By Jim Pomeranz
Since Bobby Purcell was named executive director of North Carolina State University’s athletic booster club in 1991, the Raleigh school has had six chancellors, four athletic directors, and 10 football and basketball coaches. Meanwhile, its highest-profile teams have had little success in the Atlantic Coast Conference: The football team (119-130-1 in the ACC) has finished second in the league six times, while the basketballers (184-274) have placed no higher than third.
Through it all, Purcell has been the steady hand in building the N.C. State University Student Aid Association Inc., better known as the Wolfpack Club, raising about half a billion dollars and developing a loyal fan base. When he took the job, donations for scholarships and capital projects totaled $3.6 million with about 8,200 club members. Now, donations average $19 million annually, and the club totals about 20,000 members.
“Bobby, no doubt, has been the one person to hold the fans together for the last 27 years,” says Chuck Amato, head football coach from 2000-06. “Bobby’s smart, level-headed, knows what he’s doing and does it well. He’s truthful, and that’s just one reason people like him. The fans want continuity.”
Purcell joined the Wolfpack football program as a part-time assistant for head coach Monte Kiffin in 1981. He later became the outside linebacker coach under Tom Reed and was tapped as recruiting coordinator by Dick Sheridan in 1986. He moved to the Wolfpack Club staff in 1987 as an assistant to longtime executive secretary K.M. “Charlie” Bryant. Four years later, he got the top job.
“Wolfpack fans have always been very loyal to their teams, always looking to the future, not worrying about past results,” Bryant says. “But it also takes good leadership to hold it all together. … It’s an understatement to say Bobby has done an absolutely terrific job.”
Purcell was born in Laurinburg and raised in Clinton, where he played high-school football and baseball. Following his father and grand-father, he enrolled at N.C. State but transferred to UNC Chapel Hill, where he earned a bachelor’s in business administration in 1977. Two years as a regional credit manager for Whirlpool Corp. left him longing for a career in athletic administration. “But I didn’t know how to get there,” he says, so he arranged meetings with four athletics directors — N.C. State’s Willis Casey; UNC Chapel Hill’s Bill Cobey; Georgia’s Vince Dooley; and Georgia Tech’s Homer Rice.
“All four said I should go to graduate school, get a master’s in sports management,” Purcell says. He decided to attend graduate school at the University of Georgia. In Athens, Purcell was a graduate assistant coach on Dooley’s football staff and interned with the Atlanta Falcons. After earning his master’s degree in 1981, he returned to N.C. State as a part-time football assistant.
“Coach [Monte] Kiffin had only a part-time assistant’s job, and I jumped at it, which got me back to Raleigh and into college athletics,” says Purcell, who was paid $390,000 in 2017. “I really believe that as hard as you work, you only get places through people helping you.”
Purcell’s approach to fundraising is to treat all donors with respect. “We don’t go after just big-dollar donors. We solicit everyone who might be interested in Wolfpack athletics,” he says. “You don’t fill your stadiums with large-dollar donors. You do that with lots of small-dollar donors.”
To be sure, major givers have boosted the Wolfpack Club, kickstarting capital projects including the Wendell H. Murphy Football Center; the Close-King Indoor Football Practice Facility named for Charlotte businessmen Derick Close and James King; and various facilities named for Curtis and Jacqueline Dail of Garner, who gave $5.2 million in 2002.
Purcell and a staff of 25 need to keep the money flowing to fund $13 million in scholarships this year. The club is also paying a couple of million dollars annually to repay a mortgage on the football practice building that totaled $10.8 million as of June 30, 2017, plus bond debt of about $8.4 million. Assets total $106 million, including $36 million in land and buildings and $20 million in pledges.
By comparison, UNC Chapel Hill’s booster group, The Educational Foundation Inc., or Rams Club, had assets of $98 million and unsecured debt, loans and other liabilities totaling $50 million as of June 30, 2016, according to its most recent filing. Its annual contributions averaged $40 million in 2015-16.
Nearly 700 student-athletes on 21 N.C. State teams will receive financial assistance in 2018-19, along with grants to student trainers and managers and former athletes returning to complete their degrees. “No matter if we’re 12-0 or 0-12 or if there’s a financial recession, we still have to and want to pay that scholarship bill,” he says.
Purcell, 63, was considered for N.C. State’s director of athletics post in 2010 when Chancellor Randy Woodson hired Debbie Yow from the University of Maryland. He hasn’t let that affect his work, associates say. “I’m very blessed to be where I am. I love Wolfpack people,” he says.
Respect for Purcell is evident in a mentoring program run by the National Association of Athletics Development Directors that is named after him. Twenty-three former Wolfpack Club staffers are now fundraisers or leaders at other universities, including Jimmy Bass, UNC Wilmington’s athletic director.
Purcell’s peer in Chapel Hill is also a fan. “[Bobby] has been more active than anyone when it comes to growing our profession and mentoring fundraisers in college athletics,” says John Montgomery, executive director of the Rams Club.
The advent of football season is prime time for Purcell, and hopes that N.C. State can improve on last year’s strong 9-4 record have him enthused. “But then, our fans are always optimistic. It helps on the field and in fundraising,” he says. “No matter how we’ve done on the field or court previously, they’ll always tell me, ‘We’re gonna win.’”