CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- The spacious office belonging to North Carolina athletics director Bubba Cunningham sits on the second floor of the Ernie Williamson Athletics Center on the south end of campus. It is two buildings over from the Dean E. Smith Center that is home to the Tar Heels’ basketball program and one floor above the basketball museum dedicated to the team’s century-long tradition of success.
By the middle of last Friday afternoon, fans had already begun arriving at the museum to spend time reveling in UNC’s past in advance of that night’s season-opening exhibition game against Fayetteville State, which the Tar Heels, ranked No. 6 in the preseason coaches poll, would win by 53 points. Cunningham planned to attend both that game and the school’s football game the next day in Charltottesville, Va., where North Carolina would come from behind to beat Virginia, 28-27.
It may have seemed that all was right with Carolina sports, but nothing could be further from the truth. Two days before, former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein had delivered a long-awaited report commissioned by UNC that detailed almost two decades of academic improprieties at the school. More than 3,000 students – nearly half of them athletes – took classes in the African-American studies department that were deemed to be fraudulent. Much of the blame was placed at the feet of Julius Nyang’oro, the former department head, and Debbie Crowder, an administrator in the department. The report found no wrongdoing on the part of any of UNC’s coaches, but athletes in a wide spectrum of the school’s 28 varsity teams were found to have taken part in those classes.
The NCAA is still investigating UNC, leaving open the possibility that there will be sanctions against a school known so long for its squeaky-clean reputation that the phrase “The Carolina Way” had become shorthand for a university’s ability to succeed academically, athletically and ethically.
Still, the report was a major blow not only to UNC’s athletic department but also to its reputation as one of the nation’s premier academic institutions. That helps explain why Cunningham was notably tired when I sat down with him to discuss the report, its findings and what comes next. (The interview below has been edited for clarity. Disclosure: I am a UNC graduate.)
SI: What has this week been like?
BC: It’s been busy. We got to read the report Thursday night and then we’ve been meeting every day since then. [The days] are all kind of running together now.
SI: How many hours of sleep are you getting a night?
BC: Less than normal. The topic has been almost 100 percent consuming. Thank goodness we have a really good staff. I was actually thinking about it today, and I’ll probably send out an email Sunday night thanking them because I’ve done very little to lead or run a department in many days.
SI: You must have been aware of some of this before you started as athletics director. How much has what you’ve done in your first few years concerned this topic?
BC: It will be three years next month that I’ve been here. Obviously we knew or I knew there were NCAA implications forthcoming. My assumption when I got the job was that we would have some NCAA issues we’d have to resolve.
SI: Does what was in the Wainstein Report change your feeling about the athletic department’s involvement or responsibility in this matter, given the depth to what it revealed?
BC: One answer is no, because to me it really doesn’t matter – when you’re the University and anything goes wrong, it’s everyone’s problem. If there was a problem at the medical school, it would be our problem. I don’t believe it’s a single area’s issue, it’s all of our issue because we’re responding to it as an institution. If we do well athletically that should bring good feelings to the campus community, and I think it does. So when we have challenges, it’s a challenge for everyone.
SI: When you hear people say this is the biggest case of academic fraud in college sports history, how does that strike you? Fair? Unfair?
BC: I think what we did in the last eight months is the most exhaustive, comprehensive review of any academic or athletic issue in the history of higher education. We went back 30 years to look at academic performance and its relationship to athletics. I’ve never heard of that at one institution. What did we find? We found that two people were primarily responsible for 3,000 classes that had 6,000 enrollments in it, in a period of time that had more than a million classes being offered. So the breadth, the length: significant. Relative to the rest of the operation? Insignificant. The number of people involved compared to the number of people on campus? Insignificant as well. Just on a proportionality basis. I don’t mean to minimize the significance of it.
SI: A lot of Carolina fans feel the school should have never done this sort of self-examination over and over again and invited this sort of scrutiny, feeling that it’s only going to bring more punishment from the NCAA. Could you have prevented doing one of these investigations and why did the university, if it wasn't your decision, choose to do a third, thorough investigation knowing what might be found? Because other schools, the theory is, have a tendency to say, nothing to see here, move on. Why did Carolina choose over and over again not to do that?
