Lawrence R. (Bubba) Cunningham is in his fifth year as the director of athletics at the University of North Carolina. Cunningham officially began his duties at UNC on November 14, 2011.
Cunningham is the seventh director of athletics in Carolina history, following Robert A. Fetzer (1923-52), Chuck Erickson (1953-67), Homer Rice (1969-75), Bill Cobey (1976-80), John Swofford (1980-97) and Dick Baddour (1998-2012).
In each of his four seasons, Carolina has finished in the top 15 of the Learfield Director’s Cup, including three top-10 finishes. During that same period, the number of UNC student-athletes on the ACC Academic Honor Roll has steadily increased.
Among Cunningham’s many accomplishments since arriving in Chapel Hill are the implementation of a strategic plan for Carolina athletics; a partnership with Disney to enhance customer service and organizational practices; the development of the Student-Athlete Academic Initiative Working Group; a complete compliance review by an outside firm; the development of a master plan for UNC’s athletic facilities; and the creation of the Rammys - an innovative end-of-the-year awards show popular with Carolina’s student-athletes and staff.
College athletics has seen many changes in recent years and Cunningham, who is the 3rd Vice President of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA), has Carolina positioned to have a voice in the on-going conversation about the future, whether it is in the state university system, the Atlantic Coast Conference or at the NCAA level.
In 2012, Cunningham led a planning committee that worked with Dr. Paul Friga, associate professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler School of Business, to develop Carolina’s strategic plan. From that process was the creation of UNC’s mission statement - “We Educate and Inspire Through Athletics.” The plan also identified four core values for Carolina Athletics- Responsibility, Innovation, Service and Excellence.
Carolina’s work with the Disney Institute, one of the most recognized names in business solutions and professional development, began in 2013. Members of the Disney Institute worked with the athletic department to learn more about Carolina athletics and provide recommendations on best practices. Several cross unit work teams were organized within the department to provide an assessment of the organization and provide feedback to Disney.
Cunningham joined with provost James W. Dean and other University officials to develop the Student-Athlete Academic Initiative Working Group, which was launched in fall 2013. That group spent several months developing a comprehensive approach to assessing and enhancing how the University provides academic support to student-athletes. The group is implementing a rigorous and transparent set of processes and metrics as part of an ongoing initiative. The objective is to ensure proper alignment with the University’s academic mission, a goal that is consistent with Cunningham’s strategic plan for the Department of Athletics.
On the field, Carolina has achieved outstanding success under Cunningham’s leadership. Carolina finished fifth in the 2014-15 Learfield Director’s Cup, its highest finish since a second place in 2008-09. Ten Tar Heel teams posted top-10 national finishes and 25 advanced to postseason play, led by a second-place finish by women’s lacrosse and a final four appearance by field hockey. Carolina also had top-10 finishes in men’s soccer (fifth), volleyball (fifth), men’s lacrosse (fifth), men’s tennis (fifth), women’s tennis (fifth), men’s basketball (ninth), women’s basketball (ninth) and women’s soccer (ninth).
In addition, the women’s cross country team won its first ACC title in 11 years and the women’s tennis team captured the ITA national indoor team championship for the second time in the last three years. Individually, Jamie Loeb won UNC’s first-ever women’s tennis NCAA singles championship.
Carolina finished 14th in the 2013-14 Learfield Director’s Cup with seven teams posting top-10 national finishes. In 2012-13, Cunningham’s first full season at UNC, Carolina finished eighth in the Director’s Cup on the strength of national championships in women’s soccer and women’s lacrosse. The Tar Heels also had top-10 finishes in field hockey (second), baseball (third), men’s lacrosse (fifth), men’s soccer (fifth) and women’s tennis (fifth). The women’s tennis team captured the ITA national indoor title and six other programs finished in the top 25.
The UNC women’s athletics program captured the 2013 Capital One Cup, which is awarded to the best men’s and women’s Division I athletics programs in the country. For winning its first Capital One Cup, the Tar Heels earned $200,000 toward student-athlete scholarships and a spot at the annual ESPY Awards show in Los Angeles.
Carolina student-athletes have excelled in the classroom as well. During the 2014-15 academic calendar, more than 300 student-athletes made the ACC Academic Honor Roll, which requires a cumulative GPA of at least 3.0 for the year. It was the third-consecutive season Carolina had produced more than 300 honorees.
Cunningham is in his 14th year as a Division I director of athletics. He came to Chapel Hill after spending the previous six years as the director of athletics at the University of Tulsa. He also was the AD for three years from 2002-2005 at Ball State University. He 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.
At Tulsa, Cunningham guided the Golden Hurricane 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 coaches’ salary endowment.
Cunningham implemented and developed a strategic plan for personal and professional growth and development for Tulsa’s student-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 student-athletes.
Tulsa won 34 league championships in his tenure, more than any other school in Conference USA. The football program played in five bowl games in his last six years, winning four of those games. Cunningham hired former Tulsa football coach Todd Graham, who led the Golden Hurricane to three 10-win seasons in a four-year span, the first time it had been accomplished in school history.
Tulsa student-athletes excelled academically, earning 17 ESPN The Magazine Academic All-America performances over the last five years, and 11 student-athletes won C-USA Scholar Athlete of the Year honors.
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. In raising those funds, Cunningham secured the largest single gift in Ball State athletics history.
From 1988-2002, Cunningham worked in the athletics department at the University of Notre Dame. He served as Notre Dame’s associate athletics director for finance and facilities from 1995-2000 and was the associate director of athletics for external affairs from 2000-02. Cunningham increased corporate sponsorship income, created a financial/equity plan for the department and served as chairman of the NCAA Division I Women’s Golf Committee. He also developed an equity plan to meet Title IX requirements, completed the master plan for athletic facilities and helped plan and complete the $50 million renovation and 20,000-seat expansion of Notre Dame Stadium. He also coordinated the planning and construction of the Warren Golf Course, an 18-hole championship course on the Notre Dame campus.
Cunningham earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business administration, both from Notre Dame, in 1984 and 1988, respectively. He played on the Irish golf team in 1982-83.
Cunningham is a member of the USTA Athletic Director Advisory Group. He is a former 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. Cunningham also served on the Gatorade National Advisory Board and has been a featured speaker at numerous NACDA and I-A institute conferences.
Born in Flint, Mich., and raised in Naples, Fla., Cunningham and his wife, Tina, have four children: Matthew, Michael, John and Sarah.