CHAPEL HILL — The University of North Carolina has released a strategic plan for its athletic department for the next four years. Here's the official release about it from UNC. A story from us is forthcoming. The plan outlined the mission for the UNC athletic department – “We educate and inspire through athletics” – and also defined four priorities:
-Alignment: “Align our operations to fulfill the mission of the university.”
-Academic Achievement: to be top-three in the conference and top-10 nationally in each sport in the classroom.
-Athletic Performance: to be top-three in the conference and top-10 nationally in each sport on the field.
-Administrative engagement: “Engage internal and external constituents to relentlessly pursue the resources and administrative structures necessary for success.”
I had an extensive interview with Bubba Cunningham, the UNC athletic director, on Tuesday.
We spoke about a variety of issues surrounding the athletic department – most of which the strategic plan touches on directly (improving the relationship between the athletic department and the rest of the university, improving the academic standing of various teams) and some not (athletic department finances, conference realignment).
Here’s the interview:
Andrew Carter: The strategic plan touches on improving the academic side of the athletic department. How important is it to improve the relationship between athletics and academics at UNC?
Bubba Cunningham: It’s important, but it’s important in every athletic department in the country. You know, I started 10 years ago with a philosophy or a mission now that we’re calling it, which is to enhance the educational experience of all students. And then I asked for goals in five different areas. I asked for academic goals, athletic goals, compliance goals, financial goals, student-athlete experience. And that’s the framework I’ve used for 10 years now. And so the academic performance is nothing new. You have to be eligible, you have to recruit kids. You’ve got to get them in, you’ve got to be eligible and you’ve got to play. So what we’ll do to achieve those results will be pretty specific to what’s happened in the last couple of years. But the topic itself is basically the same everywhere.”
AC: In general, where do you expect or hope to improve through this plan?
BC: Probably my biggest responsibility on this whole sheet is alignment. Ensuring that we have the proper perspective with what we do and what the expectations of the campus are. And all of that kind of fits in there. So where is that – I don’t think you can put your finger on it and say, OK, this is what it is. I think it’s just constantly being engaged with the larger mission of the institution.”
AC: Do you think there’s been something missing from the alignment in recent times?
BC: No, I don’t think so. I just think you need to be constantly vigilant and constantly pay attention to it. But it’s not really a reaction to anything in particular. I think all of this is in the context of what’s happening today. So what has happened on our campus – what is happening nationally. You know, we’ve got the miscellaneous expense allowance. You have conference realignment. You have agents and amateurism, which we’ve had – other people have had. Extra benefits issues. So all of that ties into the compliance area. But any time something happens anywhere else you always look at yourself and [say], ‘Oh my God – I hope that doesn’t happen here and how do we prevent it?’
AC: In a recent interview with The N&O, Chancellor Thorp indicated that UNC would adapt more stringent standards for incoming athletes. What was he talking about and does this plan touch on that?
BC: Well, I think that’s what this is. This is kind of a framework and a philosophy and then you have to drill down into what are the actions you can actually do. You know, the NCAA standards are changing by 2016. And we already exceed the new standards in the vast majority of the cases … the biggest change is the number of core course requirements and the time in which you have to get them. You can’t backload all your classes and take the four core requirements your senior year. So it’s not going to be significantly different than it’s been in the past – that we meet the NCAA standards. The challenge that we have, that Stanford has, that Duke has, that Notre Dame has is that you have a student body that has these incredible qualifications and you have some students that aren’t there, so how do you make sure that they get a great education? That becomes the challenge that we all have. But I don’t really think it’s going to come down to an admissions question.
AC: How will you measure the academic achievement of athletes and make sure you’re on track?
BC: Again, I think with all the metrics that are out there about academic achievement – not all of them, but you’ve got APR, GSR, FGR, so those normal metrics that everybody has, that’s how we’re going to measure. And we’re going to measure every single sport to see how we’re doing. And I think there are a couple of ways to improve. One is to provide great service to kids who are here. Another way to improve is to improve the quality of students that come here. And I think we have to look at both those. And we have to look at it and measure it every year, and talk about it.
AC: Are you happy with where UNC is right now in those metrics?
BC: We’re in pretty good shape. We’re not satisfied with it. We’ve taken a big hit in football the last couple of years with transfers and with kids leaving the program. There’s some sports that aren’t very good, and we’ve got to get them better. But again, you’re looking at 28 sports and so some … every kid that’s here, their eligible to retain, they graduate. So obviously those are the ones we’re not worried about. Well, we’re worried about them but not to the same extent.
