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UNC’s underrated leader: Bubba Cunningham

UNC’s athletic director has guided UNC to unprecedented success in his brief tenure.

NCAA Basketball: Duke at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

College athletics often put the spotlight on the players student-athletes and coaching staff. They are the ones who provide the entertainment, atmosphere, and content for spirited Friday night debates at your local watering hole. Fans feel as though they have a connection with the events that take place within the confines of the various playing surfaces.

This attention and focus is well warranted. However it usually means that those who are responsible for the athletic department as a whole, are overlooked. Being an athletic director isn’t sexy. The rewards of a job well done can take years to come to fruition. Gone are the days where the AD hired some coaches, operated a budget, and made a few speeches each year.

Now those duties include fundraising of epic proportions, public relations events, community outreach, and facility improvements. Not to mention the around-the-clock media obligations complete with conference calls, conference meetings, NCAA meetings, and possible duties on various committees. Oh, by the way, you’re also expected to make appearances at hundreds of games throughout the year. If an AD is fortunate to be at a school that has regular post-season success, then unplanned travel on 72-hours’ notice for an undetermined amount of time is a common occurrence as well.

The job has evolved. It is a lifestyle. While most sports receive a minor break at some point during the year, the AD works 365-24-7. And that’s when the department runs smoothly. When challenges arise, fans, students, athletes, and coaching staffs can only hope they have an athletic director who can handle the added stress.

In other words, UNC fans should enter this summer thanking whatever celestial entity they pray to that Bubba Cunningham is still hanging around Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Cunningham replaced Dick Baddour in the fall of 2011. At the time, the athletic department was coming off an overwhelmingly successful decade. With the exception of men’s football, numerous significant programs had found national success over the previous decade. By the fall of 2011:

  • Baseball made five CWS appearances since 2006, and 10 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances.
  • Field hockey earned the National Title in 2007 and 2009. They were national runners-up in 2010.
  • Men’s soccer made four consecutive College Cups from 2008-2011 and five NCAA Tournaments since 2006. They would win the National Championship that fall.
  • Women’s soccer won three national titles since 2006, and would win another one in 2012.
  • Women’s lacrosse completed the third of their three consecutive Final Four appearances.
  • Women’s basketball had made 10 consecutive NCAA Tournaments with Final Four appearances in 2007 and 2008.
  • Men’s basketball earned two National Titles in 2005 and 2009, and would make the Elite Eight in the spring of 2012.
  • Football was completing their NCAA investigation into improper benefits, and while there would be some penalties, there was a light at the end of the tunnel. The program had even cobbled together a winning record with interim coach Everett Withers.

There were few jobs in college athletics that were as attractive as the UNC job was in 2011.

Then the bottom fell out. Of note:

  • The NCAA’s still-ongoing investigation undoubtedly hampered recruiting, and threatened to decimate the competitiveness of multiple sports.
  • Football received a post-season ban in 2012, lost nine scholarships over three years, and was placed on probation for three years.
  • Men’s basketball saw P.J. Hairston lose his college eligibility due to receiving improper benefits.
  • Women’s basketball watched its star-studded 2013 recruiting class vanish, seemingly overnight.
  • The athletic department was hammered by local and national media, often without fully understanding (or choosing to learn) the actual facts of the case.
  • The school had to handle the fallout from both the Martin and Wainstein reports, as well as an unprecedented three Notice of Allegations from the NCAA.
  • Chancellor Holden Thorpe, the man who hired Cunningham, resigned in 2013 amid increasing outcry about his handling of numerous scandals across the university.

In a profession where coaches and administrators regularly keep their eyes and ears open for the next best opportunity, most people would have jumped overboard as soon possible. Yet, through it all Bubba Cunningham has stayed resolute, calm, poised, and consistent in his message. That includes reportedly turning down offers by Florida and possibly Tennessee to run their athletic departments in the last 12 months.

After a relatively difficult first few years, the UNC athletic department has returned to its pre-NCAA investigation spot among the true athletic powerhouses across the country. Last week, Daniel Bayer wrote specifically about the 2016-2017 accomplishments of the entire athletic department. Below are a few more highlights of Bubba Cunningham era:

  • Larry Fedora, hired by Cunningham, is two years removed from his second ACC Coastal Division title and ACC Title Game appearance. Fedora currently has the second best winning percentage of any Carolina football coach since 1953. UNC just locked him down through 2022.
  • Men’s basketball is coming off two consecutive NCAA title games. Of course, they won their seventh national championship this past April.
  • Men and Women’s lacrosse have three combined national titles since 2013. The women won in 2013 and 2016. The men joined the women in 2016.
  • After the MLB draft decimated baseball’s 2014 recruiting class, UNC returned to the NCAA tournament as the #2 overall national seed in 2017.
  • Field hockey has maintained their excellence, and have been national runners-up in 2012, 2015, and 2016.
  • Men’s and women’s soccer both made the national semi-finals in 2016.
  • Last year, UNC smashed its athletic fundraising record with almost $62 million raised for scholarships, facilities, and other ventures.
  • That includes a massive overhaul of facilities around campus, including an indoor football practice facility and much needed love for the Olympic sports that continually represent UNC with class, dignity, and success. For details, read this, or this.
  • The golf and tennis programs achieved unprecedented success this past season.
  • Despite the uncertainty that surrounds the women’s basketball program, head coach Sylvia Hatchell was still awarded a contract extension through 2020. That kind of loyalty and benefit of the doubt was never afforded to Butch Davis when he was fired weeks before the 2011 football season began.

Perhaps most impressively is that 16 Tar Heel athletic teams earned a perfect 1000 in the NCAA’s annual Academic Progress Rates (APR) for the 2016-2017 year. Not only has Cunningham navigated UNC through the previous few years, but he has done so while allowing the Heels to turn what could have been a point of weakness (academic standing), into a renewed source of pride.

It’s satisfying he has accomplished so much with a certain understated gusto that also demonstrates he isn’t afraid of a fight.

Of course, if you’ve been paying attention to any of the three responses to the NCAA, you know the man doesn’t back down. In regards to the most current response to the NCAA’s notice of allegations, he stated that UNC is prepared to, “…exhaust the process to its fullest extent.” Some have read that to mean that UNC is preparing for a battle in court should the NCAA continue to ignore their own bylaws, make unprecedented rulings, and overstep their jurisdiction.

For further evidence of the man’s penchant to tweak an adversary, think back to 2014 when UNC football members, after winning the Victory Bell in Durham, damaged property on Duke’s campus in excess of $27,000. In addition to personally paying for half of the damage, he penned a formal written apology to Blue Devil AD Kevin White. Technically, it was an apology, but it wasn’t a full mea culpa either, as he wrote that he wasn’t quite sure how Duke came to their overall final figure and expressed disappointment in Duke’s head coach David Cutcliffe.

(Disclaimer: that specific link takes you to the News and Observer website. If you make a conscious effort to truly boycott their material, you have been warned).

Cunningham’s leadership deserves more recognition than it has received. His stability, loyalty, and vision throughout his tenure kept UNC afloat when many other programs would have faltered. Unprecedented fundraising, development, and on-the court/field successes have returned North Carolina to the forefront of college athletics. There is still uncertainty as the NCAA tries, often unsuccessfully, to evolve. The investigation will also bring about more difficulties, and significant coaching decisions may be on the horizon.

However, if the past few years are any indication, as long as Bubba Cunningham remains in Chapel Hill, the University of North Carolina will continue to find success.