CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Bubba Cunningham knows what he's walking into as North Carolina's next athletic director.
Next month, he'll leave Tulsa to take over one of the flagship programs in the Atlantic Coast Conference with Hall of Fame coaches, modern facilities and a national brand name. He's also inheriting the aftermath of an NCAA investigation of the football program that led to the firing of a coach, the departure of a long-standing AD and a wounded fan base.
Not to mention the task of hiring a new football coach as one of his first duties.
"I absolutely love the place," Cunningham said Friday in his first news conference at North Carolina. "The people are here are absolutely outstanding, but I can't really project what the future will be until I really learn from the people that are here. But building on this tradition is obviously where we start."
Cunningham will start work Nov. 14 as he replaces Dick Baddour, who is stepping down after 14 years leading the Tar Heels' 28-sport athletic department. His hiring caps a seven-week process in which a search committee reviewed a pool of about 60 applicants and interviewed 13 candidates before forwarding a three-person list — with Cunningham at No. 1 — to chancellor Holden Thorp.
University trustees approved the hiring in a meeting Friday morning. Cunningham's contract runs through June 2017. He will make $525,000 annually and will receive a $40,000 annual expense allowance. He can receive bonuses for the average team academic performance, as well as when the football team reaches a bowl or the men's and women's basketball teams reach the NCAA tournament.
"I'm not smart enough to have enough adjectives about the emotions I feel right now," said the 49-year-old Cunningham, who wore a light blue tie and NC-logo lapel pin. "It's a special, special place, and it's such an honor to be a part of it."
Cunningham's arrival marks another consequence of the NCAA probe into improper benefits and academic misconduct within the football program, which began in the summer of 2010. Thorp fired Butch Davis as head coach just before training camp. Baddour decided he should step down as well; he was in the last year of his contract and said his status could hinder hiring a new coach as opposed to letting a new athletic director make the hire.
Baddour will represent the school at a hearing before the NCAA infractions committee on Oct. 28. Cunningham said he doesn't plan to attend.
While Cunningham will have to soothe some angry feelings following Davis' ouster, Thorp said the hire wasn't solely about mending fences.
"It was really more about just finding the right person," Thorp said. "We're hoping Bubba will be here a long time. So we're hiring somebody for the long term, not just to take care of the situation we're in right now."
Cunningham's football coaching decision will start with evaluating interim coach Everett Withers, who has the Tar Heels off to a 5-1 start. Withers, men's basketball coach Roy Williams and women's coach Sylvia Hatchell were among the coaches in attendance for Cunningham's introductory news conference. Cunningham said he met with Withers and the other Tar Heels' coaches shortly before it began.
"Obviously, we need a full-time (football) coach at some point, and through our conversations with the chancellor, we're all about excellence," Cunningham said. "My charge in the next few months will be to analyze the program, make a decision where we are and then what's the best fit going forward to meet all the dreams and ambition? Our No. 1 priority is to make sure that any kind of coaching discussion is not a distraction" to the team.
Thorp said he didn't expect a coaching decision until after the season-finale against Duke.
Cunningham leaves behind a Tulsa program that won a league-best 34 Conference USA championships since his arrival in 2005. He is a Notre Dame graduate with a master's degree in business administration. He spent 15 years working in various roles at his alma mater before serving three years as athletic director at Ball State and then six years at Tulsa.
Cunningham is the first athletic director hired without ties to UNC since Homer Rice in 1969. The past two — Baddour and Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner John Swofford — were alumni.
"Bubba Cunningham is an outstanding choice. He is a quality administrator and terrific person," said Swofford, UNC's AD from 1980-97. "Bubba is a highly respected and proven athletics director who will fit in extremely well at UNC and will be a welcome addition around our ACC table."