The Wolfpack nation listened. Alumni were sick of mediocre teams, and then-Chancellor Marye Anne Fox wanted top-flight football and basketball programs.

Purcell’s dream job opened that same year when athletic director Les Robinson resigned, but he lost out when Fox picked Lee Fowler, athletic director at Middle Tennessee State University. Fox, who has since left, talked about bringing in “new blood.” What she didn’t say was that Purcell might be too tight with such powerful donors as Murphy and Raleigh real-estate developer Steve Stroud. Picking Purcell might have meant giving them title to the red Cadillac when they already held the keys. She selected someone over whom she might exercise better control.

Fox’s snub seemed to spur Purcell into trying to show that he should’ve been selected. With the help of his board, he set out to build a state-of-the-art field house. The project got a big assist from Murphy. Besides donating money, he lent his plane to the effort, flying members of the design committee around the country to tour other field houses. The building, which opened in 2003, has drawn envy from visiting coaches. Such football powers as Tennessee and Nebraska have sent staff for tours.

The construction of Vaughn Towers, perched atop Carter-Finley’s west stands, proceeded with similar dispatch. It cost $39 million, though Purcell and his staff didn’t have to raise that much outright. Unlike the Murphy Center, it generates revenue via rental of 51 luxury suites and more than 1,000 club seats. The suites go for $45,000 to $55,000 a season. The structure opened with a black-tie bash in time for this past football season. Purcell already was laying plans for the club’s next project — closing Carter-Finley’s north end with the addition of more than 7,000 seats. That will cost $17 million and should be completed by August.

Purcell is paid well — in fiscal 2004, his compensation totaled $200,000 — and says that he and Fowler get along well. Fowler calls Purcell “one of the best fundraisers in the country” and compliments his creation of the Student Wolfpack Club. Still, working for Fowler has to chafe, even if Purcell’s team-player personality would never let him admit it. But Fowler might not stay in Raleigh the rest of his career. After all, he’s a Tennessean who graduated from Vanderbilt University in Nashville. If he chose to return to his home state, Purcell once again would be a top candidate to be State’s A.D.

Given the Wolfpack Club’s clout and its building spree, a chancellor might have a tough time denying him again. Purcell knows sports and fundraising and has developed a network of friends around the state that’s Bill Clintonesque in its extent and ardor.

Now if he could just do something about that Carolina degree.