University of North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham has stopped trying to project when the NCAA case tied to the school's multi-year academic scandal will reach a conclusion.
That's because procedural hurdles, delays, and even the NCAA's struggle to settle on charges have the case crawling through the governing body's infractions system. In the meantime, the Tar Heels basketball program keeps rolling along; North Carolina is making its second straight trip to college basketball's biggest stage at the Final Four, taking on Oregon in Phoenix on Saturday night.
"As I've mentioned numerous times, I've been inaccurate on estimating a timeline," Cunningham said in an interview with The Associated Press, "And I think it would be inappropriate to try to estimate a timeline now."
The Tar Heels (31-7) will arrive in Phoenix with the buzz of beating Kentucky, riding Luke Maye's last-second shot into a record 20th Final Four a year after losing to Villanova on a final-play 3-pointer in the title game.
They don't focus on the academic case that continues to linger in the background, one tied to irregularities in an academic department and leading to five broad-based charges against the school that include lack of institutional control. It grew as an offshoot of a 2010 probe into the football probe, meaning the current basketball players—and athletes across campus, for that matter—were years away from arriving in Chapel Hill when it began.
The subject will likely be a topic of conversation in Arizona, particularly during NCAA President Mark Emmert's scheduled news conference on Thursday.
"The case has gone on for a long time," Cunningham said. "We are continuing to move through the process. And I can't comment on the specifics of the case, but certainly everyone would like to bring it to closure."
The NCAA reopened its investigation in summer 2014 and first charged UNC in a Notice of Allegations (NOA) filed in May 2015. It then revised the charges in a second version last April , and then changed them again in a third version filed in December. Considering the school gets 90 days to respond followed by the NCAA enforcement staff getting 60 days of its own, each NOA adds roughly five months to the process—assuming there are no hiccups.
And there's currently yet another delay.
North Carolina and the Indianapolis-based NCAA are working on a new schedule for the school to file its response to the third Notice of Allegations. That comes as the attorney for a woman at the center of the scandal said he is working to set up an interview after she had previously refused to speak with investigators.
It's unclear exactly how long the latest delay will be, but it's an illustration of why the case is stuck in a similar position as last year.
"I know the public and the media may want this case to go fast, but this is a very serious and significant case," said Michael L. Buckner, a Florida-based attorney who has worked on infractions cases. "For me doing this on a day-to-day basis, I applaud the NCAA and the university for being very deliberate, because this can impact UNC's championships. It can impact future student-athletes. It could impact the university's reputation."
The case is centered on problems in the formerly named African and Afro-American Studies (AFAM) department. Most notably, there were independent study-style courses misidentified as lecture classes that didn't meet and required a research paper or two while featuring significant athlete enrollments while offering high grades.
An independent investigation by former U.S. Justice Department official Kenneth Wainstein estimated more than 3,100 students were affected between 1993 and 2011, with athletes across numerous sports accounting for roughly half the enrollments.
The latest NOA restores a reference to men's basketball and football players that had been removed between the first and second versions in one of the broad-based charges. No coaches or others within the programs are charged with wrongdoing. That revised NOA came after the infractions committee panel handling the case took the unusual step of holding an October hearing solely to deal with UNC's procedural arguments in its responses to the second notice, then later sent a letter instructing the enforcement staff to revisit charges to review whether they "are alleged in a fashion to best decide this case."
Cunningham said at the time it was "patently unfair."
The case can't reach resolution until UNC has a hearing with the infractions committee panel followed by a ruling weeks to months later, a step that still seems months away.
"For us, we weren't a part of it," junior Associated Press all-American Justin Jackson said. "Obviously the school is having to deal with it, but I don't see how you can feel guilty and act differently if you weren't a part of something that's been said about it. I'm going to be honest, that was the first time I even thought about it, just now from you asking the question. And I don't think many of the guys really think about it much."