EXAMINING THE RON HUNTER SAGA

PART ONE | AN INCOMPLETE PICTURE

Georgia State University’s men’s basketball program has been steadily on the rise since Ron Hunter became head coach. Hunter has been a fantastic ambassador for the university since taking the job in 2011 and has helped the team achieve levels of success never before seen at the school. No memory is as vivid in the mind of Panther fans as Ron falling off of his stool after his son and star player, RJ Hunter, hit the biggest shot of his career to help Georgia State upset Baylor in the first round of the 2015 NCAA tournament. He was embraced wholeheartedly by the Panther community, and the memories he helped make will never be forgotten in Atlanta.

In any time of adversity, it’s easy to jump to conclusions. We were all surprised when news began to break that he may be leaving for another job. However, as we watched events unfold and saw various media personalities tweeting and penning articles, we couldn’t help but feel that something was missing. The story didn’t add up given the facts at hand. A constantly-shifting timeline of conflicting accounts compelled us to look into the events surrounding Coach Hunter’s departure ourselves.

Most reports and articles published thus far have suggested that Hunter had been spurned by an apathetic athletic department and lack of progress toward an acceptable long-term extension. These claims placed significant blame on Georgia State for the situation, and the general public was quick to call for action from the school – with some going so far as to demand that Athletic Director Charlie Cobb lose his job. It sounded unbelievable that a university would effectively run their most successful coach (in any sport, ever) out of town, especially when he took his team to three NCAA tournament appearances in five seasons.

So, we began our investigation.

After losing to Houston, Hunter told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Mark Bradley that he was “taking 48 hours to decide his future at Georgia State.” Since then, the team at THERSdaynight.com has been examining tweets, interviews, and other publicly available information in an attempt to get a better idea of the whole situation. We believe that this is the most complete timeline of publicly available knowledge surrounding this situation. We’ve attributed and sourced as much as we can to ensure the facts tell the story.

PART TWO | THE TIMELINE OF EVENTS

Georgia State’s Men’s Basketball team arrives in New Orleans on Thursday, March 14th for the Sun Belt Conference basketball tournament. Georgia State beats Texas State on Saturday to advance to the final against UT-Arlington the next day. Georgia State wins the Sun Belt title game and is going to the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season. We’ve all heard the story of the team bus making the stop at a rest stop bar in Mississippi to watch the Tournament Selection Show. But in his introductory press conference at Tulane, Coach Hunter added a wrinkle to his oft-quoted story. He mentioned that at some point he took his wife aside and said, “I’m thinking about making a move to Tulane. What do you think?” Mere minutes after learning who his team would be playing in the tournament, Hunter had already considered leaving Georgia State.

Georgia State returns to Atlanta and begins preparation for their first round game in Tulsa on March 22nd against a solid Houston team. The week proceeds like any other NCAA tournament prep week and features a whirlwind of media obligations and continued practices.The rest of the week proceeds as originally planned and the team arrives in Tulsa on Wednesday.

Georgia State tips off against the Houston Cougars at 7:20 pm EST Friday evening. Houston storms out to a 15-3 lead, and at this point a Seth Davis tweet appears mentioning the score and that “a little birdie” told him Ron Hunter is ‘a prime target for the Tulane opening.’” This is normal – college insiders get fed info on coaching moves all the time. Coach Hunter and Seth Davis at least know each other going back to as far back as appearing together on the NCAA Tournament coverage in 2015 and 2016. But the timing of the tweet, just 17 minutes after Georgia State tipped off against Houston, is strange. Neither Georgia State nor Tulane would stand to benefit from this story getting out so early. Georgia State obviously doesn’t stand to benefit from leaking the story and Tulane already had their guy. The only one who stands to benefit from the story leaking early is a coach who wants to get in front of the story and control the narrative.

Ron Hunter coaches his final game at Georgia State on March 22nd, 2019

Houston proceeds to dominate the Panthers, coasting to an 84-55 win. After the game, Coach Hunter takes an interview outside the team locker room in which he tells Mark Bradley of the AJC that he is “going to take the next 48 hours to decide [his] future.” But as stated above, this Tulane move has already been in motion – from his own words – since Selection Sunday. The next day is relatively quiet, but speculation is growing and it feels from the outside looking in that this Tulane story has legs. Finally, early on Sunday, March 24th, Coach Hunter breaks his silence and tells Bradley he’s “taking the Tulane job”. Later that day, Tulane officially announces the move.

