CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Bubba Cunningham could be considered an athletic Utopian, or at least a guy with big ambitions. Cunningham, the first-year athletic director at North Carolina, looks at his department and sees the potential to be the East Coast Stanford.
Stanford is the collegiate gold standard: It has won the Director's Cup as the nation's top overall athletic department 18 consecutive years while maintaining academic excellence.
"They've been able to play top 10 football, win the Director's Cup and have great students who graduate," Cunningham told Yahoo! Sports last week in his spacious office. "We're in the top 10 in the Director's Cup, we're in the top 25 in U.S. News & World Report [rankings of American universities]. I don't think being a good athlete and a being good student is mutually exclusive. Now, I think it's hard – it's hard to do it and to find that select group of students who are willing to do it. But it can be done."
For an athletic director at North Carolina to aspire to such an ideal at a time like this is striking. The athletic program has been dragging the university's reputation through the mud for more than a year now. North Carolina is reeling from a scandal that never seems to end and only seems to get worse.
Put it this way: If anyone has benefitted from the disaster at Penn State, it's North Carolina. This would have been the scandal of the summer if not for the crimes committed in State College, Pa.
In March, the Tar Heels were hit with heavy NCAA sanctions – a bowl ban for the upcoming season, scholarship reductions, vacated victories, three years' probation. That was after academic fraud, impermissible agent interactions and ineligible players already cost coach Butch Davis and athletic director Dick Baddour their jobs.
But it hasn't stopped there. In recent weeks, the News & Observer newspaper of Raleigh, N.C., has reported on other academic shenanigans from as recently as last summer – while UNC was in the middle of its NCAA investigation.
There was the hastily created summer-school course in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies last year that drew an enrollment of 19 students – 18 current football players and one former football player. There was no instruction offered in the class, just a paper to be turned in at term's end to veteran department chairman Julius Nyang'oro.
There were the Afro-American Studies summer classes that were limited to an enrollment of one student – and often that one student was an athlete. There was no attendance or instruction for many of those classes, the News & Observer reported.
All told, there have been 54 Afro-American Studies classes labeled "suspect" by the school's internal investigation. More than half of the students in those classes were athletes. The N&O reported that all but nine of the classes had Nyang'oro listed as the instructor or the signer of the grade rolls.
For a school that holds itself in high academic regard, this is as tawdry as it gets.
"It's demoralizing," said professor of social medicine Sue Estroff, a former UNC faculty chair and 30-year teaching veteran at the school. "It's dumbfounding. It's embarrassing. It's maddening. What else can I say? It's not what anybody wanted. It belongs to all of us, and you can't put it in just one place. It's impossible to defend, nor should we try."
History professor Jay Smith was part of a large group of academicians that issued a statement in February on UNC athletic principles, urging openness, responsibility and mission consistency. Since then, he has seen the situation get exponentially worse.
"Of course it's academic fraud," Smith wrote in an email. "And it's a form of fraud that was designed (by whom we can't say yet) to keep athletes eligible, making plausible 'progress toward the degree.' I don't blame the athletes – and that's important to make clear. Many of us feel this way. It's not the athletes' fault that they're often being shepherded through a bogus course of study, and are also made to pay the piper if they fall short of some measure invented by the NCAA.
"It's the system that's corrupt, and it's the adults who benefit from the system – starting with school administrators and faculty – who have to have the gumption to live up to their moral obligations and say enough is enough."
Gumption has seemed to be in short administrative supply during this scandal.
In concert with the NCAA, North Carolina's leadership suspended several football players when the news – much of it originally reported by Yahoo! Sports – first erupted in 2010. But it refused to touch coach Butch Davis for the longest time, letting him coach unimpeded despite revelations of assistant coach John Blake acting as a de facto runner for an agent and even the involvement of Davis' nanny in academic shenanigans.
