Lawrence R. “Bubba” Cunningham, who has been athletics director at the University of Tulsa since 2005, is the next AD at Carolina.
Cunningham, 49, has signed a six-year contract that will pay him an annual salary of $525,000 and provide an expense account of $40,000 per year. The UNC Board of Trustees approved the contract Friday morning. He will take over Nov. 14 from Dick Baddour ’66, who will retire in his 15th year in the position.
The new head of UNC’s 28-sport varsity program made it clear he will be known simply as Bubba. He said the nickname developed because his father went by Larry and his sisters couldn’t pronounce “brother.” His middle name, Richard, would have relegated him to “Richie Cunningham,” and he vetoed that while in college at Notre Dame.
Cunningham is in his 10th year as a Division I director of athletics. In addition to his tenure at Tulsa, he was the AD for three years from 2002-2005 at Ball State University.
A year ago Cunningham was in the running for the AD job at the University of Kansas, and news media reported he was about to be hired. He took himself out of consideration and signed a contract extension with Tulsa. On Friday he told a news conference in Chapel Hill it was a family decision to not go to Kansas.
A 13-member search committee recommended Cunningham to Chancellor Holden Thorp ’86 after it had interviewed 13 of 60 aspirants for the job since early August. Thorp said the committee’s mission was to have a hire by the middle of October.
In two weeks Thorp, Baddour and others from the University will travel to Indianapolis to answer NCAA allegations in the year-plus-long football investigation. Cunningham said UNC’s status with the NCAA did not figure into his decision to pursue the job.
“It really didn’t play into it,” he said. He called the football situation “a blemish, but we will continue to work on the compliance issue.” His first major task is expected to be hiring a new head football coach.
Cunningham was honored as the 2008-09 FBS Central Region Athletics Director of the Year, an award presented by the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics.
Cunningham guided Tulsa through its initial move to Conference USA and spearheaded a $60 million athletics initiative, which included a $20 million renovation to Skelly Field at H.A. Chapman Stadium, a goal of $20 million for an athletics scholarship endowment and $20 million for a coaches’ salary endowment.
Cunningham implemented and developed a strategic plan for personal and professional growth and development for Tulsa’s athletes, coaches and staff. He presided over the completion of the $8.5 million Case Athletic Complex, which houses football offices and academic support center for athletes.
Entering this season, Tulsa won 34 league championships, more than any other school in Conference USA. Men’s and women’s basketball, men’s and women’s cross country, men’s and women’s golf, men’s soccer, softball, men’s and women’s tennis and volleyball have participated in post-season play. The football program has played in five bowl games in the last six years, winning four.
Cunningham hired former Tulsa football coach Todd Graham, who led the Hurricanes to three 10-win seasons in a four-year span, the first time it had been accomplished in school history.
Tulsa athletes have earned more than 170 Conference USA Commissioner’s Honor Roll accolades each season, including 199 in 2009-10, and 11 athletes won C-USA Scholar Athlete of the Year honors.
Last year, the Hurricanes finished 51st nationally in the Learfield Sports Directors’ Cup, Tulsa’s highest finish in the history of the competition.
At Ball State, Cunningham led a program with 19 intercollegiate sports and a budget of $12.4 million. In his final year, Ball State completed a $12 million campaign to renovate the football stadium.
From 1988-2002, Cunningham worked in the athletics department at Notre Dame, where he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business administration in 1984 and 1988, and played on the golf team.
He served as Notre Dame’s associate athletics director for finance and facilities from 1995-2000, and as associate director of athletics for external affairs from 2000-02. Cunningham was responsible for developing an equity plan to meet Title IX requirements, completed the master plan for athletic facilities, coordinated the bid process and negotiation for football radio rights and helped plan and complete the $50 million renovation and 20,000-seat expansion of Notre Dame Stadium.
Cunningham is the seventh director of athletics in UNC history, following Robert A. Fetzer (1923-52), Chuck Erickson ’31 (1953-67), Homer Rice (1969-75), Bill Cobey (1976-80), John Swofford ’71 (1980-97) and Baddour.
He will be eligible for standard bonuses equal to one months pay should the football team be invited to play in a post-season bowl game and/or should the men’s and women’s basketball teams be invited to participate in their respective NCAA Tournaments. He also will be eligible for a bonus equal to one months salary in any year in which the average of the NCAA’s four-year Academic Progress Rate for all of Carolina’s varsity teams equals or exceeds 975.
Cunningham serves on the NCAA Division I Men’s Golf Committee, is a member of NACDA’s executive committee, and was on the board of directors of the Alzheimers Association of Oklahoma and the Folds of Honor Foundation Board.
Born in Flint, Mich., and raised in Naples, Fla., Cunningham and his wife, Tina, have four children.