BC: I think that’s who North Carolina is. North Carolina self examines, debates, discusses, pulls, tugs, tears at issues at least more than any place I’ve ever been. And that’s to its credit and detriment at the same time.
SI: So you agreed with that decision to have another investigation?
BC: (Chuckles) It depends on the outcome you’re looking for. If you want to get to the bottom of what occurred -- who, what where, when and why -- then absolutely it was the right thing to do. It has other implications when you do it. And as long as you recognize those implications going in then you have to deal with those.
SI: There’s been some feeling that it would be unlikely that that many coaches for that many years wouldn’t have asked more questions to find out exactly what was going on. I’m sure you’ve had those questions yourself and you’ve seen in the Wainstein Report that he defended the idea that these coaches couldn’t or wouldn’t have known. Have you spoken to the coaches individually and asked for their honesty on those matters, and if so, are you satisfied with those answers?
BC: Yes, I am. I’ve talked to them and I am satisfied with their answers. That’s probably the most challenging question or situation that we continue to wrestle with: What are the appropriate roles for people as you try to play big time sports at some of the greatest research universities in the country? We’re competing for time, we’re competing for interest on the students’ part, we’re competing for a lot of things and we have to find that right balance. And whose responsibilities are they when you get to the overlap of making those hard choices? So you have a coach and then you have faculty and then you have academic support and advising people in between. So you want to advise them and give them the right direction both from a personal standpoint as a coach and from an academic standpoint from the faculty, and that’s where those relationships are so important.
Athletics has a lot of influence on kids, whether it’s personal influence or playing or any of those things. We can encourage performance but we have to stop short of telling them what to take or how to take it. A lot of people will question how somebody coaches a team, and so the question of: “How do you teach a class?” is somewhat analogous. Where are the appropriate boundaries? What I think we’ve really learned is, and I think that’s what Carolina is about is, we have to be comfortable asking each other hard questions. If we learned anything coming out of this, it’s to not be offended by being challenged.
SI: What conversations have you had in the last two days with, specifically your football and men’s basketball coaches, given that they are the most high-profile ones?
BC: We’ve had these conversations for two years and I’m sure they were going on before. The clock didn’t start when we got our Committee on Infractions final report but somebody else came in here three or four years ago and looked at our operation and said, Hey, you’ve done these things very well, but you made some mistakes over here and we need to fix those. We’ve been looking internally at ourselves saying how are we going to fix these mistakes, how are we going to ask each other hard questions. Now the entire campus community is asking those difficult questions.
SI: And what are the answers? We saw the changes you’re going to make in the report that are extensive but they are mostly academic. Are there changes in the athletic department that need to be made?
BC: Oh yeah, we’ve been making them for two years. We have to have incredible processes in place about whether it’s tickets or parking or planned practice logs, telephone recruiting calls, everything that you’re required to do. Me asking you to produce those and show me those items doesn’t mean I don’t trust you. It means I’m trying to protect you to ensure that we have them and protect your legacy and the things that you’ve built. And it also helps us regain the trust of people that we have lost their trust in the past couple of years.
SI: What steps will the athletic department take, not just big-picture but specific things like vacating wins? You said in the press conference the other day that you would wait on the NCAA to come in and hear their decision. After a couple days is that still the thinking?
BC: We worked with the NCAA on the investigation, so we’ve been working with them for four or five months already. This is another big piece of information that we will continue to work with them on. But based on the information that we have and had is that, if there was something that was inappropriate in preceding years and you had student athletes that were ineligible then you vacate those wins. But there’s nothing new in this report that is significantly different or different at all from what we knew prior to this report relative to academic eligibility.
SI: Obviously there were some serious charges made by a former player, Rashad McCants, and other former players immediately denied it. What kind of reaction have you gotten from them since this came out?
BC: The reaction we’ve gotten from them has been continuous because this has been in the news so much. Yes, I’ve talked to a lot of former letterwinners in the past few days. Their range of emotion is like every other alum. There are days when they’re mad, there are days when they think it’s over the top, there are days they think it’s the right thing to do. It’s a whole variety of opinion.
