Recent UNC BOT Meeting Displayed
Extreme Unprofessionalism, Ignorance,
Disrespect Toward AD Bubba Cunningham
(Ugly Misstep As Huge Athletic Decisions Loom)

By David Glenn
North Carolina Sports Network

A recent meeting of the University of North Carolina Board of Trustees was an embarrassing clown show, even without anyone wearing an oversized nose or shiny red shoes.

This particular clown car didn’t include the usual prank, an impossible number of people exiting an undersized vehicle one by one. Instead, it overflowed with ignorance, unprofessionalism and an unwarranted amount of disrespect toward UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham.

BOT chairman John Preyer and trustee Jennifer Halsey Evans assumedly are successful people in some contexts. In this case, though, they failed to do even the most basic homework on important topics, and they chose to publicly criticize the widely respected Cunningham — a 13-year member of their own “Carolina family” — in a reckless, clueless, tone-deaf manner.

Halsey spoke of athletic department budget proposals with $17 million shortfalls and her “concerns that (UNC’s athletic department) wasn’t being managed properly.” Preyer complained about the “level of bad data” that had been provided to the committee. There also were criticisms of Cunningham’s unavailability to the committee earlier this year.

There was no shortage of lowlights:

* The Board spent almost the entire meeting repeatedly referring to a “$125 million” proposed budget for the UNC athletic department during the upcoming 2024-25 academic year. It took until the final minute of the meeting for anyone to actually say the correct number, which is roughly $135 million.

* Some board members were absolutely adamant about the need for an audit of the UNC athletic department, despite openly admitting that they had no idea whether — or how often — the department had been audited recently. As it turns out, the department had been audited 10 times just in the past five years, and it’s audited annually by the NCAA.

* Some board members specifically criticized Cunningham for being unavailable during a Board meeting earlier this year. What they conveniently left out was that Cunningham was unavailable in that instance because he has held a prestigious position on the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee for the past four years and was performing related duties at the time. In fact, Cunningham is so highly thought of by his peers that he will serve as the committee’s chairperson for the 2025 NCAA Tournament.

* Preyer demanded a quickly scheduled follow-up Board session, with Cunningham in attendance, and said that meeting would be closed to the public. One problem: That would have been patently illegal, a violation of North Carolina’s open-meetings law. The closed-meeting idea was abandoned (wisely), but only after a lawsuit was filed by North Carolina-based attorney David McKenzie.

These are stressful times at UNC, including on athletics-related matters. The Atlantic Coast Conference is involved in four lawsuits with long-time members Clemson and Florida State, who want to leave the league, and there is an internal debate at Carolina regarding whether the Tar Heels should join the Tigers and the Seminoles on the way out the door, assumedly for the relative riches of the Big Ten or Southeastern Conference.

Reasonable minds certainly can disagree on the wisdom of UNC’s various options in that regard. What’s patently unreasonable, though, is implying that Cunningham has somehow mismanaged the Carolina athletic department.

UNC’s financial complications in the athletic department are overwhelmingly related to two things that are largely — or entirely — beyond Cunningham’s control and apply to every member of the ACC, not just the Tar Heels: 1-a COVID-related hangover, and 2-the rocket-like rise of the Big Ten and SEC as college sports’ financial superpowers.

Most Big Ten and SEC athletic departments make so much money with their leagues’ recently upgraded multimedia contracts that they don’t have to rely on the university itself to balance the budget.

In 2022-23, for example, the sports programs at Arkansas (SEC), Iowa (Big Ten), Kentucky (SEC), LSU (SEC), Michigan (Big Ten), Mississippi State (SEC), Nebraska (Big Ten), Ohio State (Big Ten), Penn State (Big Ten), Purdue (Big Ten) and Texas A&M (SEC) took little or no money from student fees, direct institutional support or indirect institutional support.

Meanwhile, in the ACC, every public university — trying to remain competitive on the field — has been leaning heavily on its academic arm to lend financial support to its athletic arm. (The same numbers are not always publicly available for private universities.)

In 2022-23, for example, these were the “student fees, direct institutional support or indirect institutional support” numbers for select ACC athletic departments: Florida State ($22,289,212), Georgia Tech ($11,865,676), UNC ($9,603,022), NC State ($7,011,627), Virginia ($24,468,843) and Virginia Tech ($14,193,159). This is exactly the sort of money that helps make up for projected budget shortfalls, such as those in Cunningham’s UNC proposals for future years.

Wherever this particular Carolina conversation goes from here, the backdrop should include this: Cunningham absolutely, unequivocally has been consistently OVERPERFORMING in his role as UNC’s athletic director.

With even a modicum of homework, BOT members would know that they’ve consistently been handing Cunningham budgets that are smaller than the Power Five/Four average, and barely in the top 40(!) nationally, yet his athletic department consistently has been producing top-10 results on the court/field. That is an absolutely astonishing accomplishment that should be celebrated, not ignored.

Imagine the respect and/or deference Evans, Preyer or other BOT members might show to someone in the business community who was repeatedly handed top-40 resources but repeatedly delivered top-10 results. Certainly, they’d be proud if their own rises to positions of power and influence included such stunning bottom-line excellence.

Eight times in the last nine years, despite falling behind dozens of its peers financially, UNC’s athletic department has finished in the national top 10 in the Directors Cup, which measures a university’s on-the-field success in all its varsity sports. Only a few other schools in the entire country can say the same.

For perspective, consider that, in 2024-25, there will be at least 15 members of the Big Ten with bigger athletic budgets than UNC will have at the above-mentioned $135 million mark: Ohio State (more than $250 million!), Michigan (more than $200 million), Penn State, Michigan State, Indiana, incoming member Oregon, Iowa, Wisconsin, Nebraska, incoming member Washington, Illinois, incoming member Southern Cal, incoming member UCLA, Minnesota and Rutgers.

Similarly, there will be at least 14 members of the SEC that fit the same description: incoming member Texas (more than $200 million), Alabama (more than $200 million), Georgia, LSU, Texas A&M, Florida, incoming member Oklahoma, Auburn, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, South Carolina, Mississippi and Missouri.

Even the ACC, which soon will include 18 members, will have at least seven schools with larger athletic budgets than the Tar Heels’ $135 million: Notre Dame, Florida State, Virginia, Clemson, Duke, Stanford and Louisville.

Members of the UNC Board of Trustees have a difficult job right now. They’ll need to handle their future business, under very challenging circumstances, with dignity, grace and aplomb.

They can start by respecting Cunningham’s stellar track record and viewing him as a success story worth emulating … and by doing their homework next time.

Otherwise, oversized noses and shiny red shoes will be the appropriate attire.