May 24, 2005
RALEIGH - It seemed that Larry Hunter was "on loan" to the N.C. State basketball program from the moment he arrived on campus four years ago.
Hunter already had 509 college wins on his resume when he joined Herb Sendek's staff, and everyone knew that he eventually would get another head coaching opportunity. That included Sendek, who as the Miami-Ohio head coach (1994-96) had grown to admire Hunter during the pair's head-to-head battles in the Mid-American Conference.
The big day finally came recently, when Hunter was named the head coach at Western Carolina, after his failed pursuits of numerous other Division I jobs over the last two years.
Sendek then promoted from within, moving Larry Harris into Hunter's old role as associate head coach, switching Mark Phelps to recruiting coordinator, and giving Archie Miller full-time assistant status. Miller had been the director of basketball operations, a role that now will go to Greg Morland, formerly the video coordinator.
So how much of an impact will Hunter's departure have on the program?
In all likelihood, plenty. Do the math. Sendek was 86-74 in his first five seasons at State, and he was coming off a 13-16 campaign when Hunter - fired by Ohio University after a 19-11 effort in 2000-01 - came aboard. Sendek went 83-48 over the next four years, with four straight invitations to the NCAA Tournament, including a Sweet 16 trip this season.
Hunter wasn't the only reason for that, of course. A guy named Julius Hodge also arrived on the scene in 2001 and had something to do with it, as did Marcus Melvin, Ilian Evtimov and others. But the contrast in numbers with and without Hunter on the bench is startling, and it is not merely a coincidence.
The 86-74 pre-Hunter record computes to a winning percentage of .537. The 83-48 with Hunter computes to .633. In basketball land, that's the leap from bad to good.
Hunter was the calm, collected voice of experience and a voice of reason on the bench alongside Sendek. One of Hunter's biggest assets was game-planning and his ability to make adjustments during games.
Some State insiders point to the Wolfpack's loss to Wisconsin in the 2005 NCAA Regional semifinals as an example of how valuable a role Hunter played as a strategist. The coach became ill at the team's pregame meal. The game plan was set and the preparation had been done by that point, of course, and it was solid. State dominated the first half and jumped to a 30-21 halftime lead.
At halftime, when Hunter normally would be making adjustments, he was too ill to be helpful. Wisconsin roared back, outscored State 44-26 in the second half and won 65-56. Again, there were many other factors, including Hodge's four-of-16 shooting, but you get the picture.
Some also would contend that Hunter had a greater strength than bench adjustments and mere Xs and Os. Because of the respect and trust Sendek had for him, Hunter was maybe the one person who could disagree with Sendek and get him to change his mind on various strategic and philosophical issues. Not that the other assistants are "yes" men, but Hunter could say things or make suggestions that others might not feel comfortable saying.
Perhaps the best example of that was Sendek's decision to install a variation of the Princeton-style offense four years ago. It was Hunter who talked Sendek into at least considering such a drastic change in philosophy, and it was Hunter who hooked Sendek up with Jim Burson, the long-time Muskingum coach who is credited with perfecting the offense.
The widely held belief that Hunter was the brains behind the offense is a bit exaggerated, though. And the notion that Sendek will abandon the offense now that Hunter has left is misguided. Sendek has said several times that he plans to continue to run the offense this year; many of the current players' strengths, particularly Evtimov, are best-suited for the offense. In addition, recent Wolfpack commitments have stated that the offense has been part of the program's sales pitch, and that there has been no discussion of a change.
Some say Hunter actually was more responsible for the defense than the offense, particularly the matchup zones State played, especially late last season.
Harris, Phelps, Miller Must Deliver
It also will be interesting to see how the rest of the coaches do in their new roles.
Last year's staff seemed to have great chemistry and complemented each other well. While Hunter was the experienced Xs and Os guy, Harris was good with relationships and could play the good cop/bad cop role with players and officials alike. Phelps was the energetic, young, up-and-coming guy more than eager to hit the recruiting trail and do the dirty work, and Miller was in a low-pressure position where he could learn the ropes. One would like to think that Harris, Phelps and Miller will grow in their new roles.
Harris, a 20-year college assistant who has turned down offers and inquiries from several other major programs (including Connecticut) in recent years, does not seem to have head coaching aspirations and in many ways fits the mold of a No. 1 assistant. Moving up the ladder should only increase the enthusiasm of Phelps, who's been a huge help with player relations since his addition to the staff (first as director of operations) in 1996. Many around the ACC see Miller as being a bright young prospect who will be a head coach himself some day.
Miller certainly has the bloodlines. Brother Sean, once a State assistant, is the head coach at Xavier. Their father John recently retired, after winning 657 games over his career as a high school coach in Beaver Falls, Pa.
The fact that Sendek chose to promote from within, instead of going outside and bringing in a No. 1 assistant, had to be good for staff morale. There's something to be said for continuity on a staff, and this is the closest Sendek could come since it was inevitable that Hunter would leave eventually.
It's hard to say that Hunter's departure actually will help in any area, but it could in one sense. Hunter did not do much off-campus recruiting, leaving that area to Sendek and the other assistants. He'd help seal the deal on a player's visit, but he was never a major force on the recruiting side. In theory, at least, Miller will be able to do a lot more in terms of working the AAU scene and summer camps, etc.
The bottom line is that State probably should be grateful to have Hunter as long as it did. The surprise was that he didn't get a better head coaching job sooner. Now that he's gone, though, he definitely will be missed.