Within an hour of the announcement, Jeff Schultz of The Athletic releases an article. In the article, Coach Hunter alleges he had felt disrespected by Georgia State due to not getting offered a contract extension.

“I just wanted a long-term deal. So that’s on them. We could’ve had this thing done.” – Ron Hunter to Jeff Schultz of The Athletic.

Hunter states Georgia State did not offer him the long-term contract he desired and also that Athletic Director Charlie Cobb had started ignoring his agent’s calls. He also claimed that he saw himself retiring at Georgia State, but again cited the failed contract negotiations. Coach Hunter’s salary is allegedly set to increase dramatically under his new deal with Tulane. While no official reports of Hunter’s new salary are available at the time of writing this article, sources place his predecessor, Mike Dunleavy Sr., at around $1 million annually. For context, Coach Hunter’s salary at GSU is listed as $550,000 a year.

Georgia State releases a statement shortly after this article went live, but it doesn’t say much other than to thank Coach Hunter for his time at the university. Later that day, Zach Klein of WSB releases a series of videos on Twitter from an interview he did with Coach Hunter regarding his move to Tulane. This is the second major interview Coach Hunter gives on the 24th. Coach Hunter then flies to New Orleans the next morning and puts the pen to paper on his contract in Tulane. All of this – the Schultz article, the WSB interview – has all come out and Coach hasn’t met with his players once since leaving Tulsa, according to a source close to the team.

In his press conference at Tulane on Tuesday, Hunter recalls the struggles of life as a Sun Belt coach – how hard the past season has been knowing his team has to win in March to go to the NCAA tournament, how hard losing the championship in 2013/14 had been despite going 17-1 in conference play. The picture he painted was one of frustration with how things were and his vision for Tulane was one of having all the things he hadn’t had at his previous stops. In other words, he was no longer constrained in a one-bid conference, he was at a program in a better conference with nicer facilities and nearly doubled his salary. No one would blame him for taking the opportunity for those reasons. So why all this?

Coach Hunter alleges in multiple interviews that he was never offered a contract extension to stay at Georgia State long-term. As of the writing of this article, there is no way of confirming or denying this due to Georgia State’s policy of not disclosing information regarding contract negotiations. But let’s read between the lines – it’s a fairly ludicrous suggestion that Athletics leadership would let the all-time winningest coach in program history walk without offering an extension. That’s the part of this story that makes us question his version of the situation in the first place. So, given what we’ve found, it’s fair to question taking it as accepted fact. If Coach Hunter’s assertion is wrong, and a contract offer was offered and rejected, it calls his depiction of the story into question.

PART THREE | CONCLUSIONS

The intent of this article is not to force anyone to hate Ron Hunter. He has done immeasurable good for Georgia State University and its athletic programs. He’s a proud part of our history. And, as stated, it’s a good move for him and his family – one no one could blame him for taking. If that were the reason he gave for leaving, no one would fault him for it. But the point of this article is to make it clear that we believe he was planning on leaving well before the 2018-19 season was over but still wanted to ensure he remained the good guy in the eyes of the public – even at the expense of the reputation of the Georgia State athletics department and its staff.

Coach Hunter, you brought us six 20+ win seasons, three regular season Sun Belt Conference titles, and three NCAA Tournament appearances in your eight years at Georgia State. You represented this school with pride in the national media and gave us many incredible memories. We all truly wish you the best of luck at Tulane.

But the fact is, you can’t have your king cake and eat it, too.

FULL TIMELINE OF EVENTS

March 21st 2011: Ron Hunter hired – base salary of $400,000 plus bonuses.

April 14th 2014: Director of Athletics Cheryl Levick extends Hunter’s contract to 2020, raises base salary to $425,000. Should the team reach the NCAA tournament, Hunter’s salary will increase to $500,000.

August 2014: Charlie Cobb is hired as new Director of Athletics.

March 19th 2015: Ron Hunter falls off stool during NCAA first round upset vs. Baylor, beginning his period of time in the mainstream media spotlight.

March 21st 2015: Georgia State loses to Xavier in the round of 32.

March 26-27th 2015: Hunter appears on March Madness studio coverage alongside Seth Davis of The Athletic and CBS Sports.

