University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham was in Clinton Thursday afternoon, first for a private luncheon at Lewis’ Barbecue, then wrapping up with a public meet and greet at the offices of Allie Ray McCullen. McCullen, who is a Sampson County native, was sworn in as a member of the UNC Board of Trustees back in August 2015 and says he wanted Cunningham to get a taste of the county he calls home.
Upon introducing Cunningham to the group assembled inside Lewis’ Barbecue, McCullen recalled a conversation he and the athletic director previously shared regarding the county.
“Bubba thought because of the Ag interest that everybody was for NC State and I explained to him that that was not the case. Every morning now since I’ve been on the board I’ve started counting license plates,” McCullen joked. “Carolina’s number one, NC State’s a close second, and John Deere is a distant third,” he said, drawing laughter from the crowd.
Before turning the room over to Cunningham, McCullen explained to the guest of honor a little more in-depth information about Sampson County.
“Sampson County is the largest county in land area in North Carolina. It’s just a little smaller than the state of Rhode Island,” noted McCullen. “A few years ago I was at a conference where the chancellor of NC State spoke and he said at that time that Sampson County was the most diversified agricultural county east of the Mississippi River because we grow more variety of crops than any other,” he continued, detailing the various Ag products generated across the county.
Then it came time for Cunningham to take center stage.
He thanked everyone for showing up and was grateful for the hospitality that had been shown so far.
“I want to thank everyone for having me and my wife Tina. What a wonderful spot here (at Lewis’ Barbecue) and I really appreciate you all coming together today,” Cunningham began.
The athletic director also spoke highly of McCullen, speaking of how great McCullen has been as an addition to the Board of Trustees.
“The board has turned over a number of times but the great thing about that is that you get a bunch of different perspectives. If you have all the same people thinking all the same then you never really get any new ideas. Allie Ray has been a breath of fresh air to have the board think in new ways,” Cunningham said.
Cunningham then continued expressing his appreciation for the opportunity to come to Clinton.
“It is important that we get out and do things all over the state. I like the Tar Heel Tour but a lot of times we end up in fairly high population areas because it’s more efficient for the coaches to get out there and see many people,” he commented. “But, it’s also important that we build relationships with people all over the state, particularly in the rural communities, so I can’t thank you enough for the opportunity to be here.”
Cunningham also shared moments on the lighter side of his early meetings with McCullen.
“First day he showed up to the board he had his red boots and red tie on. At least now he has blue tie on so we’re making progress,” Cunningham joked. McCullen responded, saying “This is a gift,” drawing more laughter from the room.
Cunningham reflected on his first five years of being in the state of North Carolina, sharing that his son has graduated from UNC and is set to be married this summer to his fiancé who is from Hickory.
“Our sense is that this is an incredible place. I’d only been in North Carolina a couple times, other than coming in to play against them, and from the mountains to the water and everything in between is just such a wonderful place to live. After five years, you really start to just get a sense of how great the community is.”
Cunningham concluded his opening statements by reflecting on his time so far at the university, passing nothing but praise about the institution and all that are involved.
Before sitting down to enjoy his meal, Cunningham fielded questions from members of the crowd that consisted of ministers, bankers, a Superior Court judge, Sampson County’s sheriff, Jimmy Thornton, the Clinton city manager and a handful of others.
He answered questions about Carolina’s ranks as far as sales of apparel. He answered that the Tar Heels rank 7th in the nation in regards to sales and are joined in the Top Ten by schools such as Ohio State, Alabama, and Clemson – schools that are more known for their football success.
“Everything now in the last 10 years is all about football. While our football program is getting there, television rights and conference affiliations are all about football. We have the best basketball conference in the country but everything is driven by football,” he admitted.
This conversation piece led to the announcement of upcoming projects involving construction of the athletic fields at the campus, including field work at Kenan Stadium where the Tar Heels play football, the addition of a soccer and lacrosse stadium, the relocation of the track and field hockey venues, and the addition of a multipurpose practice facility. Cunningham also addressed questions about the ongoing NCAA issues, the ACC and the ACC Network. Rounding out his Q&A session he yielded a question regarding upgrades to the Dean E. Smith Center where the Tar Heels play basketball, but admitted that any changes there are at least 7-12 years away.
Concluding his visit at Lewis’ Barbecue, Cunningham had nothing but praise regarding his trip.
“The food was great but the comradery was better. These were some great folks and I look forward to building new relationships,” he said.
When asked about the Tar Heels Basketball team’s success this year, and the potential of a return to the National Championship, Cunningham said he expects nothing less.
“I think we can get there and win every year,” he concluded.
It was evident that Cunningham had enjoyed his time in Clinton. Considering his visit came on a day where the skies shined a vibrant Carolina Blue and was a day after a big win against bitter rival NC State, the trip was likely even sweeter.
Reach Daron Barefoot at [email protected]