The reason I have consistently railed against politicians dictating what we do in education is because my own life experiences have shown me that the things they deem important in a child’s development are not important at all. While they continue to discuss meaningless topics such as what they should put in the state academic standards, how much state testing kids should be subjected to, how school district report cards should be changed (again) to make them meaningful, the importance of raising expectations (at the state level), and how teachers should be evaluated, they ignore the attributes the very best educators possess that matter most to kids. I have known how misguided these people are for my entire professional life, but every now and then something happens in life that reminds me how right I am and how wrong they are.
The most recent life experience that showed me again the attributes that really matter in our teachers was the recent sudden and unexpected death of a former coach, mentor, and friend of mine, Coach Larry Hunter.
Coach Hunter came to Wittenberg University 45 years ago, when I was a sophomore on the basketball team there. He was hired as an assistant coach by head coach Bob Hamilton a few short years after his own playing days had ended for Ohio University. Now, if you know anything about college athletics, it will come as no surprise that for the next three years, Coach Hunter and I were pretty much joined at the hip. If for no other reason than the sheer number of hours a college athlete spends in the presence of his or her coaches, they become some of the most influential people in your life … and these two men most certainly have been for me.
The year after I graduated from Wittenberg, Coach Hunter embarked on a storied NCAA head coaching career. First, he took over as head coach at Wittenberg, becoming the first head coach in NCAA history to win a national championship in his inaugural season as a head coach. After spending 13 years coaching Wittenberg to great success, he spent 12 years as the head coach at Ohio University, after which he spent four years as assistant head coach at North Carolina State University, before taking over at Western Carolina University, where he spent 13 years as its head coach. He retired from Western Carolina in March of this year at the age of 68 after collecting 702 victories, making him one of 40 men’s NCAA basketball coaches to eclipse the 700-win mark.
Yet in all my discussions with my former teammates since his tragic death, which, sadly, came just two short months after his retirement, not a single time has his coaching record been mentioned. What has been repeatedly mentioned has been the impact he had on all of our lives as our mentor and friend and about how he showed us how to live a life of dignity and class with great humility.
There is a valuable lesson there.
I’m sure I learned a great deal of basketball from Coach Hunter, but it has been 42 years since I have played a meaningful basketball game, so those skills haven’t meant much to me for decades. Much more important than any basketball skills he may have taught me were the life lessons I learned from him every day we were together; lessons that I still use to this day.
He taught me what it meant to compete fiercely in life, no matter what you do; about how to never back down from your competition; about developing a strong philosophy based on sound thinking and never wavering from it; about how to demand more of yourself than you ever dreamed possible; about how to subvert your own personal interests for the betterment of the people around you; about holding yourself accountable before pointing fingers at others; about not suffering fools lightly; and about giving of yourself to others.
In other words, he showed me every day we were together the attributes that all successful people possess, and they have been a part of me for more than four decades. That is the definition of a true teacher.
My final interaction with Coach Hunter occurred two months before his death. Upon hearing of his retirement, I texted him to let him know (again) how much he has meant to me during my entire life, and I told him that it has been an honor to call him my coach and friend all these years.
I’m sure he was inundated with messages from his former players and coaching colleagues because he was so widely respected, but true to form, I heard back him within hours. He thanked me for my words and his last three words to me were, “Love ya! Coach.”
That says it all.
I am so glad I spent two minutes letting someone I know how important he had been in my life. Might I suggest that you do the same to someone who has been instrumental to your success? I promise you, you won’t regret doing so.
Tom Dunn is the superintendent of the Miami County Educational Service Center.