Bubba Cunningham is the University of Kansas’ choice for its next athletic director, but a deal to hire him is not complete, a source close to the situation said.
Cunningham, 48, has been the athletic director at the University of Tulsa since October 2005. The Tulsa World reported this afternoon that Cunningham will be introduced as KU’s next athletic director at a news conference Wednesday or Thursday. The World also reported that Tulsa officials tried to negotiate a new contract with Cunningham last week, but he declined. The website SportsbyBrooks.com first reported Cunningham was KU’s selection.
When contacted by The Eagle today, Ray Evans, the chair of KU’s athletic director search committee, would not confirm that Kansas had offered Cunningham the job or the Tulsa World report.
Cunningham emerged early on 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, which spent the last three months identifying potential successors to former KU athletic director Lew Perkins, who retired in September. Gray-Little was expected to make a decision this week.
Evans, a former KU football player, said last week that each candidate had been vetted to make sure there would be no concerns about character.
If he comes to KU, Cunningham will need to rebuild 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 tickets that led to the resignations of at least seven top athletic department staff members, five of whom were indicted last month by a federal grand jury.
“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.”
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 is a proven fundraiser who has hired two successful football coaches: Brady Hoke at Ball State (he’s now the coach at San Diego State) and Todd Graham at Tulsa.
As an associate athletic director at Notre Dame, Cunningham 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, in his first athletic director job, 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 importantly, Cunningham hired Hoke, who delivered in 2008 with a 12-0 regular season that put the Cardinals as high as No. 12 in the BCS rankings. By then, Cunningham had been at Tulsa for three years.
“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.”