CHAPEL HILL — Under the shadow of an NCAA investigation into impermissible benefits and academic misconduct on the football team, the University of North Carolina has turned to an outsider to help calm its shaken athletic department while continuing to strive for on-the-field success.
Lawrence "Bubba" Cunningham, who was born in Michigan, raised in Florida and most recently has led Tulsa's 18-sport program, will become UNC's first athletic director without direct Tar Heel ties in 36 years. He vowed to continue to seek success in football.
"Through our conversations with the chancellor, we're all about excellence and we'll continue to find outstanding coaches who lead us to championships: BCS championships, national championships, ACC championships,'' Cunningham said, referring to an eventual replacement for the fired Butch Davis.
In searching for a successor for the retiring Dick Baddour, Chancellor Holden Thorp said after Friday's news conference that he wasn't set on an external candidate when the hiring process began seven weeks ago, but by choosing one, hoped that the athletics department will gain new perspective as it moves forward.
"He has been lots of different places, and he will bring ideas from his experiences at Notre Dame and his experiences at Ball State, his experiences at Tulsa,'' Thorp said. "I think that's also something that we need. When you hire an outsider at a great place, you're looking for somebody that will preserve what you have, but that will also bring some new ideas about how to change things."
The school has self-imposed two years of probation, vacated wins from the 2008 and 2009 football seasons and reduced scholarships by three in each of the next three seasons. But it still faces an October 28 meeting in Indianapolis with the NCAA's Committee on Infractions - which Cunningham does not plan to attend - that could eventually lead to further sanctions.
Fourteen football players missed at least one game and seven sat out the entire 2010 season in connection with the NCAA investigation into impermissible benefits given to players and into academic misconduct.
UNC was on his radar
Cunningham, one of three names forwarded to Thorp on Monday by a 13-member search committee, said UNC's troubles with the NCAA didn't impact his interest in the school. About 60 people applied for the job; 13 were interviewed.
"It's a blemish, but we will continue to work on the compliance area, ensure to the best of our ability that those things don't happen in the future,'' Cunningham said. "But it does happen occasionally. It's unfortunate when it does. It's kind of a part of life unfortunately. But you have to learn from those mistakes and make sure we don't make those going forward."
Cunningham has been Tulsa's athletics director since 2005 and previously served three years as athletics director at Ball State. He has overseen a $25.1 million renovation of Tulsa's football stadium and presided over a program with 34 Conference USA titles since he took over.
Before he was hired at Ball State, he spent 15 years in the athletic department at Notre Dame, his alma mater. He began as an intern and worked his way up to an associate athletic director position. But Cunningham, 49, said Chapel Hill has been on his radar since he attended a professional development seminar, and met Baddour here, roughly 20 years ago.
"I just couldn't get Dickie to retire,'' he quipped, making Baddour, who was at the news conference and recommended him for the job, smile.
Once Baddour announced his intention in July to retire early amid the unfolding NCAA probe, search committee chair Lowry Caudill said the most important factors in UNC's next AD were understanding economics of running the program, knowing how to hire coaches, and having a knowledge of compliance.
"But we also looked at the fit,'' Caudill said. "And I've heard Dickie [Baddour] say this for years, and I agree completely: At Carolina, it's about the 'what,' but it's also about the 'how.' And the 'how' is so critical, and that's the fit. ... Bubba just had the fit."
Cunningham described himself as open and involved. "I try to communicate well, I'm very informal. I try to be around a lot," he said.
Cunningham, who will begin his new job Nov. 14, will inherit a 28-sport department that is considered one of the flagship programs in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The men's basketball team is a Final Four favorite. The football team, meanwhile stands at 5-1, although Cunningham's first major decision will be hiring a new football coach after the abrupt firing of Butch Davis in July.
He met interim football coach Everett Withers on Friday morning and said he'd be watching how the former defensive coordinator does while he finishes his duties at Tulsa.
"Obviously we need a fulltime coach at some point, Cunningham said.
"...So my charge in the next few months will be to analyze the program, make a decision on where we are and then what's the best for us going forward to meet all the dreams and ambition.
" In the meantime, our No. 1 priority is to ensure that any kind of coaching discussion is not a distraction, that the student-athlete experience for those 100 kids that are pouring it out there every weekend, that it's an outstanding experience."
Asked if Cunningham might make an immediate move, Thorp said they hadn't discussed it, but " I would be surprised if we indicated we were doing anything one way or another until after the Duke game [on Nov. 26]."
'A different perspective'
Later on Friday, Cunningham was introduced by Thorp to a roomful of professors at UNC's Faculty Council meeting. He gave brief remarks and spoke of his family's commitment to education.
"I think he made a good impression," said Joe Ferrell, professor of public law and government and secretary of the faculty.
Cunningham, a married father of four, will be paid a base salary of $525,000 per year, with a $40,000 expense allowance, through June 30, 2017. He will also earn bonuses if the football team is invited to a bowl game, the men's or women's basketball team is invited to the NCAA tournament, or the average Academic Progress Rate for all the University's varsity sports teams equals or exceeds 975.
And although he doesn't hail from the Tar Heel state, Cunningham is already trying to fit in. He didn't have to buy the light blue tie that he wore for his news conference; that was already in his closet. When his family arrived in town late Thursday night, they dined at Time-Out, a popular late-night eatery on Franklin Street.
"He'll bring a different perspective, because he does come from the outside,'' Caudill said. "That should be a plus. But that was not a requirement [of hiring him]. ... We've got some great successes here of people that have come in from the outside; I think we had a basketball coach in 1961 that wasn't from Carolina that did pretty well here. ... Once they get here, their blood becomes as light blue as the rest of us."
Staff writer Jane Stancill contributed