Bubba Cunningham is entering his third full academic year as the athletics director at North Carolina. He recently sat down with News & Observer UNC beat reporter Andrew Carter for an extended interview about the changing landscape of college sports, the NCAA’s decision to reopen its investigation into academic issues at UNC, Roy Williams’ future and other topics.
Q: Autonomy was recently approved for the Power 5 conferences – the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC. What are your thoughts on autonomy and what does UNC want out of it?
A: It’s a huge topic. I’ve been concerned about autonomy for over a year. You know, I feel like the autonomy package is moving us further and further down a professional model and away from the collegiate model. And I think there’s two critical elements in college athletics, and that is provide an education to those that you invite, and create opportunities for kids to play college sports. And as we drive down the professional model, it’s going to reduce opportunities to go to college and get a scholarship. And that’s where we’re headed. And I can’t simply say it’s part of the autonomy package. It’s the legal system, as well. The litigation is moving us in that direction also. And I think it’s very short-sighted.
Q: It sounds like you might have been against autonomy?
A: I don’t think having 65 schools having some ability to make rules that govern those 65 is inappropriate. I think what we have chosen to be priorities I think is a mistake.
Q: Are you talking about the full-cost of attendance stipend?
A: Anything that will reduce opportunities and not support education. And many of those things do.
Q: So how would this work, exactly – a full-cost stipend?
A: We don’t know for sure, because we also have the Jenkins case (in which the plaintiffs seek to open the market for football and men’s basketball players) that’s still outstanding. So we know in the ruling in the O’Bannon case that you basically said anything less than cost of attendance is a violation of anti-trust. So it looks as though the courts have set a new minimum for not violating anti-trust, at a cost of attendance figure. For The University of North Carolina, to get to full-cost of attendance for our existing student populations, it’s going to be $1.8 million. We don’t have $1.8 million, discretionary, that we’re going to apply for cost of attendance. That’s going to create challenges.
Q: So if it came to that, and you had to come up with $1.8 million, how do you do it?
A: You have to look at the options and make some decisions. I don’t have an answer for you because it’s too early. But I know what some of the options are. And the options that people like to throw out aren’t realistic.
Q: Like what?
A: Slowing down facility expansion, or salaries.
Q: There’s no going back on there, is there?
A: Yeah, you’re not going to touch the programs that generate the revenue. So what it does is it puts a lot of other programs at risk.
Q: So what do you make of all of these changes and the direction things seem to be headed, and given that you have concerns, what can you do?
A: I have real concerns, again, that it’s going to adversely affect opportunities for students to play. It may be the right avenue given the amount of money in college athletics today. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong. But I’m very concerned about the unintended consequences of where we’re headed. And again, you and I have talked about the chance for opportunities. And when I first got here, I talked about the basketball tournament being better. People didn’t like to hear that because I believed that the more opportunities you had to participate in the postseason, the more opportunities people are going to be willing to offer kids to play to have a chance. I’ve also said that the number of sports that we’ve had started in 1978. A broad-based program in 1978 was 16 sports. We haven’t changed it. We should have been talking about increasing opportunities for the last 25 years and we haven’t. And we started seeing the money rise – that’s when we should have had the conversation. But we’ve had a couple of years that we could have been talking more programming, more opportunities. And we’re doing things that are absolutely counter to it. That’s what really bothers me.
Q: Can UNC have the same number of sports it does now if you’d have to come up with $1.8 million for stipends?
A: Well, that’s going to be a challenge. So our 300 is based on 300 scholarships that we offer here. I don’t know how many scholarships Texas offers. Ohio State will be probably more than 300. But there’s a disincentive right now to have large programs. And when we started the broad-based programming, and when Title IX came in, it was all about creating opportunities. This is the opposite. That bothers me.
Q: It doesn’t sound like anyone has any real answers to a lot of these questions in terms of how any of this will be implemented. When do you expect those answers to arrive?
A: I think we’ll pass full cost of attendance by January.
Q: And it would go into effect the next year?
A: My guess is it would probably go into effect, I would guess ’16-’17, but that’s a pure guess. Because I think they would try, at least preliminarily to sync it up with the name, image and likeness ruling, as well, so that there would be a significant change in landscape.
Q: The NCAA recently reopened its investigation into academic issues, and the relationship between the athletic department and suspect African- and Afro-American Studies courses. What’s your level of concern with the NCAA reopening the case?
A: Well you know I worry every day. That’s part of my job, is to worry. That’s constant. They reopened the case because there’s new information available. The new information was some interviews that Ken Wainstein was able to get that we weren’t previously able to get. So it didn’t surprise us that that would happen. But certainly, any time you’re in an investigation, you worry. So I don’t know where it could lead or what the outcome might be.
Q: Has the NCAA started its investigation or is it waiting for Ken Wainstein to finish his – what’s your understanding of your level of activity with the case?
A: Well, yeah, they do a lot of work. They’ve been doing a lot of work ever since they announced it.
Q: So the NCAA has been on campus conducting interviews?
A: Yeah. Now I don’t go into a lot of detail because once I start down that path, I can’t. But we’ve been working very closely with them since we announced it.
Q: What’s your best-case scenario in terms of when the NCAA investigation might end?
A: You know, it would really be a guess so I’d hate to even speculate on it.
Q: How frustrating is this, to be mired in this again?
A: It’s fatiguing. It’s been fatiguing for the whole university for, I don’t know, probably four years now. So I do think we’re hoping to get through it. We have another (investigation) – the Wainstein investigation, report, sometime this fall. So we’re hoping that each of these will be elements of our turning point. We’ve tried to get to the finish a line a number of times and haven’t been able to get there successfully, so we’re certainly hoping that this will be the one.
Q: Rashad McCants over the summer was critical of his experience at UNC. The athletic department has tried to contact him. Have you been successful yet in reaching him?
Q: What’s your confidence level in the other side of McCants’ story?
A: Well, I think we’ve provided a great experience to many, many students. And I’ve talked to a lot of the other players – I’ve talked to student-athletes in every sport that we have about their experience while they’re here – and I haven’t heard any give me the same story that I watched on television and read in the paper. They’re all very proud of their experience.
Q: Roy Williams has been saying for a while now that he sees himself coaching six to 10 more years. When do you start thinking of what happens beyond his tenure?
A: He’s said six to 10 ever since I’ve been here, and I love hearing six to 10. So I’m counting on six to 10. But yeah, I worry about that. I mean, he’s had some health issues. Sylvia (Hatchell) has. You worry about that – you worry about all of our coaches.
Q: He can be sensitive to criticism, and it hasn’t been an easy time for him and his program. Have you seen the turmoil wearing on him at all?
A: I see toughness, I see passion and that’s what I see. And I see competitive success. The guy’s one of the most competitive people I’ve ever met. So he’s tough. And I marvel at that. That’s what I want to continue to see.
Competitive guys want to be in the game. In fact, they want the ball at the end. That’s who I think he is.
Q: You’re entering your third full year as athletic director, what are some of your most important goals for the next year or so?
A: Within the university I’d like to see a restored confidence in the ability to have an outstanding university with a great athletic program. I think our confidence has been shaken. And I think we need to regain that. I think we can build upon the leadership team we have and the issues that we’ve had in the past and how we can get better. I feel good about all that. So at the end of the year, if we can get through it and restore our confidence, I think that’s probably as much as I would hope for from a big-picture standpoint.