Orem • In advance of Utah Valley University’s first road game as a four-year basketball program, the school’s demanding coach added a ground rule: No diving for loose balls along the sideline.
"Let’s be very careful," Dick Hunsaker told his players.
UVU in WAC
Utah Valley University’s basketball program will move into a new era in 2013-14, joining the Western Athletic Conference. The Wolverines’ lineup of current and future rivals:
Great West » Chicago State, Houston Baptist, New Jersey Institute of Technology, Texas-Pan American
WAC » Cal State-Bakersfield, Chicago State, Grand Canyon, Idaho, Missouri-Kansas City, New Mexico State, Seattle, Texas-Pan American
That’s about the only concession Hunsaker ever made to the circumstances of taking a program from junior college competition to NCAA Division I. Coaching in a gym with a stone wall near the court, visiting a California school that has subsequently closed, Hunsaker temporarily lowered his standards.
That’s just one of the stories he can tell from an 11-year tenure at UVU, where he recently posted his 200th victory. Not that there was any observance that night. "I didn’t even know about it," UVU center Ben Aird said.
Yet it was a meaningful milestone of his coaching career, coming in a season filled with them. Hunsaker’s mentor, former University of Utah coach Rick Majerus, died in December, and Hunsaker’s 1989-90 Ball State team was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame in February.
Hunsaker will guide UVU into the Western Athletic Conference in 2013-14. While it’s not the WAC that most Utahns remember, the league offers an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. No longer will Hunsaker have to ask recruits "to let loose of that dream," he said.
That opportunity is among the incentives that have kept him in Orem. Hunsaker attributes his long tenure to administrative support, with athletic director Michael Jacobsen having hired him. Family stability is another factor; his son Holton is a UVU junior guard and Zach is an Orem High School star. Beyond that, there’s a sense that after once having his career knocked off course after being fired at Ball State, Hunsaker viewed UVU as a "destination" job, Jacobsen said.
If competing in the WAC with Texas-Pan American, Chicago State and Missouri-Kansas City will seem weird, such geographic diversity and lack of name recognition are nothing, compared with Hunsaker’s initial scheduling challenges.
He sorted through some 600 potential opponents in building the 2003-04 schedule with the likes of Eugene Bible, Life Pacific and Bethany, home of the stone-walled gym. Hunsaker’s teams have won games in 22 states, including upsets of Arizona State and Oregon State. He developed guard Ronnie Price into an NBA player, sent Ryan Toolson on to a successful European career and built a winning program from scratch.
"He found a way to push me into being a fighter," Toolson wrote in an email from the Canary Islands. "At first, I thought he was filling my head with hot air, but my skills grew every year, thanks to his confidence in me as well as his coaching."
This has been a trying season for Hunsaker, as the Wolverines have struggled to overcome an injury to a key player. The team took a 13-16 record into Saturday’s game with Chicago State; Hunsaker stood 200-126 in 11 seasons at UVU, counting a year of junior college competition.
Even in a losing season, Hunsaker is proud of UVU’s consistency. The Wolverines’ average attendance barely tops 2,000 fans, but he’s hopeful the WAC affiliation will create more interest.
"It’s a good spot, it truly is," he said. "Kids like it here. … How we [build] a following, that’s going to take some time. It’s going to take some NCAA Tournament bids."
Hunsaker describes himself as more patient, after spending most of his career modeling the intense style of Neil McCarthy, his coach as a Weber State guard in the mid-1970s, and Majerus, his boss at Ball State and Utah. Asked to confirm that, Aird laughed nervously and said, "I definitely have seen a change, just in my three years here."
Majerus’ influence remains strong. As he spoke in the team’s locker room, Hunsaker gestured behind him to a wall covered with play diagrams of an upcoming opponent. Hunsaker’s level of commitment almost kept him from attending Ball State’s Hall of Fame celebration in mid-February. Jacobsen persuaded him to stop in Indiana on the way to UVU’s game in New Jersey. Hunsaker also cleared the trip with his players.
The Wolverines lost to the New Jersey Institute of Technology, but not because of inadequate preparation. Two days later, they produced Hunsaker’s 200th win as UVU’s coach, beating another school that needed an introduction: Pacific Union.
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