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UNC AD: Strong sports year for Tar Heels still 'overshadowed' by lingering NCAA academics case

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CHAPEL HILL, North Carolina — North Carolina earned another high finish among Division I college sports programs after a season of strong tournament showings. The Tar Heels also dealt with another year of off-field issues, including an NCAA investigation into academics.

In an interview with The Associated Press, athletic director Bubba Cunningham cited high points in a 2014-15 season that included 25 of 28 teams competing in postseason play and an overall 2.96 GPA for athletes. But he also knows the school is likely a year away from resolution in its long-running academic fraud scandal.

"Those measures of performance are outstanding," Cunningham said. "But we're still doing that under a cloud and that success has been overshadowed by the national story."

That story centers on irregularities in the formerly named African and Afro-American Studies (AFAM) department. Most notably, there were lecture classes that didn't meet and were treated as independent study requiring a research paper or two, with an office administrator — not a faculty member — typically handing out high grades.

An investigation by former U.S. Justice Department official Kenneth Wainstein estimated at least 3,100 students were affected between 1993 and 2011, with athletes across numerous sports making up approximately half the enrollment in problem courses.

The NCAA hit UNC with five charges last month, including lack of institutional control for poor oversight of the AFAM department and the academic counselors of athletes. The school must respond by Aug. 18 before an eventual hearing with the infractions committee, with Cunningham saying it "will come to closure in 2016."

UNC also faces a year of probation, issued this month, from its accreditation agency in a case that began as an offshoot of a 2010 NCAA investigation into football violations.

"We've certainly been in a period of examination and a period of self-reflection," Cunningham said. "And we've also been examined from an external standpoint for a long period of time."

Wainstein's report in October largely blamed two AFAM officials and detailed how counselors enrolled athletes in no-show courses. It didn't accuse coaches of wrongdoing, though many — including Hall of Fame men's basketball coach Roy Williams — heard questions about what they knew or should've known about the issue.

PHOTO: FILE - In this Oct. 14, 2011 file photo, Bubba Cunningham smiles during a news conference after being introduced as the new athletic director at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C. UNC is poised for another top-10 national finish among overall college sports programs after a season in which 25 of 28 teams competed in postseason play. But in an interview with The Associated Press, Cunningham said that success "has been overshadowed" by the school's long-running academic fraud case. UNC faces five NCAA charges in case Cunningham said "will come to closure" in 2016.  (Shawn Rocco/The News & Observer via AP, File)
FILE - In this Oct. 14, 2011 file photo, Bubba Cunningham smiles during a news conference after being introduced as the new athletic director at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C. UNC is poised for another top-10 national finish among overall college sports programs after a season in which 25 of 28 teams competed in postseason play. But in an interview with The Associated Press, Cunningham said that success "has been overshadowed" by the school's long-running academic fraud case. UNC faces five NCAA charges in case Cunningham said "will come to closure" in 2016. (Shawn Rocco/The News & Observer via AP, File)

Cunningham said he feels "very comfortable with our coaches and their leadership of the programs," evidenced by last week's announcement of Williams' contract extension through 2020.

"I think as a collective university, the chancellor has said it the best: The issues we are suffering from were the actions of a few and the inaction of many," Cunningham said. "I don't think you need to separate out who anyone is referring to because it's an institutional problem, an institutional challenge that we've all been wrestling with."

On-field results offered better news, with the Tar Heels finishing fifth nationally in the final Directors' Cup Division I standings released Thursday. UNC was 14th last year in a rare finish outside the top 10.

Highlights included women's lacrosse reaching the NCAA final, field hockey's sixth straight appearance in the national semifinals and the men's and women's basketball teams advancing to the NCAA Sweet 16 together for the first time since 2011.

The biggest surprise was baseball missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2001 — a streak with six College World Series trips in eight years — in a stumble Cunningham regarded as "an anomaly."

In football, the Tar Heels reached a second straight bowl but had a defense that allowed school-record totals of yards and points. That led coach Larry Fedora, Cunningham's first major hire after taking over in 2011, to overhaul his staff and add ex-Auburn head coach Gene Chizik as defensive coordinator.

Off the field, a group led by Cunningham and provost James W. Dean Jr. is finishing a nearly two-year review of how UNC handles academics for athletes, from the admissions process to academic support and compliance education.

It's part of trying to move forward on an issue "so consuming for so many people on campus."

"Once we get comfortable with the processes and the review to ensure we're doing what we said we're going to do, I think we'll return to a sense of normalcy," Cunningham said. "That won't just happen overnight. It'll happen over time. And people will be more comfortable with where we end up."


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