UNC's AD mulling upgrades to Smith Center, Fetzer

Jun. 17, 2013 @ 08:50 PM

Athletic director Bubba Cunningham saw North Carolina win a pair of NCAA championships this season and earn recognition as the nation's best women's athletic program. Now he's looking ahead to facility upgrades that could include changes to the home of the Tar Heels' men's basketball team.

As Cunningham wraps up his first start-to-finish season with UNC, the Tar Heels are poised for another top-10 finish in the Director's Cup standings — presented to the nation's top overall athletic program — and be the top finisher in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

That fits right in with the department's strategic plan, released in January, setting the goal for each sport to finish top-three in the ACC and top-10 nationally.

"I do think when you publicly set goals that your commitment is a little bit greater," Cunningham said in an interview with The Associated Press. "I think the more you stretch and the more you push to be successful, the more success you're going to have."

Cunningham, who took over as AD in November 2011 during the middle of a school year, is looking at facility upgrades. The most pressing concern is an aging Fetzer Field that is home to the soccer, lacrosse and outdoor track programs. Two of those teams, women's lacrosse and women's soccer, won NCAA titles this season.

He's also looking at upgrades to the Smith Center, home to men's basketball, as a way to generate revenue to pay for updates to Fetzer while also investing to keep Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams' program among the elite.

Cunningham pointed to the "Blue Zone" permanent end-zone seating section in Kenan Stadium with club seats for football as an example. The athletic department estimates it generates about $4 million annually in gross revenue and $500,000 in net revenue.

Cunningham said he's looking at all options for the 21,750-seat Smith Center, men's basketball's home since 1986. Possibilities include tweaks to widen concourses and entrances, adding club suites or even a new building.

"We've won championships in three different buildings so the university has made bold and significant changes while trying to maintain the premier basketball program in the country," Cunningham said. "We also have a lot of history and tradition in this building so you want to maintain the tradition, but you also want to be at the leading edge."

Cunningham is looking an array of options for Fetzer, too, including the possibility of building a stadium solely for lacrosse and soccer. He said he hopes to have a plan for both facilities within the year.

As for on-the-field results, the Tar Heels are currently 10th in the Director's Cup standings, though the baseball team is playing in the College World Series for the sixth time in eight seasons and could push the school closer to seventh in the final standings. That would mark UNC's 17th top-10 finish in 20 seasons.

In addition to the NCAA titles by women's soccer and women's lacrosse, UNC also reached a fourth straight title game in field hockey while women's tennis won the ITA National Team Indoor Championships in February.

That run of success helped North Carolina win the Capital One Cup trophy for the top women's Division I athletic program in the country.

In football, coach Larry Fedora — Cunningham's first major hire here — brought a no-huddle spread that set program records for scoring and total offense.

Facing a one-year postseason ban due to NCAA sanctions, the football team won eight games and finished in a three-way tie atop the ACC's Coastal Division. Cunningham praised Fedora's work changing a program scarred by improper benefits and academic misconduct violations going back to 2008.

"I think he found a way to be successful on the field with the players that were in the program," he said. "He's really embraced the students in the program. He's worked with them off the field as well. ... "He holds his staff accountable, who in turn hold the players accountable. I just think they have a very positive culture."

Cunningham said the school continues to update the NCAA as it investigates academic fraud — including no-show classes and unauthorized grade changes — in a department with significant athlete enrollments.

An independent panel led by former Gov. Jim Martin issued its findings in December that the problems dated back to the 1990s. Cunningham said NCAA investigators haven't returned to campus since issuing football sanctions in March 2012.

"As a university, we're moving forward," Cunningham said. "Again, I feel like we haven't discovered new information. We've uncovered a few more details surrounding old information, but the core of it is still the same."