Bubba Cunningham quickly figured out the crowd at the at the Raleigh Sports Club on Wednesday.
The North Carolina athletic director noticed a good number of members in a Carolina blue and then bunch of others in Wolfpack red.
“I’ll take questions from anyone wearing blue,” Cunningham joked.
The UNC AD hit on a range of topics, from facility projects in Chapel Hill to the end of the school’s NCAA scandal, in about 40 minutes with the group.
Never miss a local story.
A sample of Cunningham’s thoughts and answers to the questions he fielded:
The NCAA case and the current state of UNC academics
When Cunningham was hired from Tulsa in 2011, he figured UNC’s biggest problems with the NCAA dealt with agents and amateurism issues.
“That’s really what I thought it was,” Cunningham said. “I think that’s what the institution thought it was but then it reached all the way back into an academic unit.”
The investigation, originally spawned from football players taking money and gifts from agents in 2010, branched out and delved into the “paper” classes in the department of African and Afro-American studies AFAM classes for an 18-year period, from 1993 to 2011.
UNC and the NCAA went back and forth for six years.
“It took us a long time to really fully understand what happened in that case,” Cunningham said.
The NCAA finally closed the case, without finding any major violations by UNC or imposing any significant sanctions.
All the criticism, and everything about what’s happened at our place, that was quite some time ago. All the classes that may have inflated grades, and all of those things, they’re not there.
UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham
Cunningham said the academic performance of the current athletes at UNC is “better than it has ever been.”
He said this is the first time the collective average grade point average, for all athletes, is better than a 3.0.
And, he said, perhaps anticipating the next question, that all the classes have been legitimate.
“All the criticism, and everything about what’s happened at our place, that was quite some time ago,” Cunningham said. “All the classes that may have inflated grades, and all of those things, they’re not there.
“So these kids got a 3.0. We’ve recruited outstanding student-athletes and I couldn’t be more proud of the effort they’ve had.”
The future of the NCAA
Cunningham said he doesn’t anticipate schools in the the “Power 5” conferences (ACC, SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12) pulling away from the NCAA and start their own governing structure even though “a lot of us have been dissatisfied, for various reasons, on the decisions the NCAA has made.”
Logistically, Cunningham said, five conferences and 65 schools would have to agree on a new governing agency, how to run it and who to run it.
“I just don’t anticipate that happening,” Cunningham said. “For all of the misgivings of the NCAA, I don’t see anybody out there that would be able to step into that role.”
Only if it wasn’t by the schools/conference choice, Cunningham said, could there be a change.
“Could Congress, or the courts, force us to do something?” Cunningham said. “Possibly, but I don’t see us doing anything outside the existing structure.”
College basketball’s problems
The NCAA created a “Commission on College Basketball” after an FBI investigation into a pay-for-play scheme by sneaker companies and assistant coaches for recruits rocked the sport in September.
Cunningham said the committee, chaired by former U.S. Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, would share its findings in April. He wasn’t sure what to expect but did think there could be a change in the “one-and-done” rule.
“We all know there are problems with it,” Cunningham said. “We have to figure out solutions because it’s not good for the college game, it’s probably not good for the pro game, and it certainly not good for the students. Something out there that makes more sense.”
Changes at Kenan Stadium and other facility projects
UNC is working on $100 million in facility upgrades right now, including a new indoor practice facility for football, a stadium for soccer and lacrosse and a new field hockey facility.
Those projects are scheduled to be completed by the fall.
UNC also announced this week it would upgrade Kenan Stadium by downsizing. The capacity of the football stadium is going to be reduced from 62,980 to 51,000. They are pulling out the aluminum bleachers on the sides, in both the lower and upper decks, and adding permanent seats.
The final cost of the project, which is expected to be complete by the 2018 football season, will be between $6 to $6.5 million. The school is lowering ticket prices for 70 percent of the seats, though.
I do think 51 (thousand) is a good number for us. We’re trying to make the experience of coming to the game better. Fan comfort is one way.
Bubba Cunningham on changes at Kenan Stadium
The announced average attendance for the seven home games this season was 50,071 and only two games (59,000 for Duke and 57,000 for Notre Dame) exceeded what will be the 2018 capacity.
“I do think 51 (thousand) is a good number for us,” Cunningham said. “We’re trying to make the experience of coming to the game better. Fan comfort is one way.”
Cunningham said the restrooms need to be upgraded in the next round of improvements. He said the school is always looking for ways to better the tailgating experience, too.
“I will say, N.C. State has a fabulous gameday environment,” Cunningham said.
He noted the convenience of the location of Carter-Finley Stadium to the highway and also the spacious parking areas.
“We have some challenges,” Cunningham said. “Anything we can do to make it better for fans, is what we’re trying to do.”
With all of the other facility projects going on, and the school’s $4.25 billion fundraising initiative, Cunningham did say that any plans to fix or replace the Smith Center for the basketball teams would be tackled in “two or three years.”
“There are a lot of things we need to do to the Smith Center,” Cunningham said. “The question is how do we pay for it?”
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio