When Bubba Cunningham was hired as Carolina’s new athletic director last October, his first task was to find a football coach that would separate UNC from the scandal-plagued Butch Davis era.
Cunningham did not act like it was such a daunting task. “Identify great coaches and find out which one is the best fit for your school,” he said.
Sounds simple and, although the process was far more deliberate and detailed, it sure looked that way when a month later he named Larry Fedora of Southern Miss as the Tar Heels’ new coach.
Two days after Cunningham was hired, he assembled his senior staff members at the Williamson Athletic Center and told them he needed their help identifying potential candidates and to guide him toward the best fit.
They started with about 75 names, and they kept narrowing down the list. Cunningham put together a thick three-ring binder profiling every coach being considered that included experience, offensive and defensive schemes, recruiting, geography, assistant coaches and what they all made.
“I let my staff use the notebook and talk to people,” Cunningham said. “It turned out to be a limited pool and the more we did that, a couple of guys just bubbled up to the top.”
“I talked to about 10 or 15 head coaches, on the phone or in person,” Cunningham said Thursday in his office. “They’ve all been briefed by someone and say they have their staff lined up, but you wonder. I was concerned a little that if (offensive coordinator) Blake Anderson got the job at Southern Miss, he would have kept a couple of coaches, Larry would have had to hire three and it wouldn’t have been as good. But, other than that, Larry had his staff.”
To make sure UNC was looking at the right fit, since Cunningham was just learning his way around his new job, he engaged five members of that senior staff to help with the interview process: Athletic business manager Martina Ballen, Senior Associate Athletic Director Larry Gallo, Associates Clint Gwaltney and Rick Steinbacher and Rams Club Executive Director John Montgomery.
All but Gallo, who had a conflict, travelled with Cunningham to New York to interview the final five candidates, who besides Fedora included Houston’s Kevin Sumlin (now at Texas A&M) and interim coach Everett Withers. Besides wanting to keep his staff involved in the decision, there were specific reasons why Cunningham included them, mainly because they all touched a different constituent group at UNC.
Former UNC football player Steinbacher, the athletic marketing director, has “relationships with the media, with sponsors and with the lettermen,” Cunningham said, “John Montgomery’s relationship with donors, the Board of Governors, Board of Trustees.
“Martina being our CFO had the ability to figure out how much we could pay. Clint, a dual purpose, he was in touch with season ticket holders and what they were saying and his staff and what they were hearing; and his relationship with Roy (Williams) is outstanding and we needed to be on the same page. Gallo is really good internally. He has the HR function and knows the campus landscape.”
Still, the final recommendation to Chancellor Holden Thorp was Cunningham’s, and he said Fedora slowly distanced himself from all the other candidates. One important call he received came from Mike Holder, athletic director at Oklahoma State, where Fedora had been offensive coordinator and helped install the Cowboys’ high-flying attack.
“Mike said you need to talk to Larry because he really wants your job,” Cunningham said. “And it’s nice when someone at the top of your list really wants to come.”
Up to that point, Cunningham was concerned Fedora might opt for the opening at Texas A&M, where Mike Sherman had just been fired. Fedora grew up in College Station, and his father and three brothers still live there.
“It was okay if Larry said he wanted that job first and if he did not get it he would come,” Cunningham said. “Mainly I was looking for an open dialogue.”
For whatever reason, Carolina was always Fedora’s No. 1 choice even though the prospect of an NCAA probation loomed that led to Fedora’s first contract offer of five years ending up at seven to cover a possible bowl ban that did occur.
His former athletic director at Southern Miss, and the man who hired him there, Richard Giannini, was getting ready to retire and knew that Fedora would receive numerous offers after winning 11 games and the Conference USA championship in 2011. Giannini, a former assistant AD at Duke, told Fedora Chapel Hill was where he needed to be.
Bringing a staff was key because that had not happened in Carolina’s last three football hires: Carl Torbush had to fill in for the assistants who went to Texas with Mack Brown; John Bunting had never worked in Division I and lacked contacts among major college coaches; and, as big of a name Butch Davis was, he had been out of college coaching for six years, and his first hire was the coach who doomed his program, John Blake.
Thus, when Fedora introduced his new coordinators and assistant head coach, there was a consistent message from all the men who spoke: They were going to win with good kids on and off the field, and most of this staff had been together for years, worked with Larry, loved Larry and knew exactly what he wanted. They hit the ground running and started getting in-state commitments for the 2013 and 14 recruiting classes.
So, with the new football hierarchy in place, Cunningham turned his attention to all the other challenges of moving from mid-major Tulsa to one of the premier athletic programs in the country with 28 sports and a $70-plus million budget. He has brought in lawyers and advisers to review everything from the academic support system ministered by the College of Arts and Sciences, to his department’s organizational structure, to strategic planning. In the meantime, he has thought long and hard about what Carolina’s position should be in the ever-changing landscape of college athletes – from alternatives to altering the amateur code to the prospect of a super division in the NCAA with an entire new rule book.
Cunningham says there is a “fair amount of frustration” among his staff that wants to be fulfilled, whether it is seeking growth opportunities here or elsewhere. He also thinks the so-called Carolina Way is a two-edged sword. “One way is it’s the right way and the way we need to do things,” he said, “and other people look at it as a way to do things they don’t want changed. So it’s both.”
The new AD understands he must tread lightly over traditions that have been in place, right or wrong, for a long time. He knew of the incestuous aspect of the “Carolina Way” – taking care of your own and promoting from within and admits he had doubts about getting the job “because I did not go to Carolina.”
From a day-to-day standpoint, Cunningham feels “geographically challenged because as a staff we’re so spread out.”
“So far, I don’t know how to function because I can’t get to where I need to be very efficiently,” he said. “I feel like I’m isolated in this building. That’s probably my biggest challenge so far is setting up a routine where I can effectively interact with people I need to, mostly the coaches. “
Currently, coaches and athletic personnel are housed in 11 separate buildings – the Williamson Center, Koury Natatorium, the Smith Center, the Kenan Football and Loudermilk Academic (Blue Zone) Centers, Carmichael, the soccer, golf, tennis, baseball and softball complexes.
Right now, Fedora and Williams report directly to Cunningham, while the other 18 coaches report to Senior Associate AD Beth Miller. That disconnect has Cunningham thinking about taking an office at Carmichael and spending two mornings a week there, so he is more in the center of campus.
“One consultant came in to examine our operation and evaluate our staff and said this building (Williamson Center) feels more like working in a bank,” Cunningham said. “There are no coaches and no kids.”
And all this without his family, which moves here the first week in June. The Cunninghams have just about settled on a house in The Oaks.
“The house in Tulsa is sold and everything will be in moving trucks and needs to be dropped off somewhere,” he said.
So add unpacking to Bubba’s short list in a few weeks.