- By David Jablonski Staff Writer
Brian Agler spoke to Larry Hunter in March when Hunter stepped down after 13 seasons at Western Carolina University. Even after 47 years in coaching and 702 victories as a head coach, Hunter didn’t plan to stay away from college basketball for long.
“He still wanted to coach,” said Agler, who was a freshman guard at Wittenberg University in 1977 when Hunter won a national championship in his first season. “He looked at himself as a coach and as a leader. He was looking to do that again. I don’t think he going to just take any position, but he looked at himself as a head coach. I think he would have tried to continue to do that.”
» RELATED: Hunter remained close to Wittenberg program
Agler, now the head coach of the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks, was one of many players and coaches Hunter influenced in his career and one of the many people in college basketball mourning Hunter’s death Friday.
Hunter, 68, suffered a stroke last weekend and was on life support throughout the week at a hospital in Cary, N.C. His wife, Mary, brought him home from the hospital Thursday, Agler said, and he was in hospice care at home when he died — not in the hospital as previous reports indicated. Agler expects there to be a funeral in Raleigh, N.C., on May 12 and then a memorial service and burial later in Ohio, though he did not have all the details Friday.
Agler described Hunter as a tremendous coach, person and leader.
“He had a great run at Wittenberg and did really well at Ohio University and did great things at Western Carolina,” Agler said. “Every situation is a little bit different. You’re asked to do different things. His teams were always prepared and always well coached. When I think of coach Hunter, I think of his loyalty to his players and the influence he had on everybody who played for him. The one thing everybody carried away from playing with him is the understanding of what it took to have success. It didn’t have matter if it was basketball or whatever. He instilled a great work ethic and integrity.”
Wittenberg hired Hunter in May 1976 when he was 26 years old. He spent the two previous seasons as an assistant to Bob Hamilton.
“I think I’m ready to apply what I learned,” Hunter said then. “I will do everything I can to maintain the excellence in Wittenberg’s program.”
Hunter did that and more over the next 13 seasons, compiling a record of 305-76 before he took the head coaching job at his alma mater, Ohio, in 1989. He was the third straight coach to leave Wittenberg for a Division I job, following Ray Mears (Tennessee), Eldon Miller (Western Michigan) and Hamilton (Navy).
Hunter lived up to the standard of his predecessors and passed them in many ways, starting with his first season when the Tigers won the Division III national championship by beating Oneonta State 79-66 in Rock Island, N.Y.
“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 be 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.”
Although Hunter never won another national championship at Wittenberg, the Tigers reached the Final Four three more times. It was just the start of a long career that saw him guide the Ohio Bobcats to the NCAA tournament in 1994 with Gary Trent as the star and win two Southern Conference championships with Western Carolina in 2009 and 2011.
Hunter’s former players and colleagues used Twitter to share their memories of Hunter on Friday.
Dustin Ford, former Ohio player: “You taught me to be mentally/physically tough. Anyone who spent time with you knew how to compete. Proud to say I played for the Hunt Dog!”
Mark Prosser, Western Carolina head coach: “Larry Hunter was a man of tremendous character that spent his life mentoring and helping to develop the lives of young men. His impact was felt far beyond his many achievements on the basketball court. Coach Hunter and his legacy will live on within our program for years to come.”
Tom Crean, Georgia coach: “The passing of Coach Larry Hunter is extremely sad. He gave his heart, soul and passion to the coaching profession and ALWAYS had time and encouraging words for his peers. I followed him since I was a kid when he was at Wittenberg. Thank you to his family for sharing him with us.”
Pat Kelsey, Winthrop coach: “Every day before Winthrop basketball practice, our team makes one trip around the court without touching the out of bounds lines. This is to signify that ‘we don’t cut corners.’ Was given to me by Larry Hunter in a random conversation in 2014. He will be missed in our profession.”
Brandon Giles, Polk State head coach: “Rest well, Larry Hunter! It was a great honor to have played for one of the winningest coaches in college basketball history! Your commitment to excellence, hard work, and ability to push others to reach their full potential will NEVER go unnoticed! Love you, Coach!”
Reggie Rankin, former Ohio basketball player: “Really hard day for me. I loved Coach Hunter. I played and worked for him. He would always say, ‘Make Him Taste the Leather.’ He taught me how to compete with toughness on and off the court! Coach Hunter loved his players, coaches and their families. We were his children.”
Steve Forbes, East Tennessee State coach: “Coach Hunter was a fiery competitor & a gentlemen. He carried himself with class & dignity at all times. A true role model for all coaches. God Bless Coach Hunter and his family.”