April 10th 2015: Bobby Hurley departs the University of Buffalo to coach at Arizona State, citing mistreatment by athletic director with regard to contract negotiation. Hurley’s agent is Jordan Bazant, who has represented Hunter since the early 2000s.

August 1st 2015: Hunter’s contract modified, increasing base salary to $525,000.

March 16th 2016: Athletics issues press release stating Hunter will again appear on Turner’s March Madness coverage, alongside Seth Davis.

April 26th 2016: Basketball practice facility opens, fulfilling a request made during contract negotiations and showing Athletics’ commitment to Hunter and the program.

Offseason 2018: Rumored contract extension negotiations – details publicly unknown.

Offseason 2018: State of Georgia’s Open Georgia Gateway reports Ron Hunter’s salary and travel allowances for fiscal year 2018 as $551,565 and $18,591.85, respectively.

November 6th 2018: 2018-19 Men’s Basketball season begins against ETSU. No public indication yet that Hunter is unhappy.

February 28th 2019: GSU defeats Arkansas State. A member of the media addresses Hunter during the postgame press conference, asking him if he had a message for the fanbase as the end of the season approaches. Hunter says, “If this is my last home game this week and these seniors, and whatever happens in this regard, understand that we brought a culture of winning here. Come and support it, please.” Hunter’s contract not due to expire until 2020.

March 16th 2019 – 10:00am EST: Tulane announces head men’s basketball coach Mike Dunleavy Sr. has been relieved of coaching duties.

March 16th 2019 – 2:55pm EST: Georgia State defeats Texas State to advance to Sun Belt Championship game on Sunday, March 17th.

March 16th 2019: During Texas-Arlington vs. Georgia Southern semifinal game, ESPN commentators mention that Hunter said he found one of his players practicing shots at Tulane the night before.

March 17th 2019: Georgia State defeats Texas-Arlington to win Sun Belt tournament.

March 17th 2019: Team bus stops at truck stop bar to watch NCAA tournament selection show. Ron Hunter reveals in Tulane press conference that he spoke with his wife during this stop that he was considering taking the Tulane job.

March 22nd 2019 – 7:20pm EST: Georgia State vs. Houston NCAA First Round game tips off in Tulsa.

March 22nd 2019 – 7:37pm EST: Seth Davis tweets that Hunter may be departing for Tulane.

March 22nd 2019: During postgame press conference, D’Marcus Simonds says he’s going to wait to discuss his future but “chances are, [he] won’t be back at Georgia State”. Hunter later says, “I’m gonna take ‘possibly’ out, because it’s time”.

March 22nd 2019 – 10:45pm EST: AJC’s Mark Bradley publishes article with Hunter quoted as saying, “I’m going to take the next 48 hours to decide my future”. Interview took place outside locker room immediately postgame.

March 24th 2019 – 11:10am EST: Mark Bradley tweets that Hunter has accepted the Tulane job.

March 24th 2019 – 5:27pm EST: Tulane officially announces Hunter as new head coach. Contract details are not made public, but Tulane’s previous coach (Dunleavy) reportedly earned over $1 million per year.

March 24th 2019 – 6:01pm EST: The Athletic publishes Jeff Schultz article with Hunter’s side of the story.

March 24th 2019 – 6:38pm EST: Georgia State issues press release on Hunter’s departure.

March 25th 2019 – 1:30pm EST: D’Marcus Simonds tweets defense of AD Charlie Cobb in response to fanbase outrage.

March 26th 2019 – 1:00pm EST: Ron Hunter introduced by Tulane in press conference. Hunter reveals that he asked his wife about moving to New Orleans and taking the Tulane job while the team was watching the NCAA selection show, confirming he was a lame duck coach for the entire week leading up to the NCAA tournament (44:40-45:20).

UPDATE 3/31/19 – 12:15pm

Doug Roberson of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has published an article examining the hidden contract negotiations between Hunter, his agent, and Georgia State as revealed by an Open Records request.

Both Georgia State Athletics and Ron Hunter (via Tulane) were sent a request for comment the day before this article was published.

Georgia State Athletics declined to comment. Ron Hunter has yet to respond.

This report and related opinions were based on independently sourced, publicly-available information accessible at the time of publishing. All reasonable efforts have been exercised to ensure accuracy and fairness with regard to available resources. This piece was co-authored by the entire THERSday Night staff. All photographs (minus Twitter and Open Georgia screen captures) courtesy of Georgia State Sports Communications.

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