On a long weekend that brought together the past, present and future of Carolina Athletics, one could surmise that it was the shining moment for UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp.
Under incredible scrutiny and pressure since he was thrust into the middle of a football scandal he never imagined when he accepted the university’s top job three years ago, Thorp listened to all the discerning and diametrically opposed voices and completed his intercollegiate crash course.
He made an “A” with the hiring of Lawrence “Bubba” Cunningham as Carolina’s seventh and new director of athletics.
Thorp was a self-effacing and light-hearted comedian at the Thursday night tribute to retired Voice of the Tar Heels Woody Durham. He was a confident and measured leader at Cunningham’s introductory press conference 18 hours later. And he planned to be just another Carolina fan at Late Night with Roy that evening and the football game against Miami the following afternoon.
It is no secret that Thorp has been the target of harsh criticism occasionally bordering on veiled threats since he fired Butch Davis on July 26. Whether it would have been better to dismiss Davis in August of 2010 when the scandal erupted and crossed into academics or after the 2010 season when it became clear that a fresh start was in order, Thorp eventually made the move.
His courage had a price. It put him in the cross hairs of a fan fight that still burns, witnessed by button-wearing boo-birds in the stands at Kenan Stadium and former Trustees and wealthy alumni who continued inviting the deposed head coach to games in their suites of the Blue Zone that was forced upon the university and has left it with a massive debt.
Long-time insiders urged Thorp on the new athletic director to “keep it in the family” for selfish reasons, a practice promoted by the best coach Carolina, and perhaps college basketball, ever had. Dean Smith used his influence to put Dick Baddour in the job more than 14 years ago because he was worried about the succession plan for his program, a legitimate concern at the time. But that became part of the Carolina Way, and a reason that few new faces joined the UNC athletic department staff in the last decade and a half.
Thorp started the search looking like he might maintain that status quo. But he began engaging prominent people in college athletics, some UNC alumni and some not, and he soon became undeterred in his goal to find the “best person in the country for Carolina.” That opened the field to the more than 60 outside applicants, which were eventually whittled down to three or four who had the experience and gravitas to build on the university’s success with an ingestion of new blood and fresh ideas that have worked elsewhere.
Learning on the job became a non-starter. If the best man was a Carolina man, so be it. But he had to have a helluva resume, far more than just an impassioned spiel to the search committee. No mattter who you favored or how you felt about Davis, the priority for everyone who cares about Carolina needed to be moving ahead.
Cunningham soon emerged as the leading candidate and the best fit. Although his only connection with UNC was taking classes at the Sports Management Institute held in Chapel Hill 20 years ago, Bubba bookmarked Carolina as a special place and one of his dream jobs. He was an assistant AD at Notre Dame at the time, and a mentor was former Fighting Irish Athletic Director Gene Corrigan, the retired Commissioner of the ACC and one of the people strongly recommending Cunningham to Thorp.
That Cunningham has followed the Tar Heels closely through the years but knows very few of the athletic staff he inherits will help him make objective evaluations over the next six months, beginning with the football program over the next six weeks.
This will be his third football coaching search. The first was at Ball State, where he hired Brady Hoke and watched Hoke rebuild a decade-long losing program into a 12-0 team during the 2008 regular season, three years after Bubba moved on to Tulsa. Hoke went to San Diego State and eventually to Michigan, where his first Wolverines team is currently 6-1 and 11th-ranked in the nation.
Cunningham’s next search landed Todd Graham, who led Tulsa to 10-, 11- and 10-win seasons in four years before being hired away by Pitt. Now comes his biggest challenge, finding a permanent coach who will not see Carolina as a stepping stone and stay long enough to help the Tar Heels fulfill the potential that for the most part has eluded them in football.
Asked how he will factor the final record of Butch Davis’ last team, now being coached by Everett Withers, into what is best for UNC over the next 5-15 years, Bubba let the rubber meet the road. “Outstanding programs over time are led by great coaches,” he said, “so the idea is trying to identify a great coach who is the right fit for Carolina. It’s the most effective way to have long-term success.”
And finding the best fit to run a 28-sport athletic department and balance what Cunningham calls “enhancing the student-athlete experience” against managing a $65 million enterprise – and doing it in such a way to make all Tar Heels proud – was ultimately due to the courage of one man.