CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) North Carolina athletics director Bubba Cunningham has spent nearly his entire tenure dealing with serious NCAA issues, from arriving amid a football investigation to dealing with years of offshoot academic trouble.
Now, for the first time, Cunningham is entering a ”normal” school year.
Those long-running NCAA issues are resolved, freeing Cunningham to focus on improving on-field performance or a facility project costing more than $100 million.
”It’s great,” Cunningham quipped in an interview with The Associated Press. ”This is the job I thought I was taking.”
Cunningham’s arrival from Tulsa in November 2011 came late in the football case tied to improper benefits and academic misconduct. The NCAA issued sanctions in March 2012, but UNC’s troubles weren’t over.
Instead, the football probe led to the discovery of years of irregular courses with significant athlete enrollments in the formerly named African and Afro-American Studies department. That prompted questions from UNC’s accreditation agency, damaged the school’s reputation, led to a reopened NCAA investigation by summer 2014 and hindered the Tar Heels in recruiting.
The NCAA charged UNC in 2015 with five top-level violations including lack of institutional control, then twice rewrote the charges in 2016 – which had Cunningham publicly questioning the fairness of the process. But an infractions committee panel ultimately determined in October that it couldn’t conclude there were violations because the school argued the courses were legitimate and available to non-athletes, too.
”It is different because there’s not a major negative project hanging over your head,” Cunningham said. ”All the projects we have in front of us are all positive things that will enhance the student-athlete experience. … Now I think we can even be better.”
The pressing issue now is completing those facility projects amid delays and a rising price tag.
The hub is a mid-campus plot that held a field hockey stadium and football practice fields adjacent to the Fetzer Field home to lacrosse, soccer and track.
Workers demolished the field hockey stadium to make room for an indoor football practice facility, then built a replacement about a quarter-mile away. Fetzer is being reconfigured solely for soccer and lacrosse, forcing the relocation of the track a short drive from the main campus.
The field hockey and track projects are getting their final touches. Cunningham said the indoor facility will be complete in September with the adjoining practice fields a few weeks later. Until then, football will practice at Kenan Stadium.
Fetzer encountered the biggest delay. Work will likely extend into November and force the soccer teams to play off-campus again, though it should be ready for the spring lacrosse seasons.
Cunningham estimated the overall cost has grown 5 to 15 percent – which could push the total around $115 million – amid rising construction costs and additional infrastructure work for utilities and storm water. But he said expecting a project this size to go perfectly is ”a bit unrealistic.”
”We’re working with (the department of) Exercise and Sport Science, we’re working with rec sports, we’re working with intercollegiate athletics to say … `We all want to take advantage of it as a campus community,”’ Cunningham said. ”I’m excited about that, and it’s going to be great. So if you miss it by a month, two months, six months, and you’re talking about the next 25 years of use, that’s not that big of a deal.”
UNC also recently started a $10 million project to create broadcast and production space for the 2019 arrival of the Atlantic Coast Conference’s TV channel, required of all schools.
On the field, UNC finished 13th in the Directors’ Cup rankings of overall college sports programs, only the fifth time in 25 years it finished outside the top 10. Notably, football slid from 11 wins and an ACC division title in 2015 under Larry Fedora – Cunningham’s first major hire in 2011 – to three wins amid a wave of injuries and inexperienced quarterback play in what Cunningham considers ”an anomaly.”
”When you have long-term coaches who have had success over their entire history, when you have a down year or two, it’s not to panic,” Cunningham said. ”They’ve been very successful. Keep doing what you’re doing. … Occasionally you’re going to have a year where it doesn’t work.”
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