When explaining one of the reasons he hired Georgia State’s Ron Hunter as his basketball coach, Tulane athletic director Troy Dannen said Tuesday he wanted someone whose “expectations exceed our wildest dreams.”
Seconds later, Hunter walked to the dais at Devlin Fieldhouse and showed everyone exactly what Dannen meant.
“I had planned on going to the NCAA tournament next year with my team at Georgia State,” he said at his introductory news conference. “I plan on going to the tournament next year with my team at Tulane. … Not only are we going to win, we are going to win big, and we’re going to consistently win.”
Tulane had been a consistent loser this century before bottoming out this season, going 4-27 overall, finishing 0-18 in the American Athletic Conference and dropping its final 21 games under third-year coach Mike Dunleavy, costing him his job. The Green Wave, which last reached the NCAA tournament in 1995, has not even been to the NIT since 2000, enduring 14 sub.-500 seasons since then.
Hunter, who stepped out of a car, was handed an umbrella and was serenaded to Devlin Fieldhouse in a second-line parade on campus, said he did not care about the past.
“I’ve got two goals for this team next year — to have the largest turnaround in NCAA history from 0-18 to the NCAA tournament, and to prove everyone wrong,” he said. “There’s a lot of work we’ve got to get done, but that’s what we’re going to get done. … All you who doubt, that’s OK, but I am going to tell you I told you so. When I left Atlanta, I sent out a lot of I told you so’s to a lot of people.”
Part of his opening speech was a comedy routine — he joked that he should have asked for more money after Dannen labeled him a great coach, man and father while introducing him — but he was not kidding about the dramatic reversal he foresees.
Exuding confidence, the personable Hunter will try to succeed where his four predecessors failed, coming nowhere close to the standards Perry Clark set when he guided the Wave to the NCAA tournament three times in four years during the 1990s. Hunter touted his experience in urban centers after coaching IUPUI in Indianapolis for 17 years and Georgia State in Atlanta for the next eight. He labeled tiny Devlin Fieldhouse (listed capacity: 4,100) as an asset rather than a liability, comparing it favorably to his teams’ venues at IUPUI and Georgia State.
Mainly, he insisted he would recruit well, planning on adding two or three players to the mix next season while using Louisiana and Georgia as his base. He added he would hire an assistant coach with strong Louisiana and New Orleans connections to join the staff members he brings from Georgia State — matching the approach he used at IUPUI and Georgia State.
“I’m going to be able to get players here," he said. "We are going to take the exact same formula that we took at IUPUI and we took at Georgia State and we’re going to apply it here. And I don’t think it’s going to work, I know it’s going to work.”
He will start by working on the mentality of the returning players. Saying it was inconceivable a team could win only four games in a season, he pointed out Georgia State improved to 22-12 in his first year there from 12-19 the previous season.
“Before you get to the basketball floor, there’s lot of things that have to change,” he said. “It’s a mindset. A lot of things I’m going to be doing with these guys is just the mental part. The Xs and Os part won’t be as hard. I don’t want any guys to think about anything that happened in the past. Today is a new day.”
Sophomore Caleb Daniels, Tulane’s leading scorer, said the transformation already had begun.
“I feel like we had a good team this year but just couldn’t put the pieces together,” he said. “Now he’s just adding that culture piece to it, and that will complete us. That’s what we’ve been waiting for — a coach that’s going to dig in us and push us to get better.”
Georgia State reached the NCAA tournament for the third time in five years last week after getting there only twice before Hunter’s arrival. IUPUI’s tourney appearance in 2003 under Hunter remains its only one.
“I still don’t even know what IUPUI (Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis) stands for and I worked there for 17 years,” he said. “If I can recruit and win at IUPUI, I surely can recruit and win at Tulane.”
Dannen needed only eight days from firing Dunleavy to announcing Hunter’s hiring. Hunter said they got a fast start during the Sun Belt Conference tournament, which Georgia State won at UNO’s Lakefront Arena on March 17.
On the Panthers’ ride back to Atlanta, the bus stopped in Mississippi so they could watch the NCAA tournament selection show. After it was over, he pulled his wife aside and told her he was thinking about leaving for Tulane. When she signed off on the idea, the rest was just about working out the details, which Dannen and Hunter did Saturday in Atlanta a day after Georgia State’s loss to Houston in the first round of the tournament.
“He has always been the No. 1 guy on my list,” said Dannen, who added he talked to 14 candidates. “He was unapproachable three years ago (when Dunleavy was hired) given timing and everything else, but I knew if I had an opening I was going to go to him. He was the only coach I sat down face to face with.”
The appeal was mutual. Terms of the contract were not revealed, but sources said Dunleavy, his immediate predecessor, signed a six-year contract worth at least $1 million annually when he was hired.
“My plan was to retire at Georgia State and be the basketball coach there,” Hunter said. “The last four or five years I’ve had multiple offers, so it was going to take a lot for me to leave. He (Dannen) blew me away, and I said yes.”