Commentary

Jacobs: Bubba Cunningham has work to do after UNC comments

April 17, 2014 

UNC Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham

JEFFREY A. CAMARATI — UNC ATHLETIC COMMUNICATIONS

Sometimes having no ties to a situation can offer a distinct advantage. Personal distance from a troubled past makes it easier to speak more freely and analyze more critically. But such detachment can also lead to missteps, as when you’re quoted in a national magazine saying the proud but beleaguered organization you inherited was “drifting down a directionless road with no destination in sight” and exhibited “deep-seeded complacency that had eaten away at the culture.”

Lawrence “Bubba” Cunningham did not attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as did his two most recent predecessors, Dick Baddour and John Swofford. Rather Cunningham, who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business administration from Notre Dame, belongs to a growing cadre of major-college athletic directors for whom the aphorisms and analogies of the boardroom spring more readily to mind than the exhortations of the playing field.

He’s a big fan of Jim Collins’ 2001 bestseller on management, “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap ... and Others Don’t.” Among his favorite expressions, Cunningham said in a recent interview, is “You don’t have to be sick to get better,” which happens to be the title of a 2001 motivational book by Michael Josephson.

So it is that Cunningham, who turns 52 next month, brought a businesslike approach to his role as North Carolina’s AD upon taking over in November 2011 amid a swirl of inherited scandal that has yet to abate. He led the department to create its first formal strategic plan. He has emphasized learning best practices from corporate partners Disney, Nike and Coca-Cola. The athletic department is working with the Disney Institute, a professional development arm of The Walt Disney Company, on an initiative called “Creating a Culture of Service Excellence.”

Cunningham also hired two firms to help plan changes to the UNC men’s basketball arena. The goal is to modernize or replace the 21,572-seat Dean E. Smith Student Activities Center, which opened in 1986, in order to enhance revenues, amenities and competitiveness in a conference where several members, including nearby Duke, are similarly engaged in upgrades.

“We’re going to do a master plan of all our facilities,” Cunningham said. “We have a framework of a strategic plan of how we want to operate – academic achievement and athletic achievement. But some of that is resources and facilities and things of that nature.”

Cunningham oversaw renovations of football stadiums at previous stops as AD at Ball State and Tulsa. At Notre Dame he was involved in development of a master plan for athletic facilities as an associate athletic director. He presided over improvements to Tulsa’s basketball arena, too.

Smith Center planning efforts are in their early stages, with a goal of submitting possibilities for stakeholder comment by year’s end. Financing any changes would coincide with an upcoming, university-wide fund-raising campaign. Cunningham’s preference, he said, glancing out his office window toward a large parking lot adjacent to the Smith Center, would be to site a possible new basketball arena on campus. “The more you get people back on campus, that’s what the collegiate experience is,” he said.

Business analysis

If nothing else, Cunningham’s initiatives can provide a welcome diversion for UNC adherents, many of whom resent the continuing drumbeat of criticism over past practices in athletics.

“We understand what happened, that we had some classes available that a lot of students took advantage of, student-athletes and otherwise. OK. We know that. So we need to move on,” Cunningham said, striking a familiar note. “Let’s make sure that doesn’t happen again, and let’s make sure we’re proud of all the systems we have in place. Make sure that we provide what we promise the students in the recruiting process – that’s what we’re trying to do.

“My predisposition coming in is what everybody in the country thinks of the University of North Carolina – it’s absolutely top-notch in every way. But, like everywhere else, it’s not perfect, and what are we going to do to get better? Everyone here wants us to get better. Everyone else wants to compete with us. So it’s trying to manage and grow when you’re already excellent.”

Cunningham articulated his organizational analysis for Forbes, the business publication, in an article published in late February titled, “How The North Carolina Tar Heels Learned To RISE Above Crisis.” The AD was described applying organizational analysis to restore a once-proud athletic department, and the author said “(Cunningham) stood at the precipice of its own self-destruction.” RISE was the acronym for the new operational framework – responsibility, innovation, service, excellence.

But while the article largely explored the application of sound business practices within the athletic department – an enterprise with an $80 million annual budget and responsibility for approximately 1,500 student-athletes, coaches and staff, paid and volunteer – Cunningham ventured into commentary on the past as well. “When I first took over in late 2011, it became immediately evident that the culture of the department had stagnated,” he was quoted. “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.”

Comments draw responses

Those and other remarks stung members of the department, one of the most competitively successful in the country, if the Division I Learfield Sports Directors’ Cup standings are any indication. This week UNC’s program tied for fifth with Michigan in the winter ratings. The Tar Heels ranked fourth in fall 2013. In 2010-11, the season before Cunningham’s arrival, they finished sixth overall. The school has won 40 national championships, most recently in women’s lacrosse last May.

“If he’s going to say those things, maybe he ought to give some explanation to the people he’s criticizing,” one staffer, requesting anonymity to protect the person’s job, said of Cunningham’s comments in Forbes.

“I was shocked,” said another. “I think it sort of came out of left field. I think there are a lot of people within the department who have been talking about it amongst themselves. I don’t think it’s been put to bed yet. ... The overwhelming percentage of them probably feel devalued, that their efforts over the years have been diminished in value.”

Cunningham acknowledged the infelicitous nature of his remarks and said he’s received “a variety” of responses from subordinates.

“I certainly don’t mean to offend anybody, and it wasn’t as dramatic as this is,” he said of the article. “I think by and large people understood that we’re trying to grow and trying to continue to get better. I don’t necessarily think the characterization of the past was all that accurate. I didn’t certainly mean it that way.”

“We had a terrific department program,” Baddour said. “Very, very accomplished, whether it was in competition or in facilities or managing budgets. That was because of the efforts of a lot of people. I’m very proud of that record, and a lot of people are.”

Cunningham is presumably too accomplished a leader to neglect staff morale; he said one aspect of the ongoing Disney effort is aimed at “care and recognition of employees.” For a number of loyal UNC staffers, bridging the rift in trust caused by the Forbes piece apparently will take exactly that sort of determined effort.

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