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It Ain't Easy Being Bubba

Nearly three years in, Bubba Cunningham's road as UNC's athletic director does not seem to be getting any easier.


The Associated Press' Aaron Beard has a look at the challenges that UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham has faced, and some he is facing, and it turns out that taking charge in Chapel Hill has been a pretty tough gig.

Cunningham just finished up his second full academic year after being hired in October 2011, and it would seem the UNC athletic program found a sophomore slump. In just the past 12 months, Carolina has dealt with a myriad of off-court and off-field issues, from P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald to Mary Willingham and Rashad McCants, plus a return visit from the NCAA over the school's academic misfortunes. And it's not like the Tar Heels had their usual embarrassment of riches of on-field accomplishments to fall back on, as for the first time in 61 years the school did not win a single Atlantic Coast Conference championship, and finished outside the top 10 in the Learfield Directors Cup for the first time in six years.

Cunningham also caused ripples along Skipper Bowles Drive with his comments about the athletic department that appeared in a Forbes piece in February:

"When I first took over [as athletic director] in late 2011, it became immediately evident that the culture of the department had stagnated," recalls Cunningham. "UNC had been incredibly successful for so many years, but the program was floundering. There was no mission, no roadmap on how to maintain that achievement, only the assumption that what worked in the past would somehow continue to work in the future. The Tar Heels were drifting down a directionless road of with no destination in sight," he adds.

Cunningham's words stung some of the old guard who had been associated with Carolina athletics prior to his arrival, and who had seen things as going pretty well, at least until the great unpleasantness. But while they may have bristled at his comments, his analysis of the situation is entirely spot on:

Cunningham has learned over a leadership career that has spanned four decades that recognizing the first signs of organizational crisis is not an easy task. If all you have ever known is success, it’s easy to become ignorant to the telltale marks of impending disaster. When crisis finally strikes, no one panics because they simply don’t understand what’s happening, and then later they panic precisely because they don’t understand what’s happening.

That may be the most succinct and accurate description of UNC's initial response to the great unpleasantness that I have seen yet.

To his credit, Cunningham has faced the problems head on. He and UNC provost Jim Dean have been examining the relationship between athletics and academics, and according to the school's Carolina Commitment website, UNC has implemented more than 70 policy and process changes since the NCAA first came calling almost four years ago.

In the shadow of all this, Cunningham is also looking at significant facility challenges, most notably the aging and increasingly outdated Smith Center, but as Beard notes Fetzer Field also needs attention. Cunningham has a reputation as being a facilities guru in his previous stops at Ball State and Tulsa, as well as an assistant AD at Notre Dame.

Another concern which must be on Cunningham's mind is succession plans for three of UNC's national championship coaches. Roy Williams, Sylvia Hatchell, and Anson Dorrance are all in their 60s, and Hatchell's recent health issues have brought into crisp focus the mortality and human frailty of coaches.

So Cunningham's plate is certainly full. Again, as Beard writes:

"We're wrestling with some of the toughest issues you can wrestle with," Cunningham said in an interview with The Associated Press. "It's taxing on the faculty. It's taxing on the faculty council. It's taxing on the coaches, on the students in the classroom. It is something that as an institution, we have to figure out how we can move forward."

Cunningham, along with Triangle athletic directors Kevin White of Duke, Ingrid Wicker-McCree of NC Central, and Debbie Yow of NC State will be participating in The Fan Town Hall on Thursday from 11:30 am-1:00 pm. Fans can direct questions for these administrators through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or Vine by using the hashtag #FanTownHall. You can also listen to the discussion over the air at 99.9 FM or online at, and I will be live tweeting from @DocHeelfire as well.