Bubba Cunningham is the University of Kansas’ choice to be its next athletic director, but a deal to hire him is not complete, a source close to the situation told The Kansas City Star on Tuesday.
Cunningham, 48, has been the athletic director at the University of Tulsa since October 2005. He emerged early as one of the hottest names coming out of athletic-director circles nationally and was one of at least three names submitted to KU chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little by the search committee she appointed three months ago to identify potential successors for Lew Perkins.
When contacted by The Star on Tuesday, Ray Evans, the chair of KU’s athletic director search committee, would not confirm that Kansas had offered Cunningham the job. University spokesman Jack Martin, speaking for Gray-Little, said no announcement regarding a new athletic director had been planned.
Cunningham, speaking Tuesday night on Tulsa sports talk radio station KTBZ-AM, did not confirm or deny multiple media reports that he would become KU’s next athletic director. He said he was “absolutely” still the athletic director at Tulsa, which is preparing for a Dec. 24 football bowl game in Hawaii.
“I do not talk about it until there’s a change in employment status, and there’s not a change in employment status,” Cunningham said.
If Cunningham comes to KU, his first priority will be rebuilding trust among fans in the wake of several scandals in the past year, including questions about Perkins’ excessive travel and alleged receipt of improper gifts and the misuse of $2 million worth of men’s basketball and football tickets that led to the resignations of at least seven top athletic department staff members, five of whom were recently indicted by a federal grand jury.
Perkins, who had been at KU since 2003, came to a mutual decision with Gray-Little in September to retire a year ahead of schedule.
Evans told The Star last week that each candidate had been vetted to make sure there would be no concerns about character.
“The one thing we all agreed on obviously with all the issues we’ve had was high integrity,” Evans said. “No issues of compliance problems or dishonesty. It sounds like that’s a given, but what we’ve learned, that’s not a given. That was issue No. 1.”
Evans said the search committee also had a high interest in the candidates’ qualifications to steer KU through another potential conference realignment saga. The committee considered which candidates had contacts from around the country, and there’s no doubt that Cunningham has a friend in Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, who would undoubtedly be one of the major power brokers during any future realignment discussions.
Cunningham worked at Notre Dame, his alma mater, for 15 years in a variety of roles before becoming athletic director at Ball State, where he remained for three years before taking the Tulsa job. Cunningham did not work for Swarbrick at Notre Dame, but he has made an impression.
“I’ve known Bubba both at Ball State and at Tulsa, and I think he is one of the more creative guys in our industry,” Swarbrick said. “He brings a real sort of energy and optimism to his job. He never tells you what he doesn’t have or what the obstacles are. He just focuses on what his vision for the place is and how he can get it done. That’s why he succeeded at Ball State and now again at Tulsa.”
The search committee placed a great importance on building a winning and profitable football program at Kansas, and Cunningham has two successful football coaching hires under his belt. At Ball State, he hired Brady Hoke, who delivered in 2008 with a 12-0 regular season that put the Cardinals as high as No. 12 in the Bowl Championship Series rankings. By then, Cunningham had been at Tulsa for three years.
“For Ball State to be in a position to be competing for a BCS bowl in football is a pretty remarkable thing,” Swarbrick said. “To get the coach hire right, to build some of the infrastructure they needed to have everybody understood that the goals were high.”
At Tulsa, Cunningham hired Todd Graham, who has led the Golden Hurricane to a 35-17 record in four seasons. In perhaps his boldest move to date, Cunningham scheduled a game for Tulsa in Notre Dame Stadium this season in an effort to earn a spot on national TV. Turned out, the Golden Hurricane shocked the Fighting Irish 28-27.
Cunningham is proven in many facets. As an associate athletic director at Notre Dame, he negotiated the school’s footwear contract and created marketing teams for all 26 varsity sports, helping to increase corporate sponsorship income by 400 percent. He also negotiated with Westwood One for football radio rights and helped plan and complete a $50 million renovation and 20,000-seat expansion of Notre Dame Stadium.
At Ball State, Cunningham raised money to get portable lights at the football stadium, which allowed the Cardinals to play their first night game. He also began the now-completed push to get the stadium renovated.
“He was amazing with our donors and with the fans,” Ball State associate athletic director Joe Hernandez told The Star last week. “He did a great job getting them engaged. Corporate sponsorships grew tremendously under his guidance. He brought in a different attitude than we were used to.”
Most important, Cunningham brought in Hoke, who is now the coach at San Diego State.
“I don’t know if there’s a classier, more well-rounded guy who cares about the student-athletes and their experience as much as Bubba,” Hoke said. “He’s a great organizer, a great communicator and a tremendous person. We hated to lose him, I can tell you that.”
And, as if all of that wasn’t enough for the search committee, his full name is Lawrence Cunningham. “Bubba” is a nickname he received as a child.