Almost 30 years after he coached his last game at Wittenberg University, Larry Hunter remained close to the program.
Throughout this past season, even as Hunter coached his final season at Western Carolina University, he kept in touch with Wittenberg coach Matt Croci and sent him a number of emails to say he was following the team and happy for the success the Tigers were having. Hunter even helped Croci land a 2018 recruit: 6-foot-10 center Adam Calhoun, of Greensboro Day School (N.C.).
“I knew Wittenberg was a special place for him,” Croci said.
That made Hunter’s death on Friday morning at 68, news announced by Western Carolina, all the more shocking and sad for Croci and all the members of the Wittenberg basketball community. Although Hunter will be better remembered throughout college basketball as the longtime Ohio Bobcats and Western Carolina head coach, he had his first big success at Wittenberg.
When Hunter won the Division III national championship in 1977, he was the first coach in college basketball history to win a national title in his first season. He was 27 years old that season.
“He’s clearly one of THE names in our storied history,” Croci said. “He won a national championship. He was the all-time leader in wins up until a few years ago when Bill (Brown) passed him. The numbers are just a small part of the story. He clearly won some big games and had great teams and great players, but he had such a big impact on so many guys’ lives. They come back and talk about their experience at Wittenberg and how great it was being here with Larry.”
Hunter had been hospitalized at WakeMed Cary Hospital in Cary, N.C., since suffering a stroke last weekend. Western Carolina announced the news of the stroke Monday. ESPN’s Seth Greenberg reported Hunter was on life support after the stroke.
Hunter coached Wittenberg from 1976-89. The Tigers won the national championship in 1977 by beating Oneonta State 79-66 in Rock Island, N.Y. Wittenberg lost 60-57 in overtime to Scranton in the national title game the previous season when Hunter was an assistant coach under Bob Hamilton.
“I inherited an outstanding group from Bob Hamilton,” Hunter said after the championship in 1977, “but we had to earn our way back and win the championship. I’ve always strived to the best at whatever I did. It’s part of my makeup, and it’s a remarkable feeling once you are the best, which I feel we are right now.”
The Tigers reached the Final Four in 1980, placing third, and returned to the national championship game in 1983, losing 64-63 to Scranton. They also finished third in the NCAA tournament in 1987.
Hunter’s career record was 305-76 in 13 seasons. He ranks second in school history in victories and remains the last Wittenberg men’s basketball coach to win a national championship. When he left to coach his alma mater, Ohio, in 1989, he was the fourth of five coaches in a row to leave Wittenberg for a Division I job.
Ray Mears coached at Tennessee after leaving Wittenberg. Eldon Miller left Wittenberg for Western Michigan. Hamilton coached Navy after leaving Wittenberg. Dan Hipsher succeeded Hunter and then coached at Stetson.
Hunter ranked 40th in victories in NCAA history entering last season. He finished his career with 702 victories. Hunter announced his retirement March 4.
“Sometimes when you’ve been at one place for a number of years, it’s just time for new leadership, a new voice,” said Hunter in a statement. “In the 13 years that I’ve been associated with Western Carolina University, I’ve seen a tremendous positive change at both the university and within the athletics department – and it’s been fun to be a part of some of that change. With regards to the men’s basketball program, I was brought here to add some stability and do things the right way. I feel during my time in Cullowhee, we’ve done just that. But, at this time, I feel that it’s time for some new team leadership.”
Hunter returned to Wittenberg a number of times over the years and wrote a letter in support of the men’s basketball endowment several years ago.
“My sixteen years at Wittenberg remain the highlight of my coaching career,” Hunter wrote. “Hardly a day goes by that I do not count my blessings for the experience and opportunity that Wittenberg provided.”
Jeff Boals, who played for Hunter at Ohio and now coaches at Stony Brook, wrote on Twitter it was a surreal feeling to hear the news of Hunter’s death.
“Old school,” Boals wrote of Hunter. “Always got his teams to compete at a high level. You’ve impacted a lot of young men during your coaching career. Hard to believe what happened. The coaching profession lost a great one.”
Hunter, a native of Athens County, is survived by his wife Mary, who’s from London, Ohio.