While other athletic departments put Band-Aids on the ills of big-time college sports and some coaches and administrators may be sitting on secrets in the wake of the Penn State scandal, UNC finds itself with a golden opportunity. 

No one wanted it to happen this way, but Carolina now has the chance for the Square One start a lot of schools with baggage would like to have. As the athletic-academic scandal drones on, with the media hound dogs sniffing at our Heels, UNC now has leadership with the wisdom and toughness to start anew and, truly, become the model athletic department we have only claimed to be for years.
Bubba Cunningham carries none of that baggage, beholden to no one, and with the smarts and class to evaluate before he excavates. We must trust the method to his madness of the recent athletic department restructuring, that it will be a self-weeding-out process resulting in a combination of retrained Carolina Way clones, old-schoolers that go their own way, and new blood that Bubba brings in to restore UNC’s image off the playing fields while maintaining excellence on them.
The cloud of controversy will still be there, hovering somewhere west of the Bell Tower, but the football playing field has been greened up with new coaches that have boosted the energy level and committed themselves to winning with what Larry Fedora characterizes as “good players on the field, good kids off.” The one-year bowl ban aside, the schedule is conducive to a quick start, and 2012 really could be called a season of keeping score while the Tar Heels learn the fast break offense and fly-around defense Fedora favors.
Meanwhile, in more important venues, the Loudermilk Center will be converted from an “oh, yes, and” part of the Blue Zone to a revamped student-athlete academic center, where all the systems that were allowed to slip or maneuvered by past coaches, counselors and tutors will be rebuilt to enhance rather than diminish the athletes’ classroom experience. I would not be surprised if a new curriculum — or at least new classes — were pondered that will better prepare athletes for what they want to do after school is over.
Eight or ten athletes in the same class would not be so eye-opening if that course taught the economics of college athletics or the laws and policies regulating professional sports agents. Such teachings would be more useful to athletes than systematized Swahili classes many of them just don’t want to take. Sure, thousands of students all over campus will still be seeking out the easiest classes and professors, but why not challenge athletes in a realistic way? More of them may actually take school seriously.
Clearly, the relationship between faculty and athletics and those conduit areas — such as athlete student services — need dire repair, and recent revelations in the News & Observer that someone was steering athletes somewhere will eventually end an employment or two. Two new staff members have already been brought in to help with academics and compliance. More are sure to arrive over the next year, including perhaps a new CFO to make a business assessment of a $75 million athletic budget.
Cunningham has called the “Carolina Way” a two-edged sword, one side representing a system that worked well for many years, but the other side an excuse for people who just don’t want to change anything. Unfortunately, that phrase has gone from the bedrock of Dean Smith’s basketball program and the title of a best-selling business book to an embarrassment within the university and a joke in the eyes of outsiders and scoffing rivals. To many, the Carolina Way validates the arrogance UNC has been accused of for years.
The “new way” does not need a name or a label. It needs a strong vision for the future and people not afraid to make tough decisions. Overworked, underpaid employees who get their jollies from the territorialism they have carved out need to get with the new program or get out. Silly marketing policies, often marshaled by one person’s view of how the Carolina “brand” should be protected, need to defer to more experience with how brand management can maximize revenues without defaming names and logos.
The Smith Center, 25 years ago the shining beacon of what private funding can produce, needs more than a face lift. It needs to become a revenue stream beyond 15 or so home basketball games a year and otherwise a large campus building for UNC events. Granted, local arena and amphitheater competition has mushroomed, while the parking and lack of alcohol sales are deterrents, but surely the Dean. E. Smith Center still has the magic to attract concerts, shows and events that produce revenue. Creativity and contacts needed here.
Unlike past athletic regimes, Cunningham will not be hesitant to visit and borrow from other schools that are doing it better — in areas from compliance to competition. His new reporting chain serves, as much as anything, to fix the decentralization of an athletic department housed in more than a dozen different buildings. While additional layers of direct reports, a new chief of staff, and expanded executive and senior staffs may look more like political gridlock, it is obviously geared to improving the communication problems masked by a few departmental meetings and holiday luncheons each year.
The point is: UNC has a chance to wipe the slate clean and rebuild an athletic department with a 21st Century vision. The changes that will bring could be life-altering for some and uncomfortable for others, but it’s an opportunity to create the kind of true transparency that Carolina has claimed all these years while, quite apparently, losing its way.