Q&A with Bubba Cunningham, Part I

North Carolina director of athletics Bubba Cunningham discussed the NCAA investigation, the Wainstein Report and other topics pertaining to the athletic department in a recent sit down with InsideCarolina.com.

You arrived in Chapel Hill in October 2011, nearly 18 months after the NCAA opened its investigation. How have you handled the NCAA and AFAM fallout that you have been tasked with addressing over the last three years?
“We had NCAA problems, as I thought. What I didn’t recognize is that we had more campus tension than I anticipated. And I think that through the various reports that we’ve had, we’ve understood what has happened. I think we have a sense now, and this is learned over some period of time, that we need to be very open and very transparent in what we do. I think people have made a concerted effort to do that, and I think we’ve always tried to, but I think we may have fallen short at times. And so now I think we are entirely, ‘Okay, you want to know everything? Here it is.’ That’s a goal of ours, to be very open and very available. The second piece to that would then be how do you educate people on what we have done? Because when we got our infractions report in 2012, we’ve made a lot of changes in the last two years, as I mentioned about admissions, and our advising program is different. We’re doing a lot of things differently. And people, I think, at times, think that’s either lip service or they don’t really learn it or understand it. So I think part of our obligation is to really demonstrate our strategic plan, which is boring, I get that. But it’s meaningful to us. We talk about it a lot in what we’re trying to do as an athletic department. Where do we fit in higher ed today? Where do we fit at North Carolina? And how do we deliver that at North Carolina? So when Jim [Dean] started the Academic Working Group, that’s been really helpful. That has allowed us to create some dialogue across campus. And I think we’re making good progress there and we’ll have more reforms coming out of that and things that we need to do going forward. We just have to communicate that out. So again, it’s a real long-winded answer. When you have problems, what typically happens is people polarize and try to accuse the other side of misbehavior. I think we’ve seen the extreme of that at our place. And what I see now is that we’re starting to come back together and restore the confidence and trust, and talk about the future and how you can succeed in today’s environment. We’ve been that way for 50 years, and then we polarized and now we’re starting to come back. Personally, I think it’s probably just taken a little bit longer than anticipated. I saw some of it when I first got here, but it’s probably taken a year or two longer than I thought.”

You mentioned the polarizing aspect of the investigations. A good portion of our readership are UNC alumni that have a passion for athletics, many of whom clung tightly to former Governor Jim Martin’s opinion in 2012 that the AFAM scandal was academic, not athletic, in nature. Chancellor Carol Folt said during the Wainstein Report press conference that it was both academic and athletic in scope. I’m curious as to your opinion, but does that distinction really matter other than to serve to polarize the campus?
“Yes, it does. In fact, when Gov. Martin said that at the press conference, I winced at that, knowing full well I didn’t feel that way. It’s a lot like coaching, whether it’s football or basketball. Football is going to be offense, defense and special teams. Basketball is offense, defense and rebounding. And if any one of those break down, you’re not going to be successful. So when you’re running a Division I program at a major university, it doesn’t matter who makes the mistake. The mistake was made and you lose the game. You make a mistake and you lose some of your reputation. It doesn’t matter whose fault it is because collectively we own it. We have recruited student-athletes because it’s a great university and we can give people great degrees. The university is a better place and attracts incredible doctors because Chapel Hill is a wonderful place to live with great students that has a Division I sports program. So it doesn’t matter. We’re better because of each other. So when someone makes a mistake, it doesn’t do any good to point fingers, but everyone wants to do that. As I said, I winced when I heard it and to me it didn’t matter. To me, it’s not either’s fault. It’s not both’s fault; it’s our fault.”

Was part of the goal of the Wainstein Report to provide a conclusion to the investigations and the negative coverage and questions about the validity of some of the previous investigations?
“Yeah, I think so. It was to try to get closure. And I think very honest grade attempts were made to bring closure. Pick any one of those investigation reviews. But what continued to happen is different people, more people, more information became available through different sources, so the Wainstein investigation really launched because the district attorney said that he could get Julius [Nyang'oro] and Debbie [Crowder] to participate, and that happened. But prior to that, we were unsuccessful in most attempts to get people to cooperate, whether it was the NCAA or just, ‘hey, out of the goodness of your heart, tell us what happened so we can try to learn from it.’ So, yeah, but at some point, whether it was the university, the system, Board of Trustees, Board of Governors, we all want to get closure on this. Understand what happened so it doesn’t happen again and figure out how you can get better. So that was the idea with the Wainstein Report.”

Do you think the report has been effective in accomplishing that goal?
“Yes, I think so. I’ve talked to people who have been interviewed throughout the report and collectively the report is what the report is. There’s a lot of facts in there. There’s also a lot of opinion in there. And so if you were interviewed and you didn’t like how you were characterized in the final report, then you’re going to pick apart different parts of it. It’s one person’s interpretation of 126 interviews. It’s some opinion, some fact, and it was used to try to understand what happened. It’s not a legal document. It’s not a document that will be the answer guide to SACS, the NCAA or anything else. It’s just one piece of evidence in a large body of information.”

