LAWRENCE — Good news was coming for the University of Kansas, and just in time for the holidays.
Bubba Cunningham had emerged as Kansas' choice to succeed the retired Lew Perkins as athletic director, and Cunningham's resume sparkled. Fifteen years working at his alma mater, Notre Dame, led to athletic director jobs at Ball State University and now the University of Tulsa. Cunningham was ready for the big time, and he started negotiating a contract with KU.
And then, suddenly, he wasn't.
Cunningham agreed Thursday to a new contract with Tulsa, according to a statement released by Tulsa president Steadman Upham. Now Kansas will have to restart its search for a new athletic department leader, and to say the KU nation was shocked would be an understatement.
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Tuesday, Cunningham was KU's choice but that no deal was in place. Other media outlets reported Tuesday that Cunningham was coming to lead the Jayhawks and that he'd be introduced as soon as Wednesday or Thursday.
On Wednesday, a source said that KU did not expect a snag to occur in negotiations. But certainly something threw a wrench in the plans. Cunningham did not comment Thursday night and it's unclear why he decided to stay.
"It's been a week of introspection for him and his family," Upham told the Tulsa World on Thursday night. "It is a centering experience when a great opportunity is presented to you. You evaluate and learn as you go through it and see what is important to you.
"It's been a challenging week, but Bubba is very comfortable with his decision."
As the news of Cunningham's decision spread Thursday evening on campus, there was disbelief that Tulsa — a Conference USA school without automatic qualifying status to the Bowl Championship Series in football — would be a more appealing option than Kansas.
"I thought it was a done deal," said Jon Sabillon, a KU senior from Lawrence. "KU is a much bigger school with a much richer athletic history and program. To stay at Tulsa would kind of not be advancing your career."
Cunningham appears to have sweetened his situation at Tulsa, which did not disclose terms of the new contract, but still.
"I feel a little used," said David Cohen, a KU senior from Leawood. "So that's a bummer. I think we'll be able to find someone who's equally capable and maybe has a more classy name."
Cunningham's first name is Lawrence, which seemed all too fitting, but he chooses to go by "Bubba," his childhood nickname. This was one of the many facts that surfaced among KU fans as they prepared to welcome Cunningham as their new athletic director.
The hire would have been KU chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little's first major public triumph since taking over in August 2009. Now, she will choose someone else.
Last week, a source said that Illinois State athletic director Sheahon (pronounced SHAY-un) Zenger and Miami (Ohio) athletic director Brad Bates were among the names included with Cunningham in a list of recommendations given to Gray-Little by her six-person athletic director search committee.
The source said that the committee also recommended sitting athletic directors at BCS automatic-qualifier schools but would not reveal their names because it could damage KU's chances in the hiring process.
On Thursday, before Cunningham's contract with Tulsa had been announced, KU coach Bill Self said that he has talked to a lot of the candidates. He seemed confident that Kansas would find the right leader.
"I'm real impressed with the group the committee has put together," Self said. "If it is (Cunningham), everybody around here will be happy. If it's not him, I still feel we can be happy with another candidate."
Happiness is still out there to be had, but this was a punch in the gut to KU fans. They were ready for Cunningham, and they thought they had him locked up.
Gray-Little said in September — after she and Perkins came to a mutual decision for him to retire a year early — that KU would hire a new athletic director by the end of the spring semester. By setting that loose timeline, she bought the school some time to find the right guy to walk into a brittle situation.
The new athletic director will have to repair fan and donor mistrust in the wake of several scandals in the past year, including questions about Perkins' travel and alleged receipt of improper gifts.
The misuse of $2 million worth of men's basketball and football tickets led to the resignations of at least seven top athletic department staff members, five of whom were recently indicted by a federal grand jury.
"They're coming into a mess that maybe they don't 100 percent understand," Cohen said. "There's a lot of mess to clean up. I think anybody who's coming into it has to understand that, and maybe (Cunningham) is not ready to take that on. I know that someone will see the positives in it and see that it's a successful program. I'm sure we can do better than Bubba."