Think it’s hard recruiting for a program that’s 379 games under .500 and plays its games in a walk-up gym? Try doing it at a place where two basketball tentpoles are mentioned in your school’s name.
Ron Hunter comes from IUPUI, which stand for Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. The Indiana Hoosiers have a history of Bobby Knight and Branch McCracken and Isiah Thomas; the Purdue Boilermakers have Gene Keady and Rick Mount as touchstones. The IUPUI Jaguars had a coach who once worked a game in bare feet, and they played in a gym that shares a building with, as Hunter says, “a world-famous swimming pool” (the Indiana University Natatorium).
It’s unclear if anyone can actually win at Georgia State, but Ron Hunter is the man to try. He has spent his vocational life working at urban universities — first as an assistant at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the past 17 seasons at IUPUI — that were dwarfed by their surroundings. But let the record reflect that Hunter is no dwarf: He’s a big man with a big vision.
“I did not come here to lose,” Hunter told a crowd at the GSU Student Center on Monday. “I am not going to lose.”
Go ahead. Laugh. But know this: Hunter took IUPUI from Division II to Division I — ask Kennesaw State how difficult that transition can be — and hasn’t had a losing record the past 10 years. He took the Jaguars to the Big Dance in 2003, a year after he brought them here and beat Georgia Tech and Paul Hewitt. Granted, Hunter has only the one NCAA tournament to his name, but think of it this way:
If he’d posted, say, five NCAA appearances and a couple of first-round upsets, he wouldn’t have been available when GSU came calling. He’d have been working at a bigger mid-major and wouldn’t have been interested in the Atlanta school with concrete campus and the walk-up gym.
In Hunter, Georgia State hasn’t just found a coach but a real fit. Said Cheryl Levick, GSU’s savvy athletic director: “He has shown he can succeed at large universities in large cities with stiff competition all around him.”
To succeed at GSU, a coach must not only win (and winning has proved tough enough) but promote. In 2008 Hunter coached a game sans shoes, and since then the charity Samaritan’s Feet has collected more than a quarter of a million pairs of shoes for underprivileged children. His dreams regarding basketball are no less large. He said Monday he wants to schedule his first two games against Kentucky’s John Calipari and Michigan State’s Tom Izzo — two friends who’d called with congratulations — and he vowed to pester the Georgia Tech coach, whoever he is, on a daily basis with a proposal to play in Philips Arena.
“Once you see us play, you’ll come back,” Hunter told the gathering. Also this: “The way we play is a little different; I’ve never ever had a shot clock go off. I’ve never sat down [while coaching] in 17 years.”
The Hunter Method is to press and run. “Our shots are either three-pointers or dunks,” he said. Speaking of which:
In his first day on the job, the new GSU coach looked forward to March 2012 — to the Colonial Athletic Association final “on that Monday night,” he said. “Tie game, 11 seconds to play, and I’m calling timeout.” Speaking to his players, whose names he didn’t yet know, earlier in the day, Hunter had asked who could shoot a trey. James Vincent, a 6-foot-10 sophomore reserve, said he could.
Hunter to his audience, which included Vincent and his teammates: “So the big fella is going to hit a three!”
To win the CAA, the league that includes George Mason, Virginia Commonwealth and Old Dominion. Nothing outrageous there.
Later, someone asked if Vincent had ever taken a three-pointer. “Oh, yeah,” he said. In an actual college game? “Well, not in a game.”
No matter. This coach has already called his shot. “Starting tomorrow,” Hunter said, “he’s going to practice a lot. Five hundred shots a day.”
Over its history, Georgia State has proved to be the impossible job. The Panthers are now coached by a man who has, on a regular basis, dared to dream impossible dreams. This should be fun.
By Mark Bradley