A JERSEY GUY: Another Speed Bump For UNC's Cunningham

Mark Blaudschun

Bubba Cunningham has paid his dues. 

The North Carolina athletic director received his administrative training at Notre Dame, serving apprenticeships at Ball State and Tulsa, before coming to Chapel Hill in 2011.

Cunningham has seen fire and rain in his tenure with the Tar Heels, guiding the athletic program through what appeared to be an endless NCAA infractions investigation involving academic fraud.

He has hired coaches. He has fired coaches. He has run what is still one of the crown jewel athletic departments in college athletics.

Now he is dealing with the effects and consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic which has sent the system of college athletics into a pause mode.

"But, oh, my gosh,'' said Cunningham in a phone interview with TMGsports on Wednesday, "I've never seen anything like this. The job has always been interesting, but now you feel stretched to the maximum.''

Cunningham maintains an outwardly optimistic posture about the chances of playing a fall football season.

"We're not giving up,'' he said. "We are being guided (for what to do) by health experts.''

But then he paused and conceded, "If you give me a shot of truth serum, I think the odds (of playing) are low.''

Cunningham is used to challenges, although dealing with an academic scandal soon after he arrived on campus immediately tested him.

"When I took the job, I thought the case (investigation) was over,'' said Cunningham. "We had received our penalties and were ready to move on. But then we continued to dig deeper and the case came back.''

And while the penalties (to the consternation of Carolina critics) were mild, Cunningham said there was a cost.

"Our reputation was harmed,'' he said. "And it has taken a long time to recover.''

But this is the ACC and the sky still has a Carolina blue shade to it in many instances, with strong athletic and academic credentials.

Cunningham has watched the continued excellence (although with a dip last season) of Carolina basketball under Roy Williams.

And, he is enjoying the resurgence of Carolina football in a Mack Brown 2.0 edition.

Brown, who had built a Top 10 program in his first stint in Carolina, came back from Texas and ESPN two years ago for a last hurrah as a football coach.

"Mack likes people'' said Cunningham, who hired Brown two years ago to jump start a struggling football program. "He coached for 30 years, did the media for five years. He missed being around groups of athletes.''

Even with the restrictions of COVID-19, Cunningham says you can see and feel Brown's presence.

""We had a team meeting the other day and everyone was following protocol,'' said Cunningham with a laugh. "Six feet away, players wearing masks, with Mack standing in the front of the room. "Mack didn't like the feeling. So he called a meeting a few days later on a smaller scale and created some excitement. That's Mack.''

Cunningham says he is coping with the new demands on his job. "It's (a challenge) not anything I really wanted,'' he said. "But you have to look at the situation and find how we can make this work better for all of us.

"We are being asked to do a lot with a scarce amount of resources,'' he said. "We are so much more financially focused now than we were before. We don't know what is going to happen from a revenue standpoint.

""One of the challenges of college athletics over the past 15 years is stay educationally focused.  That's gotten off track a bit. Maybe we can use this time to turn it back in the other direction.''

The past few weeks have produced a flurry of news which requires decisions, including the ACC's vote to include Notre Dame as a full, revenue sharing member for at least one season in football.

Cunningham says it is a win, win situation for both sides, although he couches that with the uncertainty of what the next few weeks will produce.

North Carolina is still waiting for dates for its 10 ACC games, which he hopes will be settled by the time the Tar Heels start fall practice at the end of the week.

All he knows now is that Carolina is scheduled to begin its season during the week of Sept. 7-12.

He says the Tar Heels will be ready for whatever final decisions are made. 

Classes will begin soon, the summer will move into the fall and there might be football, even with restricted access and protocols. 

"We're ready to deal with it,''' said Cunningham.