Wednesday, March 19, 2003

Hunter has IUPUI in promised land


Ex-Miami player helps school to 1st NCAA berth

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

IUPUI coach Ron Hunter had a good-natured laugh when told USA Today installed his team at 100 gazillion-to-1 odds to win the NCAA Tournament.

"If I was a betting man ... that's about the same odds of me getting this program to Division I and in this tournament," he said.

The former Miami University standout sees his team's first NCAA appearance - it's scheduled to meet top-ranked Kentucky on Friday - as vindication for his taking the road less traveled.

After assisting first at Wisconsin-Milwaukee and then at his alma mater, Hunter surprised friends and colleagues in 1994 when he took over at the Indianapolis school, which at the time was an NAIA program.

"I was telling people I wanted to get the program nationally known," Hunter said. "No one's laughing now.

"I learned from my days at Miami all about being a giant-killer."

Hunter plays up that analogy. Last week, preparing to play Mid-Continent Conference favorite Valparaiso in the league championship game, he pulled out a Bible in the locker room and read the passage about David and Goliath.

"I said, `Let's shock the world,' " Hunter said.

And so the Jaguars (20-13) beat Valpo 66-64 on a last-second shot by 26-year-old Matt Crenshaw, the oldest player in Division I. And so Hunter did a belly-flop onto the court, burning a hole in his pants and screaming, "Thank you, Lord!"

"The pep talk worked so well, I'm going out to get a slingshot and three rocks, and before we play Kentucky I'm going to read David and Goliath again, then play the movie Hoosiers," Hunter said.

After his first season, Hunter moved the program into NCAA Division II, then made the jump to Division I three years later. He ranks first in school history for winning percentage (.525) with a 136-123 mark.

Hunter had a tough sell recruiting to the urban commuter university, which prefers its abbreviation to the official name of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. He said players 20 miles outside of town didn't even know of the school. He tells the story of making a home visit to a player in California a few years ago, and 20 minutes in, the recruit's mother asked, "So, when does Coach Knight arrive?"

Hunter said he held the NCAA Tournament as his goal, keeping the memory fresh of his three trips while playing at Miami. The team went 81-30 during his four seasons, and he averaged 9.5 points and nearly three rebounds as a senior in 1985-86.

He still keeps in close contact with his former Miami coaches, Darrell Hedric and Jerry Peirson; with current Miami coach Charlie Coles; and with former teammates Ron Harper, Eddie Schilling and Eric Newsome.

Hunter has been linked to coaching openings, with Wright State and Cleveland State reportedly showing heavy interest. The Wright State possibility is intriguing, as Hunter is a Dayton native and that school just fired Schilling.

"The time will come when I have to leave here," Hunter said. "I know the next thing I do will be more of an established program. It's nice that I could pick and choose now."

TUBBY HONORED: UK coach Tubby Smith captured two awards Tuesday, as The Sporting News named him its national coach of the year and the U.S. Basketball Writers Association announced he had won the Henry Iba coach of the year award.

He is the first Kentucky coach to earn USBWA coach of the year honors since Adolph Rupp won in 1966.

Earlier this month, Smith was named Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year by both the Associated Press and the league's coaches, and earned national coach of the year honors by ESPN and Foxsports.com.

E-mail nschmidt@enquirer.com




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