Now he's reshaping the Tar Heels' 28-sport program ahead of his first full year in charge.
The athletic department is compiling a new strategic plan for onfield goals and funding priorities, along with another for facility improvements. The school has brought in consultants to review compliance procedures following an NCAA investigation of the football program. Cunningham is also examining the makeup of the department itself.
"We've been very successful for a long time because of the commitment of a lot of people," Cunningham said. "So I thought it was best to learn. Now, as those initiatives unfold, you'll likely move to a changed organizational structure that will support what the long-term goals are going to be."
After arriving from Tulsa, Cunningham met school officials, toured campus buildings, visited practices and reached out to coaches. He traveled the state in the spring to meet alumni and boosters during the annual "Tar Heel Tour."
Chancellor Holden Thorp described Cunningham as "approachable and personable" while also "demonstrating to people that he's in charge."
"You have the new ideas already in your mind but you don't want to implement them in a way that takes away from the good things at the place you're going," Thorp said. "The smart thing to do is take the time to get to know the people and the facilities and the traditions before you start making any new changes. ... He told me that's how he wanted to do it and I told him I thought that was smart."
Cunningham, 50, arrived last fall amid the turmoil of the NCAA probe into improper benefits and academic misconduct within the football program. After Thorp fired Butch Davis just before training camp, Baddour said he would step aside ahead of his planned retirement so his successor could hire the next football coach.
The school hired Cunningham in October, he started work a month later, then brought in Larry Fedora from Southern Mississippi in December.
UNC is ineligible for a bowl game this fall and will lose 15 scholarships over three years as part of NCAA sanctions imposed in March.
"We're all saying the right things, but the proof will be in the pudding of do we do it under pressure?" Cunningham said. "What we've seen over the six months that (Fedora's staff) has been here is that they're doing exactly what they said they were going to do, which is hold people accountable, make sure everyone's in class and in the appropriate classes, and do things right."
The school won the NCAA championship in men's soccer, reached the title game in field hockey, hosted an NCAA baseball regional as a national seed and earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA men's basketball tournament during the 2011-12 sports season. Swimmer Stephanie Peacock also won an individual national championship.
Overall, though, Cunningham called it "a little below-average year competitively." Among the most notable examples: North Carolina missed the NCAA women's basketball tournament for the first time since 2001 despite being preselected to host opening-weekend games.
"We had a lot of teams in the postseason, but we didn't advance in the postseason as well as we have in the past," Cunningham said. "And I think that is a great motivator for all of us. Why is that? Is it an anomaly or a trend? Are we investing in our programs to compete at the highest level?"
He said he cut the department's administrative budget by 10 percent to find more money for sports programs. According to the most recent figures from the U.S. Department of Education's gender equity database, North Carolina spent about $70.7 million on sports in 2010-11 — third-most in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Cunningham also inherited plenty of renovated facilities from predecessor Dick Baddour's 14-year tenure, including new baseball and softball stadiums as well as the Kenan Stadium expansion to add a permanent end-zone seating section and new home for the academic support center.
Cunningham is now focused on upgrades for Fetzer Field, home to men's and women's soccer, lacrosse and outdoor track programs.
He also understands there are still wounds for a university fatigued by the NCAA problems.
"Any time you have the issues that we've had the last two years, it weighs on people," he said. "And people want positive things for their alma mater or the school they have an affinity for. ... I think we have the people in place to make it better."