Bubba Cunningham has overseen nine national titles and 10 runner-up finishes over the past six years as athletic director. With his new contract announced by Chancellor Carol Folt on Nov. 17, he has six more years at UNC to add to the trophy case.
But it hasn’t been an easy six years. After Dick Baddour stepped down as athletic director in 2011, Bubba Cunningham inherited an academic scandal that would challenge Carolina Athletics for the next six years. Despite a negative shadow cast from the investigation, Carolina Athletics has come out into the clear following the NCAA ruling on Oct. 13 thanks to the guidance of Cunningham.
When he first arrived at UNC in 2011, Cunningham reached out to Paul Friga, a clinical associate professor of strategy and entrepreneurship in the Kenan-Flagler Business School, to conduct a comprehensive strategic plan for Carolina Athletics. Before they could create a plan to move forward, Friga and Cunningham had to evaluate the current condition of the program.
“Our strategic planning process involved a comprehensive assessment of the landscape of an external and internal view,” Friga said. “Externally we looked at factors that were affecting athletics at that point and then internally we looked at our strengths and weaknesses as an organization. We conducted extensive surveys of student-athletes, of faculty, of administration, of alumni. We created a task force and spent a six month period doing analysis.”
During the visioning portion of this process, the task force decided to make responsibility, innovation, service and excellence the core values of Carolina Athletics, which would shape Cunningham’s career as athletic director.
Friga is currently working with Cunningham to release an updated strategic plan. Moving forward, Cunningham said he is aiming to grow Carolina Athletics further following the NCAA investigation.
“Now, I think the biggest challenge is to earn back the trust of the University community and nationally,” Cunningham said. “I think the things that occurred were damaging to our reputation and we need to earn that reputation back.”
Cunningham came to UNC as an experienced leader.
He served as the athletic director at Ball State University from 2002 to 2005, and the University of Tulsa from 2005 to 2011. From 1988 to 2002, Cunningham worked his way through the ranks of the athletic department at the University of Notre Dame. Cunningham has leveraged his experience at these schools to inspire initiatives for Carolina Athletics, as was the case for creating the Rammys -- an award show for Carolina Athletics celebrating student-athletes in a style mimicking the Grammy Awards.
“We had something similar like that when I was at Tulsa,” Cunningham said. “We had an awards show — it was a dinner — and then we had a few of the student-athletes that had some specific talents and we created a show out of it. Then when I got here and saw all of the incredible achievements of these student-athletes but also all of these other talents that they had, I thought it would be a really nice fit for us here.”
Rick Steinbacher, the senior associate athletic director for external communications, has worked closely with Cunningham and admires the spirit he brings to the workplace.
“He has such a wealth of experience to draw from which is just such a benefit for everyone who works with him,” Steinbacher said. “He challenges himself first and foremost and he challenges the people he works with to always deliver great experiences for student-athletes.”
Steinbacher played football at UNC from 1990 to 1993, and has been able to draw parallels between his time at the University as a student-athlete and a professional in the athletic department.
“As a student-athlete, I’ve played under some great coaches,” Steinbacher said. “Mack Brown was the coach when I was here. And the thing that I really appreciated about Mack Brown was that he was grounded in some really strong personal values that I believed in. That’s very similar to how Bubba leads. He’s grounded in values that are a great fit for UNC.”
Cunningham attributes his values to those instilled in him by his dad and mom, an elementary school principal and a teacher, respectively.
“My parents always talked about education being a chance to unlock an infinite number of opportunities,” Cunningham said. “The role of college athletics, by providing scholarships for allowing students to participate in sports, it gives us both the opportunity to play and get a great education.”
Cunningham has made an effort to see that UNC student-athletes are getting a quality education while at UNC. Each year since 2012, over 300 student-athletes have made the ACC Academic Honor Roll. Cunningham points to the coaches for this success in recruiting players that are dedicated to academics and athletics.
“I think that’s what Carolina is,” Cunningham said. “It’s a high-achieving place that searches or seeks excellence in everything, and I don’t think athletics is different than any other department on campus trying to be the best that we can.”
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