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Bubba Passes First Major Test

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When Bubba Cunningham was hired at UNC's athletic director, one of the selling points on him was as a hiring manager. The word on Bubba was he had a good eye for coaching candidates and handled the process the way it should be handled: Neatly, quickly and quietly. Those three traits were on display over the past two months as Bubba took charge of the search for a new football coach at UNC and deftly executed the process. The News & Observer and Inside Carolina both have pieces revealing the details of a search that was shrouded in such secrecy, at THF we did not even have good rumors to post or speculate about. That is a little boring from a blogging perspective but from a PR angle, it is exactly what UNC needed.

The short story on the football coaching search is Bubba started shortly after he was named UNC's new athletic director despite not officially starting at UNC until a month later. This was necessary since waiting would waste otherwise great time that could be used to lay the foundation needed to start pursuing coaches once they became available. According to both pieces, anywhere from 75-100 candidates were initially identified by an internal group Bubba assumbled for the purpose of compiling a list and vetting out the names. Along with Carr Sports Association, a search firm retained to assist in the search, a copious amount of research was done and the list ultimately reduced to a handful of names. Once the college football season ended, Bubba began interviewing candidates, most of them in New York where the National Football Foundation was holding its annual awards dinner. By this point, Southern Miss' Larry Fedora had emerged as the lead candidate and the process went in his direction culminating with an offer on Tuesday of last week and a trip to Chapel Hill on Wednesday to meet with Chancellor Holden Thorp and BOT chairman Wade Hargrove at Thorp's house. As the N&O article points out, there was a rather humorous part about Fedora being driven around campus and the football facilities but not getting out to take a tour. There was concern he would be seen and it would throw propane on an already raging speculation bonfire that had formed concerning UNC's interest in Fedora. The rest, as they say, is history.

It should be said upfront that simply running a clean coaching search is not a guarantee of success for the coach or program. Obviously this is but one step of many with the ones that ultimately determine the fate of the program to be made by Fedora in staff hires, recruiting and how he runs the program. It is possible to totally screw the search up and land a good hire. It is possible to have the world's best coaching search and end up with successive 5-7 seasons. However, even down to not letting Fedora out of the car for a tour of Kenan speaks volumes to just how seriously Bubba took keeping the process a secret and running the search the right way. As you might recall, in 2006 when NC State was looking a basketball coach, John Calipari, then of Memphis was seen at the RBC Center touring the facilities. This fueled speculation that he would take the NCSU job although his real play was to leverage Memphis into giving him more money. That incident was one of several that made Lee Fowler a laughingstock in the realm of college coaching searches. Fowler was publicly rejected several times or had candidates who were simply bad fits on the hook only to have them jump off. The end result was the hiring of Sidney Lowe and five more years of mediocrity.

That was not the case with Bubba and while the jury is out on how the Fedora Era at UNC will turn out, it is at least off to a good start. Bubba went into the search with a criteria for what he wanted and he stuck with it. In terms of his candidate list, Bubba had a top tier target aka "a home run" in Boise State's Chris Petersen. There were efforts made with Petersen but Bubba did so while keeping his options open with his second tier which included Fedora, Houston's Kevin Sumlin, Cincinnati Butch Jones and Auburn OC Gus Malzhan. Eventually it became clear Petersen was not leaving Boise but while Petersen publicly rejected Arizona and UCLA, the same did not happen to UNC. After that Bubba moved quickly with the second tier of candidates which resulted in him landing his second overall choice, Fedora. During this period there were no wild rumors, no publicizing which candidates were being interviewed nor did we sit here and watch Bubba aimlessly moved down a list of names. The only "crazy" day we had was when the process got really serious with Fedora and he was almost ready to sign on the dotted line. Outside of that, it was as quiet and smooth a search as you could probably hope for.

In light of the past 18 months where UNC has taken black eye after black eye on the PR front, a well run coaching search is exactly what was needed. Based on Bubba's comments during the introductory press conference, he is fully aware the Tar Heel fan base's fractured state. He also has to be aware of how badly UNC has looked at times during the NCAA investigation coming to a head with Thorp's handling of Butch Davis' dismissal. UNC needed a hire that most of the fan base could get behind and in a way that did not embarrass the university. This is not a perfect hire but in UNC's present situation there was not a perfect hire out there, Petersen included. Fedora's obvious passion and energy is enough to excite the fan base and earn UNC credit in the media for making a good hire. There are still questions to be answered about the staff and with any hire there is a chance this doesn't work out. As for the first step of running a clean search and making what is perceived to be a good hire, Bubba got the job done in such a way that removes any future second guessing that often comes from poorly handled hires.

In addition to simply being a top notch administrator in this endeavor, Bubba's handling of this hire goes a long way towards assuaging fears many fans had of Thorp continuing to meddle in the athletic program causing further damage. One of the chief reasons some fans are ready to fire Thorp is they perceived him to be a threat to progress in the football program. I have never bought that argument nor have I ever though Thorp should be fired for making the decision to terminate Davis. Regardless, there was plenty of ire leveled at Thorp and trepidation over what other future decisions he might make. The hiring of Bubba Cunningham as AD followed by the outstanding manner in which he executed this coaching search essentially allows Thorp go back to doing the academic/administrative/fundraising aspects of his job(aka the important stuff lest we lose our perspective) and not worry about the athletic department. Bubba has proven that he is every bit the administrator that we thought he was when he took the job. Undoubtedly Thorp is thrilled at this notion and so are the fans.

When Dick Baddour took over as AD, a series of bad hiring decisions in football and basketball doomed him in terms of fan perception. Despite doing a good job in general running the athletic department, Baddour was tainted for the balance of his tenure by those decisions. Bubba has managed to avoid that particular pitfall in his first outing. He passed the first major test handed to him which is even more amazing when you consider the stakes and pressure under which he operated. Competence, while not very entertaining, is a nice thing to have sometimes.