CHAPEL HILL — Before he hires a football coach, before he does anything else at North Carolina, Bubba Cunningham's first priority as athletics director has to be healing the schism caused by Butch Davis' firing and the NCAA investigation into the football program.
Cunningham and chancellor Holden Thorp both gently dodged questions about the divided fan base at the news conference introducing Cunningham on Friday, but Thorp was willing to acknowledge "the situation we're in," which could apply to any number of issues facing the athletics department at the moment.
"It was really more about finding the right person," Thorp said. "We're hoping Bubba will be here for a long time. We were hiring someone for the long term, not just to take care of the situation we're in."
The split that Davis' hiring initiated and firing exacerbated, between the Carolina Way and the Barons of the Blue Zone - between the genteel amateur aesthetic that has characterized North Carolina's athletic success for so long and the win-at-all-costs mentality that at its most extreme portrays Davis as a martyr - is very real and has the potential to be very damaging.
It's a debate being conducted on the Internet, on barstools and in the seats at Kenan Stadium, about the future of North Carolina's football program.
While the Cunningham hiring should dispense with some of the loopy conspiracy theories about the university de-emphasizing football, the discussion does raise legitimate issues about integrity, ambition and the role of athletics within the university.
North Carolina isn't the only school wrestling with those issues, but few are doing it as publicly as the Tar Heels.
Thorp and Cunningham might not want to address that debate directly, but their rhetoric referenced it. The phrase "BCS bowl game" was thrown around about as much as "academics" and "athletics" were paired in the same sentence Friday.
Cunningham checks all the boxes: He's hired three football coaches; run a program full of high-quality non-revenue sports (basketball and football didn't win all of those 34 Conference USA titles at Tulsa); he's a veteran administrator at the relatively young age of 49; and his given name is Lawrence but he goes by Bubba, which fills the nickname void Butch left behind.
This is a crisis point for North Carolina athletics, and to address it the school went against very strong institutional instincts to hire from within the family, so to speak.
"All of us here have been immersed in the NCAA (investigation) and it's been hurtful to us because we've done something we shouldn't have let happen," said Eric Montross, the former basketball player and current radio analyst who served on the search committee.
"Nationally speaking, the folks that we talk to see it as a blemish. This university has such great tradition of excellence that it doesn't minimize what it is and how it happened, but it does show that this university can move on and move on quickly."
On paper, there's enough in Cunningham's resume to satisfy everyone, and even those who would have liked to stay within the UNC family will be relieved to learn that the search committee made sure he was a "fit" - which committee chairman Lowry Caudill described as the "how" of Cunningham goes about things being as important as the "what" of his accomplishments.
If the hiring will help bridge the gap, it's up to Cunningham now to finish the job. There are two very different visions for North Carolina athletics right now, and finding a balance between the two is as important - and difficult - as hiring a football coach or whatever comes next for Cunningham.