Thanks to a pact between two teenagers, Ron Hunter went from an inner city upbringing in West Dayton to the brick and ivy world of Miami University, a place where he’ll now be forever remembered following a special celebration Friday evening at the Shriver Center on campus and Saturday afternoon at halftime of the RedHawks game with Kent State at Yager Stadium.
When he was about 16 and already a basketball presence at Chaminade Julienne High School, Hunter got to know fellow Dayton prep standout, Ron Harper, from Kiser High School.
“We met on the playgrounds, played in summer leagues together and got the chance to play against each other in high school, too,” Hunter said.
“We became such good friends that we thought it’d be cool if we could play together in college.”
Hunter was recruited by schools like Cleveland State, DePaul, Wright State, Florida State and Princeton, but said only Miami offered both he and Harper a chance to play together.
When we spoke the other morning, Hunter – now the successful head coach at Georgia State — said he’d just gotten off the phone with Harper, Miami’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder and a five-time NBA champ with the Chicago Bulls.
Hunter said the two of them have stayed close through the years:
“When he was winning his championships, I was there for them. When my teams have gone to the NCAA Tournament, he’s been there. Any special things we have, we’ve been there for each other on both ends our entire life.
“I probably never would have gone to Miami were it not for him. And I’m glad I did. That’s where I met my wife and where so much of my family is now tied. I’ve had a lot of good things come from there.”
Hunter’s wife Amy, who’s from Urbana, is a Miami grad. So is their daughter Jasmine and her husband is former RedHawks’ basketball player Nick Winbush. And the Hunter’s son, RJ, who now plays for the Atlanta Hawks, was born in Oxford.
Miami is where Hunter – who teamed with Harper on teams that won two Mid-American Conference titles and went to three straight NCAA Tournaments – first got the idea to coach.
He got both his bachelors and master’s degrees from Miami and it’s where he began his coaching career – as a grad assistant on Jerry Pierson’s staff – before later becoming an assistant coach under Herb Sendek.
And now comes one of his most trumpeted connections to the school.
Friday night Hunter will be enshrined in the Cradle of Coaches Association at Miami.
The rest of the induction class includes Dr. Richard Ceronie, PhD ’93 and a former women’s track and cross country coach; Don Knodel, a two-sport athlete who graduated in 1953 and became a noted high school, college and pro basketball coach; Bobby Kramig, who coached men and women’s soccer; and Jim Tressel, a former Miami assistant football coach before going on to fame as Ohio State’s head coach and now the Youngstown State president.
Miami always has been fertile ground for coaches and the Cradle of Coaches Association honors the best of the best, people such as Paul Brown, Woody Hayes, Bo Schemechler, Weeb Ewbank, John Haraugh and Sean McVay in football, Walter Alston in baseball and Darrell Hedric in basketball.
“I’ve been blessed and had a lot of great things happen in my life,” Hunter said. “This ranks right up there. It’s a great honor.”
A big adjustment
After growing up in Becker Drive in West Dayton, Miami University was a big adjustment for Hunter.
“The first six months were tough for both Ron and me,” he said. “I was scared to death. The only minorities at that time were athletes., To be honest, both Ron and I felt like we didn’t belong.
“Basketball, though, became a tool for us. People put their arms around us and welcomed us. As time went by, it helped mature me and prepare me for life. Some of the people I met there – even ones that never played athletics – are still my friends,”
He said his eyes were especially opened when Miami played at Central Michigan, then coached by Miami legend Charlie Coles.
“I remember the game vividly,” Hunter said. “That was the first time I’d seen an African American coaching live. And he was a Miami guy who’d been a great player and he was from Springfield.
“That all resonated so much with me and I came back and told our coach, Jerry Pierson, ‘That’s what I want to do for a living.’”
Later, when Coles returned to Miami, first as an assistant coach and then as the head coach, Hunter said he reached out to him regularly:
“I’d drive him crazy asking his advice, but he was always great if I needed something. He was the guy I always wanted to follow.”
He said Pierson was another mentor for him, as was Hedric, who coached Miami from 1970-84.
Hunter began his career as an assistant at Milwaukee and Miami and then took over at IUPUI in 1994, helping upgrade the program from NAIA status to NCAA Division I.
By the time he left in 2011, he had a 274-219 record, had taken the Jaguars to the NCAA Tournament and twice been named the Summit League Coach of the Year.
He’s now beginning his eighth season at Georgia State. He’s won 140 of 225 games, made two NCAA Tournaments and been named the Sun Belt Conference Coach of the Year.
He coached RJ at Georgia State and the pair won people’s hearts at the end of the 2014-15 season.
Hunter – who had torn his Achilles’ tendon celebrating his team’s Sun Belt Conference Tournament title, a victory that put Panthers into the NCAA Tournament – coached the opener against third-seeded Baylor wearing a cast and sitting on a scooter to get around.
When RJ hit a long, three-pointer with 2.7 seconds left to give Georgia State the improbable comeback win, Hunter, overcome with emotion, jumped up and landed face first on the court.
Even so, he has made a far greater impact away from the game as the first Division I coach to fully embrace the Samaritan’s Feet charity and provide shoes to kids in need all over the world, a quest that’s sent him on numerous goodwill trips to Africa, Central America and the Caribbean.
He credits his open-heartedness to his mom, Janice Cunningham, who raised him and his brother much of the time on her own while working two jobs:
“Growing up she kept me in church a lot and I heard a lot about giving back. And since then she’s never let me get to a point where I thought I was so big I wasn’t gonna help other people.”
‘I love Dayton’
Hunter hasn’t forgotten where he came from.
“I love Dayton,” he said. “I even keep it on my weather map so I can see what’s happening every day.
“I try to come back three or four times a year and at least once to play golf with my dad.”
He’s brought his teams in here play Wright State and Dayton and a few years ago he gave the CJ commencement address at the Schuster Center.
His Dayton and Atlanta relatives will be in Oxford this weekend and that includes Jasmine and Nick, who are bringing their 5-month-old daughter, Phoenix Nicole, Hunter’s first grandchild.
“I watched her the other day and told her a story about her dad and how I tried to recruit him when I was at IUPUI,” Hunter said. “But he turned me down and went to Miami.
“I said, ‘So how about that? Your daddy turns me down for basketball then comes and asks to marry my daughter!’
“But Nick had a good comeback. He said, ‘Coach, if I came to play for you, you never would have let me date your daughter. And then you wouldn’t have a grandchild.’
“That’s so true,” Hunter said as he began to laugh. “So now she’ll be at Miami and I can hold her and tell her all kinds of stories:
“How her granddad scored 97 points in a game here and how he did this and that and that….”
All these years later, Miami still helps Ron Hunter think big.