AC: And men’s basketball took a dip a little bit, too, in those metrics.
BC: Little bit. But again, I think that we lost some kids to the draft – or not to the draft. We lost some kids that declared early, and if they weren’t eligible you lose a point. We lost a few kids a couple of years ago that transferred. So we lost four or five points that year. And you’ve got a smaller data set with basketball than you do with football.
AC: Part of the plan is for UNC to be a leader in college sports and be involved in shaping changes that affect college sports – specifically what kind of role to expect UNC to play?
BC: I don’t know specifically but I think we want to be on NCAA committees, we want to be active in the ACC, we want to be in the discussion of are we going to do the miscellaneous expense allowance – are we going to debate amateurism? Are we going to put any kind of limits to recruiting, text messaging, all that stuff? We need to formally as a group think about who’s going to be on these committees, and how we can be represented. Because I think one, we ought to be in the room. And two, I think we’re valuable in the room. Because I think people have respect for Carolina and what we’ve stood for over the years.
AC: In regards to conference realignment, do you think we’ve reached a quiet spell or do you anticipate even more movement?
BC: I thought so when we added Notre Dame, but that didn’t prove to be true. I don’t know. Probably not. I guess that’s unrealistic, to think it’s not going to change. It’s been changing almost every year, every couple of years, since probably 1980, when they first went to this changing out Division I into three different levels, when it went to I-A, I-AA, I-AAA. We’ve had iterations of conference changes ever since. Now with the Big East, what are they going to do? The basketball schools are leaving.
AC: How stable do you think the ACC is, especially given its TV revenue situation?
BC: I think we’re stable. I think we’re relatively stable. I think the TV money, I think that we have some work to do to try to generate more money as a league, and we’re starting to look at that right now – how can we maximize what we’re doing? And how important is being competitive on the field.
AC: How much of a role do athletic department finances play into the strategic plan for the next four years?
BC: Well, the last part, which is the administrative engagement – I think that if we’re really going to be successful, we’re going to have to generate a lot more money. And whether it’s through ticket sales, philanthropy, the conference. And I don’t think any one of those will do it. I think it will be all of them combined, if we’re really going to fund our teams to top-three, top-10, all 28.
AC: How financially thin are you stretched right now as an athletic department?
BC: It varies by sport. Football and basketball are financed very well, and if you look at rowing and fencing – fencing doesn’t have any scholarships, rowing has four. Their facility is not very good.
AC: Are facilities improvements part of the strategic plan at all?
BC: We’re working with the university campus facilities on a facilities plan. But it’s not part of this.
AC: Do you have a timeframe to outline a facilities plan?
BC: Nothing soon. The priority has been what are we going to do with Fetzer? You know, we have 10 teams that compete [there] and the track programs and soccer and lacrosse, and it’s the worst facility that we have. So we’re working on a plan for that. That would be the next one that will have any design to it or anything.
AC: Back to finances, how are booster contributions trending?
BC: They’ve been really good the last four years. Because part of it, a lot of the contributions that went to build the Blue Zone. And then the ticket requirements there. And then we had a very good year last year because of the basketball team, and I think people’s anticipation of where we were going to be. And so our fundraising has been very good. You’re always concerned about it. I’m concerned about the fiscal cliff and the change in the tax laws, too, that have really adversely affected charitable contributions.
AC: You talked about the need to explore new ways to generate revenue, what are some ideas that come to mind?
BC: I don’t know if there’s anything – if we can drive some revenue through our website. I think we have to look at our concession operations. Everything that generates revenue today, I think we have to figure out a way to get a little bit better. I don’t think there’s new money, to say, ‘Oh my gosh – here’s a bucket of money that we weren’t thinking about.’ I think we’ve had great experience in the football stadium to create some new money through suites and club seating. I do think that there’s some revenue generators in basketball that we need to explore – something along those lines. That’s a three-to-five year project. That’s nothing that we can do by next season.”
AC: Getting back to the plan, what are the most important elements of it to you?
BC: Well for me the most important thing is to try to get everybody in the department on the same page about education and inspiration. And then trying to get each member of the department really focused on what they can do to make it a better experience for themselves, for the student athlete, for the coach, for the person that walks in to watch a game.
