Q&A: UNC AD Bubba Cunningham

The theme on the ESPN.com college football page this week has focused on players, coaches and administrators facing challenges in their first year.

North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham knows all about that. Cunningham faced serious challenges in his first year at North Carolina, taking the job in 2011 in the face of uncertainty resulting from an NCAA investigation into improper benefits and academic misconduct in the football program. A year later, Cunningham had to deal with a wide-ranging academic fraud scandal.

I had a chance to catch up with Cunningham to discuss lessons learned from that first year on the job, and where the program is better today. Here is a little of what he had to say.

What was the biggest challenge in your first year on the job?

BC: The biggest challenge is trying to get everyone on the same page and trying to rebuild and restore trust and confidence in the athletic program. When you have those violations, there’s a loss of trust, and so when you’re new coming in town, first you have to develop credibility and relationships, and at the same time, you have to restore the trust in the program. I think that Larry Fedora has done a remarkable job in reaching out across campus and building trust and confidence with faculty, with admissions, with academic support for student-athletes, and so some things just take time because you can’t snap your fingers and have relationships. Relationships develop over time. He has done a very good job of that, and I think as a department we’re continuing to try to get better all the time.

Do you have specific examples?

BC: We developed a strategic plan so we could move forward. There’s only four major priorities within it. One of them is alignment. We have to get ourselves aligned with the university’s core mission of education. We need to make sure we have alignment with the ACC, with the NCAA as far as the University of North Carolina system. That’s primarily a lot of my responsibilities. We also have a priority that we want to be Top 3 in the ACC and Top 10 academically in every sport that we have, we want to be Top 3, Top 10 athletically in every sport that we have, and then we want to have outstanding administrative engagement. It’s not the coaches trying to recruit players and coach the players, we’re all trying to do this together. We’re going to succeed or fail together as an entire department. We need to have everyone on the same page. That’s what the framework of this plan has intended to do and has done.

When you arrived, what were your first priorities as you waited to hear the end result from the NCAA?

BC: I didn’t know everything. I don’t think you ever know all of the details until you get somewhere and really start to dig in and understand it better, but the first thing I did when I got here and continue to do is try to learn what are the aspects of the University of North Carolina that I need to know. Where are we successful, and how do we continue in that direction and where can we improve? My first staff meeting with the entire department, I asked those very two simple questions. That was the beginning of thinking about doing a strategic plan that would formalize all the input that I was receiving as a new person at Carolina.

What was it like having that uncertainty there, not knowing what was going to happen until NCAA issued its ruling?

BC: Well, we thought we had put forth a reasonable set of self-imposed penalties. They added on a little bit, and so based on the investigation that was done, based upon precedent of cases, we felt we were in the ballpark. We chose not to appeal anything. We had been working on it as a university for about two years and we really wanted to put it behind us as long as we felt it was reasonably fair, which we did. What I did not anticipate was that our academic issues would grow. We’ve had more internal challenges academically than I anticipated, and it was coincidental to the NCAA case.

How did you deal with that aspect moving forward?

BC: I think as a university we’ve tried to be very open, and transparent on the processes. We’ve had multiple investigations and reviews, we’ve had a lot of recommendations, many of which have been implemented already, some of which are being implemented over time. And so our hope is that when you make a mistake you learn from it and you get better, and I think that as a university we have learned an awful lot and we are doing a better job of monitoring ourselves. We’re talking about a university that hasn’t had a major violation in over 50 years, so we had an awful lot of trust in our system, but I don’t think we had a lot of verification in the system. So now it’s trust and verify.

What is the biggest thing that you were able to learn about yourself or about your role in this job in Year 1 that you still carry with you today?

BC: I think that when you make mistakes, and you get challenged about the role of intercollegiate athletics in higher ed, it forces you to really articulate and develop your philosophy and become committed to what you’re doing. I think that has really been positive for us. I absolutely believe in the collegiate model. I believe we provide a great educational experience for our student-athletes. Those student-athletes represent the university exceptionally well and compete at the highest level. I think we have a great program that will continue to get even better as time goes on.

Where do you feel the department has changed the most since you arrived there, maybe compared to when you first got the job?

BC: The biggest change is administratively. Dick Baddour had football and men’s basketball reporting to him and all 26 other sports reporting to Beth Miller. Now we have about 20 primary and secondary sports administrators, so I’ve asked more people to be more involved with the various teams, and I think that has been good for the teams. I think it’s been a good professional development opportunity for the administrators also.

Is there anything you would do differently in that first year?

BC: I don’t think so. Sometimes you think things take longer than they should. I think you’d like to do things more quickly, but if you do things too quickly you don’t have all the information. The process has been good. There is a balance between trying to initiate some change and preserving the core of what you do well, and so you have to learn before you can act. Ideally I’d like to have made some of our changes more quickly. That’s the one thing I’d look back and say I wish I could have done that faster.