Keegan: Bubba Cunningham would be right hire for KU

Tulsa Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham speaks to the press in this January 2006 file photo. According to sources, Cunningham will be hired as the next athletic director at Kansas University.

In answering Tuesday the question of whether he would be Kansas University’s next athletic director, Bubba Cunningham showed he has more “cunning” in him than “ham.”

“I do not talk about it until there’s a change in employment status,” Cunningham told Tulsa radio station 1430 The Buzz during his weekly appearance. “And there is not a change in employment status.”

And there won’t be until Kansas chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little announces it at a press conference with Cunningham at her side. So Cunningham was telling the truth. He’s the Tulsa athletic director until he leaves for Kansas.

Theoretically, he could always back out, but he won’t. KU is as logical a next step in his steady career climb as he is a smart choice for Kansas.

For reasons that aren’t clear, but might have something to do with Tulsa playing a Christmas Eve bowl game in Hawaii — or might he have had family holiday plans set in stone? — Cunningham’s preference, according to sources, was to have no press conference until after Christmas.

That didn’t seem like such an unreasonable request, at least until news broke Tuesday he was KU’s selection. It makes for an uncomfortable week of limbo for an athletic department that could use the momentum already created by the basketball team’s No. 3 national ranking, the purchase of the original basketball rules by prominent KU alumnus David Booth and the impending debut of highly-regarded freshman guard Josh Selby. Maybe it will be moved up to this week, if all the details can be ironed out. Either way, the search committee identified the right man for the job and the chancellor made the right call.

Bubba’s cunning, but he’s no ham.

Those familiar with his work at Notre Dame, as an assistant A.D., and as an A.D. at Ball State and Tulsa, paint a picture of a smart, down-to-earth administrator who is perfectly happy with watching his coaches’ profiles rise while he keeps his attention trained on making sure the department is in an ever-improving situation in terms of finances and facilities.

The contacts he made at Notre Dame — including with close friend Mike Bobinski, the plugged-in, nationally prominent Xavier athletic director — have served Cunningham well.

His depth of his experience makes him comfortable at negotiating apparel contracts, radio and television deals, raising funds and firing and hiring coaches. He’s made two excellent football coaching hires in Brady Hoke at Ball State and Todd Graham at Tulsa. (Hoke is now at San Diego State).

Personality-wise, he sounds as if he’ll mesh well with the big-money boosters of Kansas Athletics. I never have gotten to know several top-dollar donors from a school until covering KU, but it seems to me the ones at this school are on the unpretentious side for being multi-millionaires.

His nickname, “Bubba,” comes from his childhood, Cunningham said at his introductory press conference at Tulsa: “I have two older sisters, my first name is Lawrence or ‘Larry,’ same name as my father and my sisters couldn’t say brother. I was a short, fat little kid and it stuck. I have had that name ever since.

“By time I went to college, I thought this was an opportunity to go by my middle name. My middle name is Richard, so I would have been Richie Cunningham and I didn’t think that was a good option. I decided to stay with ‘Bubba.'”

In appearance, Cunningham more closely resembles the stereotype of a Notre Dame graduate than a guy named Bubba.

He will be succeeding a man whose legacy includes significantly upgrading fundraising and facilities. Lew Perkins’ reign didn’t end as well as it started. Perkins headed into retirement a year sooner than he originally announced after a published report about his lavish expenses came on the heels of an investigation into exercise equipment placed in his home before he had paid for it.

The ticket scandal — an estimated 700 seats between the baselines last season were held back from Williams Fund members — brought national embarrassment to the university and led to the indictments of six former employees and one former consultant. Basketball season-ticket holders have mixed emotions about their seats improving so much this season. They love the new seats, but hate that they didn’t have them as soon as they deserved.

Cunningham can thank interim athletic director Sean Lester for giving him a head start at mending fences. Lester has received praise from donors who appreciate that he didn’t attempt to minimize the gravity of the ticket scandal and he has worked hard at trying to mend wounded feelings in other areas as well.