North Carolina’s football program had been in the national spotlight for roughly 18 months for all of the wrong reasons – a multi-pronged NCAA investigation along with academic mishaps that led to a head coach losing his job and an athletic director taking an early retirement.
In mid-October, Cunningham took over for Dick Baddour as UNC’s athletics director and immediately faced the unenviable task of hiring a permanent head football coach that could unify a fractured fan base. Fair or unfair, Cunningham’s reputation would be defined by a hire made just eight weeks into his tenure.
That search process began two days after Cunningham was introduced on Oct. 14. After taking in the UNC-Miami football game on Oct. 15, the former Tulsa AD met with his administrative staff to begin discussions. During that initial strategy sessions, he told his team, “Let’s create the biggest list we can find.”
Cunningham estimated that list had between 75 and 100 potential coaching candidates.
Following that Sunday meeting, the first person Cunningham talked to was interim head coach Everett Withers. He wanted to make sure Withers understood that he was a candidate but that other coaches would be interviewed as well.
“I tried to be completely upfront with him from the very moment it struck me of how I was going to go about doing it,” Cunningham said on Friday.
The next move consisted of Cunningham building an in-house search staff of senior associate athletic directors Larry Gallo and Martina Ballen, associate athletic directors Rick Steinbacher and Clint Gwaltney and Rams Club executive director John Montgomery, as well as hiring Bill Carr and Associates as a search firm.
Cunningham’s outreach didn’t stop there, however, as he sought out perspective and advice from board members and campus representatives, among others, including
Dwight Stone, Matt Kupec, Eddie Smith, Lissa Broome, Lowry Caudill and Leslie Strohm.
“He’s a very smart guy and said, ‘You know I don’t know that much about Carolina in the sense of who can be the right fit, so I’ve got to engage people that have been around here and get their opinions and see what they think’,” Gallo said.
Cunningham’s approach was to utilize the strengths of those surrounding him to cover up his weaknesses.
“That’s why I asked the staff members that I asked to be involved,” Cunningham said. “I’m new here and I asked five people on the staff with a combined 79 years of experience. So trying to find the right fit for somebody that hasn’t been here… I couldn’t do it alone, so that’s why they were so helpful.”
Gallo said the core search group talked about candidates, what they could do and what they could do better than they had done in previous searches. The meetings were all-compassing and allowed for an open dialogue.
“Throughout the entire process, he asked a lot of questions and he just let us give our opinions,” Gallo said. “I’ve been in this business now for 37 years. You can learn a heck of a lot more about things or a subject or a situation if you listen rather than talk.”
Cunningham’s vast list of contacts around the country, as well as Carr’s firm, delivered a wealth of information for his staff to pour over, including academics, off-the-field activities and responsibilities, X’s and O’s and financials. And as the days passed by and more info rolled in, the candidate list became more manageable.
“The more you run through different criteria, you start to narrow it down a little bit,” Cunningham said.
Considering UNC’s overexposure over the past two years, the last thing Cunningham could afford was a public mockery of a search. UCLA and Arizona State have drawn harsh criticism for botched searches in recent weeks, while N.C. State athletic director Debbie Yow turned basketball coach Mark Gottfried’s introductory press conference last spring into a laughingstock by accusing her former basketball coach, Gary Williams, of attempting to sabotage her search.
But Cunningham and his staff kept UNC’s search off the front pages until news broke on Tuesday that Fedora had been offered and ultimately accepted the job.
With the NCAA’s final ruling expected in the next month, Cunningham made sure that Fedora had a complete understanding of the situation. After the initial interview in New York on Monday, Cunningham called Fedora a second time and the pair met for nearly two-and-a-half hours to go over the intricate details.
“Bubba made sure that I was coming here with my eyes open and I appreciate that,” Fedora said. “… I really do appreciate him being very forthcoming about everything about the University of North Carolina.”
There has already been some criticism directed towards Cunningham for settling for a non-BCS head coach that delivered three average seasons at Southern Miss before winning the Conference USA title last weekend. But a scan around the ACC indicates that home run hires – such as Ohio State landing Urban Meyer – are the exception.
Three ACC programs – Clemson, Florida State and Boston College – are led by men in their first head coaching roles. Five other schools – Miami, Wake Forest, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech – are coached by individuals with previous head coaching experience at non-BCS level schools. The only league schools currently headed by coaches with prior BCS-level coaching experience are Duke, N.C. State and Maryland.
And while Cunningham missed on his top target, Chris Petersen, his second tier of coaches included Fedora, Houston’s Kevin Sumlin and Cincinnati’s Butch Jones. According to sources, Fedora separated himself from the group with a strong interview on Monday, and despite interest from Texas A&M, Kansas and Ole Miss, the man known for his offensive wizardry chose North Carolina as his coaching destination.
UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp praised Cunningham’s professionalism in the search process during his opening remarks on Friday.
“I was just impressed with how well Bubba was prepared on the candidates that he was talking to, the number of people around the country that he was talking to and the way he involved his senior team, I thought, was exactly what you like to see in a manager,” Thorp told reporters following the press conference. “So they were prepared to make a tough decision, to do it quickly and I think we also negotiated a really good deal with Larry. I feel very good about the contract.”
But executing a solid search and landing a coach with plenty of potential is not a guarantee of success to come, and Cunningham would be the first to admit that.
When asked if he’s relieved the coaching search is done, he responded: “[There’s] relief that the process is over, but only half of the job is done because now the next half of my job is to make sure that he’s successful.”