Florida A&M University, which had emerged as a shining star among historically black schools, is now in turmoil for financial problems and a bungled attempt to move its football program into the college elite.
The troubles resulted in the ouster of President Fred Gainous and have embarrassed trustees and alumni of this tight-knit campus.
"It's kind of like surgery. You don't want to go through it, but it had to be done," said Roosevelt Wilson, a former journalism professor and FAMU athletic director.
James Corbin, chairman of FAMU's governing board of trustees, called it a temporary setback that will be resolved through a national search for a new leader set to begin next year.
Still, FAMU's problems could overshadow the strides made by the 13,000-student school that is less than a mile from the much larger Florida State University.
Long known for its strutting "Marching 100" band, FAMU had been recognized in recent years for improved academic programs and a family atmosphere that lived up to the stated goal of nurturing African American excellence, one student at a time. In 1997, Time magazine named FAMU its college of the year.
Gainous, 57, was named president in July 2002, replacing Frederick Humphries, an imposing, larger-than-life figure who, at 6 feet 7 inches and 300 pounds, had been the institution's most visible cheerleader for 16 years.
In contrast, Gainous was a quiet and introspective president who worked hard with little fanfare. What he could not overcome were controversies that built up almost from the time he took the job.
Most visible was his decision earlier this year to delay moving the football program from NCAA Division I-AA to I-A, which left a badly split board and divided loyalties among the school's alumni.
Last fall, state Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher briefly suspended the pay of Gainous and 18 other top school administrators until they produced overdue year-end financial records for the state.
At the same time, an internal audit sought by Gainous criticized the school for late financial aid payments to students, questionable spending by a former employee and sloppy business practices.
The review found that the school could not account for more than $3 million in its construction budget and that it failed to bill the federal government for $3 million spent from a grant program. The university was forced to spend about $1.5 million in surplus money to pay contractors.
Gainous fired three longtime budget officials and hired a Florida State official to help fix the school's accounting woes.
But the situation only deteriorated for Gainous. Fallout from his reversal on the football program was compounded by budget problems in the athletic department and the loss of 11 Mid-Eastern Atlantic Conference titles after the NCAA found the school allowed academically ineligible athletes to compete.
Another scathing audit was released last month only days before trustees voted to fire Gainous.
State Auditor General William O. Monroe found the school failed to track its bank records, pay vendors and monitor student aid programs. The audit also said the school contracted with a company to televise its football games without seeking a competitive bid. That contract was eventually terminated without the school receiving a penny of the $7.5 million it had anticipated.
"It was embarrassing," said Senate faculty president William Tucker, a physics professor who supported the president's firing. "He never managed to get close to the constituents of this university as much as he should have. One of those has been the faculty."
There were, however, successes during Gainous's brief tenure.
The new law school was accredited, the physics department awarded its first doctoral degree and buildings began to rise on campus.
"We're playing catch-up," Gainous said after his firing. "We need resources to really move forward and do what this university needs to be done. It's an awful thing to see what needs to be done and not have the resources to do it."
Gainous, whose last day will be Dec. 31, was paid $349,000 last year.
Before coming to FAMU, he worked for 14 years as chancellor of Alabama's two-year college system, restructuring community and junior colleges, which included merging more than 20 schools.
Now, for the second time in three years, FAMU's trustees will search for another president. Some think it will be a difficult chore.
"It is a tough job, and we're a tough group to work with," said trustee Randy Hanna, a lawyer who supported Gainous. "No one worked harder at this university."
Wilson said he is not concerned about finding a qualified replacement, as long as the selection committee is "smart enough to choose the right one."
"We've never had a consensus builder as a president," he said. "We've always had fighters, and it's always taken that to get FAMU to the next level."