Cunningham Flying High With Eagles
Feb. 23, 2018
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The official colors of the world champion Philadelphia Eagles are midnight green, silver, charcoal and black.
There’s no blue and orange in that mix. Still, the Eagles’ mainstays on defense in their historic season, which concluded Feb. 4 with a stunning victory over New England in Super Bowl LII, included Chris Long and Rodney McLeod.
The Eagles’ wide receivers coach? Mike Groh, who this week was promoted to offensive coordinator.
The Eagles’ director of college scouting? Ian-Yates Cunningham.
“We’re trying to get as many Virginia Cavaliers up there as possible,” Cunningham said, laughing.
Groh, a former UVA quarterback, was an assistant coach at his alma mater when Long and Cunningham played there for his father, Al. McLeod played for two head coaches at Virginia: first Al Groh and then Mike London.
For Long, an All-America defensive end, and Cunningham, who started 31 games on the offensive line for the Wahoos, their college careers ended on a disappointing note. On New Year’s Day in 2008, UVA went up 28-14 early in the fourth quarter, only to see Texas Tech rally for a 31-28 victory in the Gator Bowl.
A decade later, Long and Cunningham celebrated Philadelphia’s first Super Bowl victory. It was a glorious finish to their first season with the Eagles.
“It’s been good to be back on the same team,” Cunningham said. “It was awesome. One of the most cherished moments I had was being able to take the picture of us holding the Lombardi [Trophy] together.”
Each now has two Super Bowl rings. Long spent eight seasons with the St. Louis Rams before joining the Patriots, who won Super Bowl LI in February 2017.
Cunningham received his first ring after the Baltimore Ravens, for whom he was then a player personnel assistant, defeated the 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII on Feb. 3, 2013.
“It’s still surreal,” Cunningham said. “To be part of two Super Bowl [championships] on two separate franchises, it’s extremely rare, and don’t think it goes unnoticed. I think about it every day, how fortunate I am to be a part of that, what we’re trying to build in Philly and what we built in Baltimore.”
Cunningham, who grew up in Plano, Texas, about 20 miles north of Dallas, arrived at UVA in the summer of 2003. A second cousin of the late Arthur Ashe, Cunningham took his education seriously. He finished his bachelor’s degree in psychology in three-and-a-half years, after which he earned a master’s in the Curry School of Education.
He challenged himself academically at UVA, but Cunningham never considered another approach.
“You go there, so why not?” he said. “Why not utilize it as much as you can? They have the resources there to help you, and the reason why I’m in this position right now is because I went to UVA.”
During his time on Grounds, he volunteered in the A.C.E. program (Athletes Committed to Community and Education), serving as a mentor for schoolchildren in the Charlottesville area, and worked at local radio station WINA. Among other jobs there, Cunningham produced a show devoted to high school sports in the area.
“Good times,” Cunningham said. “You’re in college. If there are things that you’re interested in, try to do them.”
In 2008, he signed as an undrafted free agent with the Kansas City Chiefs, who’d chosen another UVA offensive lineman, Branden Albert, in the first round that year.
Cunningham didn’t last long with the Chiefs. He wasn’t interested in chasing long-shot NFL dreams, but he wanted to stay involved with the game. Al Groh, who had extensive coaching experience in the NFL, put “me in contact with a couple teams, and I interviewed with the Ravens and ended up getting the job,” Cunningham said.
Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome hired him as a player personnel assistant. And so he became a member of what legendary coach Bill Belichick has called “the 20/20 club: 20-year-olds working for $20,000 [annually],” Cunningham said with a laugh.
“You’re starting on the ground floor. It was one of those things where you had to earn your stripes. You’re picking up guys from the airport, you’re doing everybody else’s work and then yours. But during the process, you’re learning so much in terms of getting to know the players, getting to know the inner workings [of the organization].
“Scouting is the last part you learn, so it’s really kind of teaching you how to be detail-oriented. You’ve got to help and do everybody else’s job, so then you can learn how to do your job. It was beneficial, and I just kind of worked my way up, and Ozzie really took me under his wing and showed me the ropes, and I could not have been more fortunate than to go into an organization like that.”
