Bubba Cunningham can’t come too soon. And he might bring along a pith hat, small wooden chair and bull whip. Frankly, he’s walking into a bit of a zoo.
We’ve already fired a football coach and faced the judge and jury on nine major NCAA allegations, pleading guilty to eight of them and imposing some penalties that the NCAA might very well rule do not fit the crimes.
That fired football coach won’t seem to go away, and neither will his band of loyalists, many of whom paid through the nose because they thought he could take them to the Promised Land. A few fools, who should be supporting their school, have concocted a scenario in which the fired coach actually gets rehired.
The Chancellor, who is generally the most respected man on campus (although that hasn’t been the case since Michael Hooker died), is taking most of the heat, so much so that his family has also had a miserable year. He supported the coach until he could no longer support him, and his much-maligned firing actually came at the right time.
Once the scandal erupted, and it was inevitable that a change would be made, Carolina could not avoid playing the next season with an interim coach, whether the firing occurred in August, 2010, January, 2011 or when it did last July. That was one of the prices UNC had to pay for getting into the mess.
The fact that you have to hire an athletic director first, who then hires the football coach, has been lost on the Chancellor’s detractors. It almost never works the other way around because prospective coaches want to know who they will be working for in the long run and ADs want to hire their own coaches.
So the Chancellor had the athletic director, who is a really nice guy with his own wonderful family, step aside early so the above proper sequence could be created. But it took three months to hire Cunningham, who does not officially start until November 14, leaving the outgoing athletic director still in charge of a football program still in trouble.
Everett Withers has, for the most part, done a fine job with the team he was selected to lead for the 2011 season. But he was mismanaged by an athletic director who basically mismanaged every major-sport hire he made (and don’t bring up Roy Williams, because everyone knows who hired him).
Already in the middle of a PR disaster, UNC needed to carefully monitor an inexperienced, interim coach to prevent further fallout, beginning with publicly giving the fired coach the game ball after the opening day win and (hopefully) ending with Withers comparing UNC’s graduation rates to N.C. State’s, which in any other year would have been just another rivalry jab.
Rather, it gave State coach Tom O‘Brien the chance for a well-prepared, succinct statement that basically ran a recruiting knife right through Carolina’s last two years. Perhaps the outgoing AD should have been talking to Withers every day just to help him get through the trying season without making such an unfortunate gaffe.
Instead, the outgoing AD held a public meeting with certain faculty members, ostensibly to discuss what his new administrative duties would be for the last seven months of his contract after cleaning out his office and moving out to Finley Golf Course Road. Bad move for two reasons.
First, who really cares what his new duties are after he screwed up every major hiring decision he had in the last 14 years. And, second, his near half-century of service to the university should have told him that such a meeting would evolve into a faculty debate on why we’re spending so much money on athletics, why we need 28 sports, why we’re not de-emphasizing football, etc., etc., and so forth.
Intellectually, faculty members know that major college athletic departments operate like self-sustaining corporations, bringing in millions and then spending it. But don’t tell them that when the tail is walking the dog into an NCAA hearing while they are trimming budgets, cutting classes and losing teachers left and right. That faculty meeting could have easily happened long after the outgoing AD was in his new office out at the golf course.
Cunningham has a great resume, important experience, and documented success in hiring coaches. But he better be tough, as well. The outgoing AD will be hovering around like a mother hen, trying to be helpful but also trying to protect his staff that he has trumpeted repeatedly over the last few weeks as the university orchestrated a soft landing for him at dinners and press conferences.
He sees that “staff” as part of his legacy. But that’s a façade, as well, since virtually nobody has moved up and exactly one person from that staff went on to be an athletic director at another school (and the outgoing AD advised him not to go!).
So, hopefully, Cunningham will live up to his reputation as his own man, look at everything through an un-jaundiced eye and put the Humpty Dumpty football program and the broken parts of the athletic department back together again.
Just this morning, I was researching a forthcoming book on the last 15 years of UNC Athletics and ran across the infamous Larry Brown story. You remember that one, don’t you, from 2000 after Roy Williams decided to stay at Kansas.
The former chancellor, who had yet to move to Chapel Hill from Lincoln, Nebraska, and the outgoing athletic director decided they could not hire Brown (perhaps the best basketball coach on the planet at that time) because, among other things, Brown had gotten divorced while he was winning a national championship at Kansas 12 years earlier. No matter that the former chancellor had been divorced himself and remarried.
Now, if you recall, after Roy said no the first time we were at DEFCON 2 with our basketball program. The outgoing athletic director refused to assure the incoming chancellor that he would “manage Brown” and he instead hired Matt Doherty, who left unmanaged took us to DEFCON 1 in two years.
And, as this week shows, in one form or fashion we’re still in an emergency mode. Hurry, Bubba, hurry.