I have received a few comments and emails regarding my praise of Chancellor Holden Thorp for going against the “Carolina Way” in hiring Bubba Cunningham as the new athletic director.
“It was courageous to hire an Athletic Director? How stupid do you think we are?” said one of the comments.
Well, those people who thought Thorp had a walk in the park over the last year – and did not show great courage — to go against the grain of the so-called “old guard,” the “cronies,” the “traditionalists” and even some of the UNC Trustees ARE pretty stupid, or at least seriously uninformed.
Thorp, admittedly, did not know much about how college athletics ran when he took over in 2008. Mostly, he and his family were rabid Carolina fans. Thorp grew up in Fayetteville, turning down the sound and listening to Woody Durham call Tar Heel games.
His first year on the job, Roy Williams won his second national championship and Thorp was riding home on the team jet, posing for pictures with Williams, Erskine Bowles and Athletic Director Dick Baddour, all holding the NCAA first-place trophy.
I bet that Thorp does not ride on another team plane, no matter how many more championships Tar Heel teams win. Former System President Bill Friday never flew with a UNC team and coaches because he said it sent the wrong message if he someday had to fire one of his fellow passengers.
Clearly, Thorp’s biggest mistake was appearing to unconditionally support Butch Davis as the NCAA investigation ensued. That’s a legitimate beef by those who believed the coach was on safe ground despite the nine major NCAA allegations facing his program.
Thorp believed the UNC athletic department was the least of his worries when he took office. Davis was building a championship team and upgrading the football facilities. Williams was considered one of the two or three best coaches in the country, and as an alumnus the perfect fit. The rest of the Tar Heel teams were helping Carolina to a high finish every year in the Director’s Cup standings. The NCAA had not been on the UNC campus in almost 50 years.
Well, Thorp was only seeing it from the surface. Due to weak leadership in athletics from his predecessor James Moeser and Baddour, there was another level of power that had formed during John Bunting’s five-plus years as football coach. The Board of Trustees, ostensibly the gatekeepers to the University, had essentially commandeered the football program, spearheaded by “athletic Trustees” Bob Winston, Paul Fulton and John Ellison.
They fired Bunting seven games into the 2006 season and then became the de facto search committee that went out and hired Davis. You don’t remember a search committee being appointed to find the new football coach, do you? Because there was none, only a consultant named Chuck Neinas who was paid $75,000 to recommend a candidate or two.
Davis, who had just received his final payment from the Cleveland Browns after being fired two and a half seasons into his five-year contract, became the first and only serious candidate. The athletic Trustees and Baddour interviewed him in a Chicago hotel suite on Friday night, November 3, 2006, less than two weeks after Bunting was forced out.
The “committee” and Moeser also interviewed Davis at his Florida condominium. And besides throwing a few other names around – such as former ECU coach Steve Logan – they never formally interviewed another candidate. They likely got around certain state laws about posting the job and interviewing other candidates by declaring the football position as an emergency hire, even though they got a five-week head start on every other school looking for a new coach.
So Davis was hired for a reported $1.86 million dollars, went 4-8 his first season (2007) and then threatened to leave for his alma mater, Arkansas, which by the way never interviewed him. So UNC coughed up a $297,000 raise, plus added a year to his contract. One Trustee said they did not like it but that’s what you have to do to keep a coach these days.
Baddour later said it was an advance on the retention bonus Davis was due after three years. Well, a retention bonus is a reward for staying, not for threatening to leave. Meanwhile, Davis was busy fulfilling the promises made to him at his Florida condo, when he produced a three-ring binder with photos of facilities from SEC schools, which he said Carolina had to emulate to compete for a national championship. The “committee” apparently all agreed that’s how they were going to build big-time football at UNC.
I tell this story to describe the political atmosphere when Thorp became chancellor, and when he was furious over the NCAA investigation and alleged academic fraud in August of 2010. A number of sources have since said that Thorp wanted to fire Davis right then and there, culpable or not, because such a scandal was not supposed to happen at UNC – ever.
The same sources said that certain Trustees talked Thorp out of it, insisted that the NCAA probe had to run its course and Davis deserved his day in court. Meanwhile, Baddour was committed to being completely cooperative and open with the NCAA while less transparency was evident with John Blake, who received a $75,000 payment for resigning, and implicated former tutor Jennifer Wiley, an elementary school teacher who was represented and muzzled by high-paid criminal attorney and Rams Club member Joseph Chesire.
By charter, the chancellor has the power to fire a football coach without the Trustees’ approval. But the Trustees can also make a chancellor’s life miserable and shorten his tenure. So there is probably no coincidence that Davis was fired on new Board chairman Wade Hargrove’s first day last July, a week or so before football practice was to begin.
Thorp made the most logical move after firing Davis, having Baddour step aside and naming an interim coach for the 2011 season. That put the recovery process in the proper sequence, so a new athletic director could be hired and he could then pick the new coach.
But Davis did not go quietly, as his biggest supporters began howling and some still are. And those Trustees, the erstwhile “committee,” while maybe off the Board still had plenty of juice, and some of them pushed Thorp to hire an AD from within, so they could control him like they controlled Baddour. At first, Thorp listened to them and seemed to be leaning their way.
Thorp then began asking for and receiving advice and counsel from veteran athletic administrators outside UNC, some who were alumni and some not. Commissioner John Swofford wanted the best for not only his league but the school he served as athletic director for 17 years. Swofford and others told Thorp that all the candidates to succeed Baddour had to “measure up” with experience and knowledge of hiring coaches, handling multi-million-dollar budgets and striking the right balance between academics and athletics.
And they also told Thorp that Carolina would have to pay “market value” salary for such an athletic director, which turned out to be $200,000 more than Baddour was making as the lowest-paid AD in the ACC. And that most veteran ADs at BCS conference schools would need more than that or take a pay cut to make what would be, at best, a lateral professional move for them.
That’s why the one-time chemistry geek needed great courage to break the chain, with Butch still lurking around and his brigade still barking, and find what he described as “the best person in the country for the Carolina job.” Oh, the AD from Tulsa, a Conference USA school, the critics sniffled. Big Bubba.
Cunningham will be judged like everyone else should be, and he will have to put his track record as a leader, consensus builder and fund-raiser – with core values that mirror Carolina’s – on the line to reunite a divided UNC fan base. The first test comes right away because a permanent football coach will likely be named by December 1.
He won’t be allowed to make a half-dozen hirings and firings and keep his job, like Baddour did and the Trustees of the time allowed him to do. Bubba will have to prove himself pretty quickly since a chancellor who refused to take the “Carolina Way” out will be on a lot shorter leash than Cunnngham. That’s courage in my book.