Former UNC offensive coordinator John Shoop doesn’t believe he was fairly characterized in the Wainstein Report. Roy Williams has defended Wayne Walden for a similar reason. Is there a need for the University, when addressing the NCAA, to highlight potential differences in the Wainstein Report and the opinions of some of those who were interviewed? Not in an attempt to tear down the Wainstein Report, but rather to note conflicting stories?
“Sure. As I said, it is a large piece of information that people will discuss and debate for quite some time. And throughout that investigation, that, like any other piece of information we have, we’ll discuss with the NCAA as it goes. It will be hard for me to talk a whole lot about that process. We can talk about the process, but not the contents of the process… I guess I will say you recognize that some of the people that interviewed with Wainstein will also talk with the NCAA, so some questions can be answered directly by individuals.”

There’s a perception amongst the fan base that UNC hasn’t defended itself well enough or responded appropriately to certain criticisms levied at the university. What is your response to that assertion? Do you think UNC has responded appropriately?
“Yes, I think we have. I think we try to inform people of facts. And as I said, people are going to have an opinion, and so if a broadcaster expresses an opinion, we don’t debate their opinion. If they misrepresent the facts, we do follow up with them and talk about the facts. We generally don’t issue a press release about, ‘hey, so-and-so said X and we believe it’s Y.’ We’ll go back and try to correct the record with that individual… But I’ve also had, I’ve personally had conversations with people and I know what my opinion and view is, and I express it to somebody, and then they immediately turn around and say something totally opposite. And that’s obviously their prerogative and their right, but we’re never going to get people to believe 100 percent what we believe because the perspective is different.”

So behind the scenes, UNC is attempting to reach out and correct facts that have been stated incorrectly?
“Each and every time. In fact, I even tried to do that at halftime of one of our games. I didn’t try, I did. Now, does that change it? Don’t know. Maybe they don’t make another comment or maybe they say something differently, but I also think that time and information will help. I think when the report first comes out, there’s a lot of shock and awe and I think over time, people are able to digest the report and look at it and get a better perspective on when it occurred, how it occurred, over what period of time it occurred and what impact that had. Now, that doesn’t change what happened, but I do think time allows people to think more clearly, more logically and then I think make more rational decisions in debate and fewer emotional decisions in debate.”

NCAA investigations are kept private and out of the public eye. What is your role and what is senior associate athletic director Vince Ille’s role in aiding the NCAA in its investigation?
“Well, we work very closely with them on a lot of different issues, but specifically on an investigation, given Vince’s extensive experience and that of Bond, Schoeneck and King, our outside counsel, we rely heavily on the law firm and Vince’s experience. Now, there’s many other people at the university involved, and I’d prefer not to name exactly who they are, but I think we have an exceptionally experienced team knowledgeable about the process. And I think Bond, Schoeneck and King is one of the best firms out there. It was founded by Mike Glazier and Mike Slive, and then when Slive left, they hired Rick [Evrard], and so Rick has been our primary guy since I’ve been at Carolina. We hired them to do the compliance review of the department. We created our department and our processes based on their review. I’ve had, Vince has had a long-standing relationship with Bond, Schoeneck and King because I think they are a great firm with immense knowledge of NCAA issues. So we spend a lot of time every day working on the case. Multiple people.”

The NCAA received a lot of criticism for accepting the Freeh Report in the Penn State case. Given how that situation played out, does that ensure that the NCAA will conduct its own investigation and not just accept the findings of the Wainstein Report?
“The Freeh Report was a report commissioned by Penn State, given over to the NCAA. The NCAA didn’t do any investigation. They came back and negotiated whatever deal they negotiated with Penn State and that was it. That stepped completely outside of everyone’s protocols and processes. We’re not doing that. The NCAA is not doing that. We’re not doing that. In fact, SACS is not doing that. Everyone realizes the importance of process and protocol because if this is how you operate, you need to follow those. Just because things are a challenge, you can’t get a new system. So we will continue to work with the NCAA. The NCAA won’t do an investigation without the institution. So in the Penn State case, they never did an investigation. They just took the report and said, ‘these are all facts.’ Our case is Wainstein did a report and an investigation, and here’s their presentation. Now together we’ll go through that and say, ‘Okay, this is what we agree or don’t,’ as we do with every other fact associated with this case. So we’re following that process. But the downside is it’s elongated, it’s clandestine. People don’t know. There’s not any information because we’re in the middle of an investigation and we don’t talk about it, so that makes people very uneasy, and you’re not informed as it goes.”

How does SACS factor into the NCAA investigation?
“Well, SACS is important, obviously, from an institution standpoint. That’s primary. The accreditation of the university, the quality of the education we provide, and back to process, do we follow the processes and procedures we have in place and all of those things are very important. That’s how you get accredited. And so that’s what the Academic Working Group is looking at from an institution standpoint. Now we’re going to have somebody else look at it from the outside, so that is important. From a NCAA standpoint, our eligibility is determined semester to semester for every student, so it’s all linked. If someone were to say these classes don’t count, then we’d have to go back and recalculate every single semester, semester to semester, for every kid. But that would also be true of your graduation requirements. So they work hand in glove. You can’t have an athletic department if you don’t have an accredited institution. But that also leads to all kinds of other challenges we have as an institution. We have employment issues, we have sexual assault issues, we have all kinds of legal issues associated, so everything that we do is all linked. You can’t just pick out one thing, which is why it’s so hard to pick out a class… You can’t do anything in isolation, I guess is a better way to say it.”

Check back later this week for Part II, including Cunningham's comments on Roy Williams and Larry Fedora ...

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