Larry Hunter might not be a household coaching name for mid-major fans, but he should be. In Western Carolina’s 88-71 win over Samford last week, Hunter claimed his 700th career victory in 38 seasons, spanning from his time at Wittenberg, Ohio, and now with the Catamounts.
Prior to coming to Cullowhee, Hunter also spent time as both assistant and associate head coach at N.C. State, where he served under one of his many mentors, Herb Sendek. He got his start in coaching at Marietta College in Ohio as an assistant coach from 1971-73.
Hunter has seen success follow him at each of his three head coaching jobs along the way. However, the one thing that has evaded him since arriving in Cullowhee is a conference tournament championship and subsequent trip to the NCAA Tournament.
“To be quite honest, the one thing that I am a little disappointed in here is that we haven’t won a championship yet,“ Hunter said.
That’s not to say the Catamounts haven’t been pretty darn close in Hunter’s 13 seasons. So far, he has taken the Catamounts to two Southern Conference Tournament title games (2012 and 2014), losing both in heartbreaking fashion.
The Catamounts dropped a 93-91 double-overtime game to then-league juggernaut Davidson in 2012, and just two years later, the Catamounts found themselves back in the tournament title game, only to lose 56-53 to Mike Young’s Wofford club.
Though the Catamounts have yet to claim a Southern Conference Tournament title, Hunter has seemingly always had the Catamounts in the thick of things come March when the battle commences for the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
In five out of the last eight SoCon Tournaments, Hunter has helped the Catamounts reach the league tournament semifinals, with two appearances in the championship game. Western Carolina’s lone Southern Conference Tournament title came way back in 1996, when the Catamounts nearly became the first No. 16 seed to knock off a No. 1 seed before falling by two to Gene Keady’s Purdue Boilermakers.
One of the best ways to describe Hunter is that he is a perennial overachiever. The Southern Conference is a tough league, and the recruiting battlefields are where you sometimes have to be creative, especially when going up against traditional powers like Chattanooga and East Tennessee State.
Hunter has, at times, sought the unconventional road of bringing in guys from overseas, as is the case on this season’s roster (Yalim Olclay is from Turkey). But more often, guys are already polished and able to come in via the JUCO route, like Mike Amius (North Platte CC).
“There’s a lot of different ways to go about recruiting, and a lot of creative ways you have to find your niche when trying to match your competitors,” Hunter said. “There are so many recruiting services and sites to get information from now, that it’s not always necessarily about the teams in your conference that you recruit against, but more about finding the right fit for your program and how that guy will fit into your overall philosophy and what you are trying to accomplish.”
Hunter has had success on the recruiting trail, bringing in the likes of All-American and future lottery pick Gary Trent at Ohio. Hunter, with Trent in-tow, won a MAC title with the Bobcats in 1993-94.
“There are a lot of similarities between Athens and Cullowhee,” he said. “Really good people in both places, and a close-knit community that cares about each of the two programs. I guess the only real difference is there are a few more mountains here.”
During his time in Cullowhee, Hunter’s best team was the 2009-10 Catamounts, who finished 22-12 and made one of two non-conference postseason tournament appearances, with trips to the CollegeInsider.com Tournament in 2010 and a trip to the College Basketball Invitational (CBI) in 2016. But Hunter has yet to achieve a second NCAA Tournament bid, which is the ultimate goal of any team in a so-called one-bid league. However, Hunter helped the Cats to divisional regular-season titles in 2008-09, as well as in 2010-11.
Once again, Hunter has the Catamounts in a prime position for one of the top six seeds for the upcoming Southern Conference Tournament in Asheville. The Catamounts are overachieving, currently sitting fifth overall in the league standings with a 6-5 league mark and an 11-13 overall record.
The Catamounts played one of the most difficult non-league schedules of any team in the SoCon. It has paid off. They are looking like a team no one wants to play come March.
“I really enjoy coaching this team,” Hunter said. “I look forward to working with these kids every day, and we’ve done our best to build this program on trust, discipline and we want to make them great people and great students before anything we worry about on the basketball floor.”
Hunter’s win over Samford was a moment he can savor in retirement and makes him the newest member of the elite “700 Club,” but the soft-spoken, humble coach is now concentrating on getting his team ready for the postseason.
That’s the true mark of any coach that reaches 700 wins in a career.