UNC interim chancellor backs AD Bubba Cunningham after trustee criticism, audit push

North Carolina interim chancellor Lee Roberts publicly backed athletics director Bubba Cunningham on Thursday, three days after the school’s board of trustees approved an audit of the athletics department due to financial concerns growing amid the volatile landscape of college sports.

Roberts also said the athletics department has been audited 10 times in the past five years, as well as annually by the NCAA.

“I would just add that our athletic director is one of the most senior, well-respected, admired athletic directors in the country,” Roberts told reporters in Chapel Hill after a trustees meeting. “He has broad respect from his peers, and we don’t have a more capable, more experienced, more talented senior administrator here at Carolina.”

Roberts’ comments come after this week’s trustees meetings — continuing a recent trend of UNC trustees becoming more vocal on athletics issues — and the Atlantic Coast Conference holding its annual spring meetings in Florida. Both highlighted the tensions brewing nationally amid schools jumping from league to league in search of more money and the pressures to avoid falling further behind financially.

In the UNC case, it even included an area lawyer filing a court complaint against UNC’s trustees for violating the state’s open-meetings laws. And that ultimately led a judge to grant a temporary restraining order Thursday against trustees from going into closed session to discuss athletics revenues or conference affiliation.

In the ACC, where UNC is a charter member, Florida State and Clemson are engaged in a legal fight to leave the conference and explore lucrative moves elsewhere. But league schools have signed a grant-of-rights agreement that binds their TV rights with the league through 2036, with an attempt to leave potentially costing hundreds of millions of dollars as a deterrent.

Those pressures have increased as the revenue gap grows between the Big Ten and Southeastern Conference and everyone else, putting the ACC’s long-term future in question.

UNC is considered to be a top target of any league if the Tar Heels opted eventually to change conferences with a national brand that includes one of the nation’s most tradition-rich men’s basketball programs, as well as its location in a market where neither the Big Ten nor SEC have a member school.

“There’s a lot up in the air,” Roberts said Thursday. “And my job and the athletic director’s job and the job of everyone in a leadership position here is to make sure that when the dust settles, Carolina is better off.”

Roberts’ comments came after trustees approved the audit Monday. Trustee Jennifer Halsey Evans said a preliminary budget proposal included a $17 million deficit for the 2024-25 academic year and $100 million in cumulative debts ahead.

“There are real issues here, a real concern that one of our most valuable assets and something that really generates revenue is not being managed properly,” she said in the meeting.

It was the latest example of UNC trustees weighing in more on athletics issues, highlighting the growing national tension in a rapidly shifting world of conference realignment.

Board chairman John Preyer was critical of the ACC in a March interview with WRAL of Raleigh, while trustee Dave Boliek, a former chairman, told WRAL on Monday he was “advocating” for UNC to join a higher-revenue league. Preyer and Boliek also issued a statement in the fall opposing the ACC’s vote to add California, Stanford and SMU for the 2024-25 season.

The only trustee to vote against Monday’s audit approval was Ralph Meekins Sr., a basketball manager under the late Dean Smith. He pointed to deficits as long-known projections of the COVID-19 pandemic, as UNC avoided cutting any of its 28 varsity sports.

“My point is I don’t appreciate the comments and the inferences that the athletic director has not been forthcoming and available” regarding trustee concerns, Meekins said during Monday’s meeting.

At the time, Preyer said it was “imperative” for Cunningham to address the full board in closed session Thursday and referred to “the level of bad data that has been provided.” By Thursday morning, however, Preyer walked that back and said athletics wasn’t on the closed-session agenda.

That came after Wake County attorney David McKenzie had filed a complaint Wednesday in Orange County Superior Court — where UNC is located — accusing trustees of violating the state’s open-meeting laws in previous private discussions on those athletics issues. In one example, McKenzie’s filing referenced Evans telling Meekins during Monday’s meeting that the issues were part of a November closed-session discussion.

By Thursday afternoon, a judge had granted McKenzie’s pursuit of a temporary restraining order. A court hearing in that ruling is set for Monday.

“A lot of us are very passionate about our athletics program. Concerns about the future have been expressed,” Preyer said during the morning trustees meeting, reading from a statement. “We did not speak with the precision or clarity that we should have on Monday.”

Cunningham, who took over as AD in late 2011, has guided UNC through a multi-year NCAA probe into an academic department’s courses popular with athletes as well as overseeing massive facility upgrades such as a long-awaited indoor football practice complex. The school has won 22 national championships in his tenure.

Cunningham has been a member of the committee that selects the 68-team field for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament since the 2020-21 season, and will chair that committee for 2024-25.


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