CHATTANOOGA (WRCB) -- It took some time away from a college campus to make Lee Fowler realize how much he enjoyed being a part of one.
The former Middle Tennessee State and North Carolina State athletic director spent the day touring one Wednesday as he interviewed for the vacant AD post at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
The current director of basketball operations for the Sun Belt Conference said he isn't looking for a spot to spend the twilight years of his career. Instead, he just wants to get back to the work he's more passionate about.
"(Working with the Sun Belt) made me realize I want to get back on a college campus," said the 61-year-old Fowler, who is a native of Columbia, Tenn. "I really miss the interaction with the student-athletes, getting to know them and watching them start as wide-eyed freshman that develop into young professionals.
"I saw that every time I visited a campus in my current role, and I really missed it."
Fowler's interview was the last of three for UTC, following visits from fellow finalists David Blackburn and Mike Buddie the last two days.
Fowler is the only candidate not currently working in a college athletics department, he's also the only one of the three to have previous experience as an AD.
He served as athletic director at MTSU from 1994-2000 before a ten-year run at NC State, though he notes it's not up to him to decide if that sets him apart.
"You'll have to ask the people making the decision," Fowler said. "I told one group earlier today not to use (Blackburn and Buddie's) inexperience against them just because I have those experiences.
"But I am certainly very excited about the opportunity and think I can make a difference here. I have many national contacts, a lot of state contacts and a lot of good experiences at great universities. Hopefully that will help me."
Much of that experience came in a situation similar to UTC.
Fowler found great success leading the MTSU athletic department for seven years, even leading the charge to move the Blue Raiders to the Football Bowl Subdivision level in 1999.
He understands the fundraising and financial challenges at a mid-major university, which he says really aren't all that different from the bigger budge he was working with at NC State.
"You'll find out in a $48 million budget that everyone needs more money just like in a $12 million budget everyone needs more money," he said, noting UTC's current $12 million budget matched what he worked with during his final year at MTSU in 2000. "It's all relative to who your competition is and what they have. You want to be able to be competitive and be on top in your league.
"I learned awhile back the people who spend the most money usually win the most games in different sports, so you have to give coaches the resources, facilities and the time to get their programs in a position to win."
Fowler sees the immediate hires needed for both men and women's basketball as a chance for a fresh start for both programs, though he noted the Lady Mocs are already in a great place.
Fowler actually had ex-UTC women's coach Wes Moore as a finalist for the NC State job when Kellie Harper was hired four years ago, and he joked he should have taken Moore's file with him when he left Raleigh so the successful Lady Mocs' coach wouldn't have been lured to the Wolfpack earlier this month.
Fowler is also excited about the opportunity to work with a new leader in recently-hired chancellor Dr. Steve Angle, who will begin his tenure at UTC in June.
But more than anything, Fowler praised the surrounding community and UTC's place in it. He's familiar with Chattanooga, and believes it's a great place for college athletics.
"The city, it's atmosphere and it's leaders are all really progressive, so I believe UTC has a bright future ahead," Fowler said. "But you need to focus on a combination on marketing, fund-raising and getting people to support the program at a higher level.
"You want to get the entire city involved because this campus seems to mean so much to the city, so we need to let them know how important good leadership is to this university and we can get people to buy into it and support you."
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