Davis finally was fired last summer, shortly before the season and months later than he should have been. Baddour was forced out at around the same time, making way for Cunningham. The school applied some sanctions on itself, but the NCAA laughed, applying more meaningful penalties.
As these post-penalty revelations have come to light, UNC's administration seems to still be moving in slow motion in response, critics say. Media requests for documents have been met with something bordering on obstructionism. Comments from school leadership have been defensive. Other than gently allowing Nyang'oro's retirement July 1, those in the big offices don't seem to be inspiring a lot of confidence from the academic side of campus.
"To me the worst damage has come, and continues to come, from the university's defensive and less-than-forthcoming reaction to the entire story," Smith wrote in his email. "The university very much looks like it's trying to hide something. An objective outsider could reach no other conclusion. That does not reflect well on any of us. In fact, it's embarrassing."
Said Estroff: "I would like to have seen a more robust, more forceful response. But there's a reason I'm not a university president or chancellor. I don't have that skill set."
The question hanging out there now is how deeply Carolina's sacred cow, basketball, gets dragged into the mud.
Three percent of the students taking suspicious AFAM courses were basketball players – certainly a lower number than their football counterparts, but they also make up a much smaller percentage of the student population. Coach Roy Williams has declared that the academic scandal is not a basketball issue, but a university issue. But N&O investigative reporter Dan Kane made mention on his blog this summer of a two-year-old Indianapolis Star story on academics and basketball that now has greater resonance today.
The article, on the clustering of players in certain majors, noted that a whopping seven players from UNC's 2005 national championship team graduated with degrees in African and Afro-American Studies. The Star quoted star player Sean May as saying he dropped a communications major and moved to Afro-American Studies after leaving for the NBA to get his degree faster.
May told the Star that AFAM offered "more independent electives, independent study. I could take a lot of classes during the season. Communications, I had to be there in the actual classroom. We just made sure all the classes I had to take, I could take during the summer."
That raised more questions. Answers have not kept pace.
"I think it's high time for all of us to know the full extent of the fraudulent behavior," Smith wrote. "Were members of the 2009 and 2005 national championship teams also beneficiaries of the AFAM/AFRI scam? I for one see no reason to assume that they were not. If the university wants to prove they were not, the whole world is listening."
Against this contentious backdrop, Cunningham is trying to pick up the pieces.
He thought the worst was behind him when the Committee on Infractions report was issued in March, but that hasn't held true. Hired from Tulsa to break up the insular tradition of Carolina athletics and get a fresh start in a better direction, Cunningham has been frustrated at the ability to gain traction.
"How much repairing needs to be done? A lot," Cunningham said. "I do think there's a heightened level of mistrust. I think there's always conflict between academics and athletics. It starts in the recruiting process and whether kids can make it. Then it's a time-allocation discussion about priority. Then we have to be confident that we have people who want to be successful academically and are allowed to pursue their goals.
"We can't influence them to major in things that aren't good for them, take classes that aren't useful. Influencing kids to get to an easy major or an easy class is something we have to be aware of. It's going to take time because there is mistrust."
Cunningham has spent a good deal of time this summer not just looking at majors of the revenue-sports athletes at UNC but also individual summer-school classes. That's not something he's ever done as an athletic director in previous stops at Tulsa and Ball State.
He's also met with the admissions office on a couple of occasions to discuss what it will take to succeed academically at North Carolina. He's open to the idea of throwing out a wider recruiting net to get students equipped to do well both athletically and in the classroom. After all, becoming the East Coast Stanford isn't going to be easy – especially with the baggage Carolina is dragging forward.
"The proof is in the pudding when you have to make difficult decisions," Cunningham acknowledged. "People generally are skeptical and want to see you make hard decisions that reinforce what you say – which is, we're going to do things the right way, we're going to act with character and integrity and we're going to attract students who can be successful here. It can only play out over time."
For a long time, North Carolina has failed that mission. It must scramble to make up for lost time and lost prestige.
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