AC: re you worried at all about having to reduce the number of sports UNC offers?
BC: It’s a set number going forward. But I think resources will be a challenge going forward. So when you develop a strategic plan, what you’re doing is articulating your priorities. And then if you have a finite set of resources, you can allocate the resources over the priorities. And therein lies the problem, or the challenge. And so this year, next year, two years from now – when we’re allocating resources, are we allocating them equally? Are we looking and saying, this doesn’t make sense? Those will be really difficult decisions over this time frame.
AC: What concerns you most about finances going forward – coaching salaries, something else?
BC: Probably the biggest concern I have is the NCAA legislation that’s kind of hanging out there. You know, you’ve got the miscellaneous expense allowance. If that went through at $2,000 per student-athlete, to us that means $1.6 million. That’s a big number.
AC: Could you afford that now if it happened tomorrow?
BC: The short answer would be yes. But what long term impact would that have on us? It’d be a reallocation of resources. So does that mean that travel expenses go down, or salaries go down? Something would have to go down to cover that. We don’t have $1.6 in the bank that we could say, oh here, we can put that in there. So the recruiting restrictions, if they come off that could cause more increase expenses – more than we’re anticipating. We do some financial projections that have the normal stuff in there. But we don’t have that in there. If we lost the O’Bannon case and all of a sudden you could pay [athletes], or you’re required to pay [athletes], that’s a whole different animal.
AC: Have you had a chance to formally have a say in the miscellaneous expenses debate?
BC: Yes. We’ve been voting against it.
AC: How will it be decided?
BC: Well, the NCAA was pushing through as what they call permissible legislation – you’re allowed to do it. And then they would say, well just decide as a conference. If the Mid-American Conference can’t afford to do it, then don’t do it. But you guys can do it as a league since that’s basically your competitive arena. It everybody does or doesn’t do it, you’re all in the same boat. Most of us don’t like that theory. So we’ve been voting against it, just because we have 28 teams – we have so many people.
AC: What has the split been like in the ACC of schools for or against?
BC: I don’t know the answer to that. I think it’s fairly close. But no one necessarily wants to spend more money if you don’t have to.
AC: You have said you don’t think the college sports model is broken, you believe you can achieve at a high level on the field and in the classroom, while doing it the right way in both areas. Why do you believe that?
BC: I think I’ve seen it for 20-plus years. I saw it at Notre Dame. I saw it at Ball State. Maybe not at the same national level. But at Tulsa, we moved it significantly there. There we were trying to be top 50 in the Director’s Cup. Here we want to win it. And I think if you get the right coaches, the right student-athletes and just support them, that you can be successful.
AC: The fact remains there are some athletes, especially in the revenue sports, who might not come from an educational background that allows them to succeed in college. How can you give them a meaningful college experience?
BC: One, I think those students add an awful lot of value to our university. I think that the university is a very diverse place, and I think that you can support a lot of different students. So I think it’s very achievable.
AC: What do you say to cynics, perhaps, who say you’re naturally you’re going to have to cut corners with these kids?
BC: I just don’t believe it. So cynics can say it, but I don’t have to believe it. I believe they can. I really believe that in the right environment, with the proper support, kids can earn a great degree. And I think that’s very inspirational to an awful lot of people.
AC: When you look back in 2016 at the previous four years, what do you hope to be able to reflect upon?
BC: Well what I hope happens is that we look at this on a very regular basis and we develop strategies to attain these goals. And then you start looking at what’s the next four years look like, and how are things continuing to change, and how are you going to get there? And then I think the outcomes would be that we have higher graduation rates – that we’d win the Director’s Cup. We’d finish even higher. We’d have more conference championships, more national championships. Those would be the outcomes, and then from a personal standpoint what I would want is for people to be here, to love to be here, to want to be here and to understand and really appreciate what we’re trying to achieve, and add value to the university.
AC: Do you feel like you have a reputation to repair given what has transpired at UNC?
BC: Yeah, I do. There’s no denying that we’ve got major violations and we’re on probation. We didn’t go to a bowl game, and we’re under the repeat violator clause for the next five years. But I think overall, I think the Carolina brand is really, really good and strong, and healthy and positive. But do we have to do things better? Absolutely. Which is why I think we’re trying to do what we’re laying out here.
Thanks to Bubba Cunningham for his time.