As he gained experience, Cunningham began scouting upcoming opponents for the Ravens. In 2013, they promoted him to Southeast area scout, making him responsible for evaluating college players in several states, including Florida, Georgia and Alabama.
His alma mater did not fall in Cunningham’s territory, but when the Cavaliers “would play Miami or Georgia Tech, I’d try to sneak out to go see them,” he said.
In 2016, his final season with the Ravens, Cunningham added the title of Southwest area scout, after which his territory included Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Florida.
“Ozzie felt comfortable enough to give me that, and he trusted me in terms of the amount of schools,” Cunningham said. “That’s a prime area in terms of talent that comes out of there, so I could not have been more fortunate than to be able to do that.”
His colleagues on the Ravens included two other former O-linemen: Joe Douglas (Richmond) and Andy Weidl (Villanova). “Offensive linemen stick together,” Cunningham said, “and I became really close with those guys.”
When they left last year to take positions with the Eagles — Douglas as vice president of player personnel, Weidl as assistant director of player personnel — they asked Cunningham to follow them.
“It was tough to leave Ozzie and those guys that I grew up learning from,” Cunningham said, “but at the end of the day [Philadelphia] was a great organization too, and I was working for two guys I really respected, and I had obviously a different title.”
His responsibilities include overseeing all the Eagles’ college scouts and evaluating players who are identified as potential draft picks. Cunningham travels to schools with draft prospects and helps set the Eagles’ draft board.
He flies often to Philadelphia for meetings, but Cunningham lives in Dallas with his wife and their three young children. It’s an ideal location for someone with his responsibilities.
“Now that I’m the director, I go everywhere,” Cunningham said, “and from Dallas the longest flight is three, three-and-a-half hours. So it’s perfect in terms of that.”
He tried to arrange his schedule this season so he could attend all of the Eagles’ road games. It was in Carson, California, where the Eagles edged the Chargers 26-24 on Oct. 1, that Cunningham first thought it could be a special season for Philadelphia.
“In the locker room [afterward] you got a sense this wasn’t a normal team,” he said. “These guys were playing for one another. They were grown men playing like they were little kids, enjoying the game like that. Which is rare. You don’t see that a lot, especially on the pro level. There’s money involved, there’s family, there’s this and that. But these guys genuinely had a love for one another, which was rare to be a part of, and it was infectious. You saw it really take place that week, and it just carried on throughout the season.”
Late last month found Cunningham in Mobile, Alabama, for the Senior Bowl. Four former UVA standouts — quarterback Kurt Benkert, defensive end Andrew Brown, linebacker Micah Kiser and safety Quin Blanding — were invited to participate this year.
“It was neat to see those guys, those V-Sabres on the helmets down there,” Cunningham said. “I try to watch [the Cavaliers] as much as I can every Saturday. I try to keep up with them as much as I can, and whatever I can do to help, I try to help.”
He stays in regular contact with many of his former teammates, among them Gordie Sammis, Eugene Monroe and, of course, Long. In Cunningham’s five seasons in the program — he redshirted in 2004 while recovering from back surgery — the ‘Hoos finished with a winning record four times and played in four bowl games.
“When you look back on it,” he said, “you realize just how fortunate we all were to play in an era when we dished out a lot of NFL talent. We had a lot of good teams, and just being part of that [was special].”
Since then, the Cavaliers have found success much harder to achieve. But in 2017, their second season under head coach Bronco Mendenhall, the ‘Hoos advanced to a bowl for the first time in six years.
Cunningham, who met Mendenhall on a visit to Charlottesville in December 2016, is eager for Virginia to rejoin the ACC’s elite, a sentiment shared by his fellow football alumni.
“Chris and I have talked about it,” Cunningham said, “just in terms of [helping] the football team, the athletic department, the school, whatever, in some form or capacity. Obviously, he’s helping a lot, and I’m more than willing to help, and I tried to help Coach Mendenhall last year. I got a chance to talk him and his staff about scouting and recruiting and things like that. So that was pretty neat.
“I just want to be a part of it and help those guys as much as I can, in some way, sharp or form.”