UNC’s Cunningham focused on $100 million facility project
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham has long talked about the need to build an indoor football practice facility or upgrade the aging home to the school’s soccer and lacrosse programs.
That work has finally begun as part of a roughly $100 million project, one that has left a big hole near the middle of campus and will force a dozen programs to adjust practice or game routines for the coming year.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Cunningham said it was “absolutely exhilarating” to have the long-awaited projects underway even with so much work ahead.
“It recruits student-athletes, it recruits students to the campus, it enhances the university,” he said. “The only reason we exist as an athletic department is to enhance the educational experience on campus. And the university is about excellence, whether you’re building the most technical cancer research center or you’re building a stadium.
“All those things attract talent to the community, and that’s what we’re attempting to do.”
The school started the facility project as it closed the 2016-17 season, which saw UNC close in on another top-10 finish in the Directors’ Cup rankings of overall college sports programs while still dealing with its multi-year NCAA academic case that has led to five serious charges.
The football team has long practiced on two fields next to the field hockey stadium, and that plot of land backed up to the Fetzer Field home to the lacrosse, soccer and outdoor track programs.
Now the football and field hockey facilities are gone, clearing room for a $35 million indoor football facility and adjoining outdoor fields. A $15 million field hockey stadium will be built a quarter-mile away. Another $30 million will go to renovate Fetzer by removing the outdoor track to create a stadium solely for soccer and lacrosse.
The outdoor track will move to a new practice and competition complex a short drive from the main campus for about $12 million.
Those projects, and other smaller ones, are scheduled for completion in fall 2018. That means several teams will play the upcoming season in alternate venues, some off campus. Football will practice in its Kenan Stadium home, and assistant athletic director for facility planning and management Mike Bunting said UNC will re-sod its field through the 2017 season to handle the extra activity.
As Cunningham noted: “Given the campus, you do one thing and it’s a domino effect on others.”
The school is also planning a $10 million project to relocate video production equipment and create studio space for the 2019 arrival of the Atlantic Coast Conference’s TV channel, a requirement for all league schools.
On the field, UNC had five teams reach at least the national semifinals, while Cunningham said the student-athletes posted a cumulative 3.0 GPA along the way. Most notably, men’s basketball regrouped from a last-second loss in the 2016 championship game to win its sixth NCAA title.
“I think the emotion of the men’s basketball championship has really boosted the enthusiasm of the campus community, of the town, and I think that’s all really, really positive,” Cunningham said. “Because the students and the coaches and everyone’s been performing at a high level, but there was something missing — and I think that restored a lot of confidence and faith in what we do.”
As for the academic case, the NCAA in December issued a third version of five charges that include lack of institutional control. UNC is due to appear before an infractions committee panel in August, leading to a ruling weeks to months later.
Cunningham has long since stopped trying to predict when the case will reach resolution, beyond saying: “I do think there’s a sense that closure to this issue is on the horizon.”
“What I’ve been saying is it shook our confidence, and so we’re restoring confidence in ourselves and I think we’re beginning to rebuild trust in those who have faith in us,” Cunningham said. “And I think is beginning to take hold now. But I do think it takes time to do that.”
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