Specifically, Ken Wainstein addressed it: As soon as Rashad made the comment that things were inappropriate we’ve reached out to him three times to try and get him to come and talk to us about what happened, what was his experience. Wainstein reached out to him multiple times. And he refuses to talk to any of us. His teammates have said that’s not their experience. As soon as he did – you know I see all those guys in the summertime and they said that’s not their experience at all. They worked hard for their degrees, they earned their degrees, they’re proud of their degrees and we’re proud of them.
SI: Are you worried that he or other players will have more to say about this that you aren’t aware of?
BC: No, I’m not. Not at all. This thing was exhaustive. And he had a chance to say whatever he wanted to say. Multiple people reaching out to him trying to get him to talk on the record with substance so we could verify what he’s saying, and he refuses to do that.
Debbie [Crowder] had a bad experience and felt like we spent too much time on the best and brightest, as she put it, and she wanted to help those that didn’t get the attention she thought she should have gotten. And that wasn’t necessarily student-athletes. I think that’s been lost in the story as well. Ken Wainstein was very explicit in saying that if it was any student that had a challenge or a troubled background or a need she felt a real desire to help. And she put a lot of student athletes in that same category because of their time commitments and other things in their lives. Nationally the story has been, hey this is a student athlete thing. According to the two people that Ken interviewed or at least my interpretation of Ken’s interviews, these were people that were trying to provide help.
SI: It was pretty clearly illegal though, right? Debbie would know that that’s not something she’s allowed to do: assign, authorize, enroll, grade, any of those kinds of things, that that was beyond her pay grade, experience, education, anything, to be involved in something like this, despite whatever her best intentions might have been. It went beyond the notion that there could have been an independent study class, which every school has, to something that no one had ever heard of before.
BC: No question. No question there was a breach of ethics. The unanswered question is, when did the ethical line get crossed? So trying to help students you have no idea what was the first person you tried to help and how did you do it? I didn’t ask that and I don’t know if Ken asked that question or not.
But certainly when you’re adding people to classes and keeping a separate spreadsheet obviously that is way, way wrong. But what happened in 1993 when she first started, I don’t have any idea what she was thinking at that time.
SI: Do you think you’ll get answers to those questions?
SI: So then are you confident that this is the end of the investigations?
BC: Oh yeah.
SI: Have you spoken to NCAA in last two days? What has their response been on where their timeline is?
BC: We don’t have a timeline. They don’t have a timeline. It’s a big product that these guys worked on that’s going to take a long time for us to dig into and dissect, from their perspective.
SI: Have you had to do any reassuring, either to the coaches or the community, that this is finally over?
BC: I do that all day. It’s human nature: How does this affect me? And everyone has different emotions about the report, what occurred, how it occurred. There’s a lot of emotion there.
SI: Now that this may not be over given the NCAA’s remaining timeline, what are you most looking forward to doing in the job of athletics director that you’ve had to put on the back burner and not focus on the way you wanted to?
BC: We started talking about a lacrosse stadium and a soccer stadium, we started talking about doing something to enhance the Smith Center, but people just did not want to talk about that. I’m hoping we can reestablish the relationships on campus that are really strong and trusting so internally we’re trying to build trust across campus, and as an institution we have to regain our confidence. Our confidence has been shaken. We built a 21,000-seat basketball arena in 1986. Nobody has ever done that. There was real pride. In ’97 we built the end zone facility in football so we were embracing what we were doing. We need to get back to saying, You know, we’re really good at a lot of things. We’re not perfect, but we have to be confident and continue to try to push ourselves to get even better.
SI: Does this process make you either regret coming to Carolina at all or does it make you prone to wanting to look somewhere else if the opportunity arose?
BC: There’s a lot of questions embedded in there. I don’t regret coming by any means. In fact we have two children that are going to school here. One part of your question was, I wish it hadn’t happened because I think we’d be much further along, but if we can improve ourselves because of what happened, then we’ve been successful.