Where do you turn after the best coach in program history leaves? (Yeah, Lefty Driesell is in the Naismith Hall of Fame, but he’s No. 2 among Georgia State coaches.) Ron Hunter moved heaven and Earth. He took a program that had seen three 20-win seasons in its history and doubled that; took a program that had reached the NCAA tournament twice and, in the span of five years, saw that and raised it.
Not many coaches are truly irreplaceable, but let’s be honest: Finding someone who can match what Hunter just did at GSU will be difficult-verging-on-impossible.
At 11:05 a.m. Sunday, Hunter informed the AJC he was leaving for Tulane. At the NCAA subregional in Tulsa, he’d spoken of a desire to look around. He’s 54. If he was ever going to move, this seemed his last best chance. With star guard D’Marcus Simonds announcing after Friday’s loss to Houston that he plans to declare his eligibility for the NBA draft, next year’s Panthers will be missing the top four scorers off the 24-10 team that just won the Sun Belt.
Beyond the prospects of a rebuild, Hunter had begun to chafe at the reality that eats at every lower mid-major coach. No matter how good your team is, every season comes down to one week in March. A lower mid-major must win its conference tournament just to crash the actual March Madness. That’s a chilling truth that never goes away.
Tulane has been mostly terrible at basketball. It dropped the sport in the ’80s after the Hot Rod Williams point-shaving scandal. It began again in 1989 under Perry Clark, who was Bobby Cremins’ right-hand man at Georgia Tech, and Clark led the Green Wave to three NCAAs from 1992 through 1995. That remains the last time Tulane has graced the Big Dance. It has had one winning season the past 11 years. It just fired Mike Dunleavy, who once coached the L.A. Lakers, after three years that produced a 24-69 record.
Why leave Georgia State, where Hunter had it going in a way no Georgia State coach ever has, for Tulane, which just went 0-18 in league play? Because Tulane is based in the American Conference, which just sent four members — Houston and Cincinnati, teams that eliminated GSU the past two seasons, plus UCF and Temple — to the Dance. Because the American is heavy on programs based in cities, and Hunter, whose previous stop was at IUPUI in Indianapolis, is a city guy. He likes the idea of living and working in New Orleans.
Which isn’t to say he hated Atlanta. On the contrary, he loved it here. He became a big deal here. He turned Georgia State into the best basketball program in a state that produces many good players but few good teams. Even if Georgia State’s past two NCAA excursions weren’t as sweet as the epic upset of Baylor — son hits winning shot and dad/coach falls off his rolling chair — the Panthers were still there. People who watch the NCAA tournament no longer ask, “What’s Georgia State?”
Minus the architect, that could be subject to change. Hunter is a big man with a big personality. His NCAA tournament press briefings were must-see moments in what’s usually a perfunctory exercise. Lefty took GSU to the NCAA tournament and upset Wisconsin in 2001, but folks recall Driesell more for his work at Davidson and Maryland than in the A-T-L. (He worked here for only 5 ½ seasons.) Over his eight years, Hunter became the embodiment of a school that has long sought to brand itself as something besides a commuter college.
Could Georgia State have done more to keep Hunter? Sure. His contract ran only through the 2020 season, which was shocking for the best coach in program history. (He’d gotten an extension in 2014 after his third season; he’d had none since.) GSU plans to build a new arena near the former Turner Field, but the project hasn’t been finalized, which means the next few seasons of Panthers basketball will be staged in the walk-up gym on Decatur Street. In the end, though, this was more about Hunter than about Georgia State.
“I can’t thank the people of Atlanta enough,” Hunter told the AJC on Sunday morning. “This really is not about money. I agonized about this until midnight last night. I love the people of Atlanta and the Georgia State community. Again, I can’t thank them enough. But at this point in my career, it’s time.”
In Tulsa on Friday, he all but conceded he’d taken Georgia State as far as he could, and he took GSU to a place it had never been. His Panthers became the bellwether of the Sun Belt, but the competitor in Hunter yearned to see if he could work his mojo in a bigger league. (College basketball has seven major conferences, the American among that number.)
About Tulane, he said: “I’m really excited … This is the kind of job I’ve always taken. The expectations are kind of mid-level, and you try to exceed those expectations. Mark my words, I’ll get it done.”
Nobody should bet against him. For the hundredth time: Hunter can really coach. As for Georgia State: There would be worse places to start a search than with Ray McCallum, Hunter’s assistant the past three seasons. McCallum has been head coach at Ball State (his alma mater, which he took to two NCAA tournaments), Houston (less success there) and Detroit Mercy (one NCAA). McCallum is 58, meaning he mightn’t be a long-term solution, but he’d offer a measure of stability at what will be a difficult time.
If Georgia State opts to go long-term, it should take a hard look at Jonas Hayes, whose recruiting was the best thing about Georgia at the end of Mark Fox’s tenure and who’s now at Xavier. He’s 37 and has never been a head coach, but he’s a native Atlantan who played at UGA with his twin brother, Jarvis. In the industry, Jonas Hayes is considered a rising star; GSU could offer him the time to shine.
In the days ahead, Georgia State should hope for the best — sorry to go all Jack Reacher on you — but plan for the worst. No matter who it hires, the Panthers need to realize it’s not apt to find another Ron Hunter. There’s only one, and he’s leaving.
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