Shortly after beginning his tenure as Carolina’s athletics director, Lawrence R. (Bubba) Cunningham helped create a new mission statement: “We educate and inspire through athletics.” And that’s just what UNC has done during his five years in Chapel Hill.
Since Cunningham officially began his duties on November 14, 2011, Carolina has inspired in a myriad of ways. Among his many accomplishments 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 compliance review by an outside firm; a new student-athlete degree completion program entitled Complete Carolina; a master plan for UNC’s athletic facilities; and creation of The Rammys - an innovative end-of-the-year awards show popular with Carolina’s student-athletes and staff.
Cunningham, who is the 1st 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. Cunningham is in his sixth year on the ACC Television Committee and has served on numerous NCAA committees over the last two decades.
In his first full year in Chapel Hill, 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 the mission statement and the four core values for Carolina Athletics- Responsibility, Innovation, Service and Excellence. The strategic plan will be updated again in 2016-17.
Soon after the strategic plan was announced, 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 has implemented 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.
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.
In 2014, Cunningham announced the creation of Complete Carolina, an enhanced degree-completion program that honors former student-athletes’ scholarships for life. The program provides financial support for degree completion, as well as academic advising and career counseling, to former student-athletes who return to complete their degrees at any time.
On the field, Carolina has achieved outstanding success under Cunningham’s leadership. In each of his five seasons, the Tar Heels have finished in the top 15 of the Learfield Director’s Cup, including four top-10 finishes. During that same period, the number of UNC student-athletes on the ACC Academic Honor Roll has steadily increased.
Carolina finished seventh in the 2015-16 Learfield Director’s Cup. The Tar Heels won NCAA titles in men’s and women’s lacrosse, finished second in men’s basketball and field hockey and had top-10 national finishes in men’s and women’s tennis and men’s soccer. Carolina teams won four ACC titles and the men’s tennis team won the ITA Indoor Team National Championship. In addition, the football team won 11 games, advanced to its first ever ACC Championship Game and earned a final No. 15 ranking in both national polls.
The 2015-16 season marked Carolina’s second consecutive top-10 finish as the Tar Heels placed fifth the previous year. Ten Tar Heel teams posted top-10 national finishes in 2014-15 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, volleyball, men’s lacrosse, men’s tennis, women’s tennis, men’s basketball, women’s basketball and women’s soccer.
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 women’s tennis team captured the ITA national indoor title and 11 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 2015-16 academic calendar, more than 350 student-athletes made the ACC Academic Honor Roll, which requires a cumulative GPA of at least 3.0 for the year. It was the fourth-consecutive year more than 300 UNC student-athletes have earned the honor. Carolina has set or tied its top single-season score in the APR in the last two seasons. UNC student-athletes have improved their APR scores from 966 in 2011 to 987 in 2015.
Cunningham is in his 15th 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. Tulsa won 34 league championships in his tenure, more than any other school in Conference USA and the football program played in five bowl games in his last six years.
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 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.