He’s the New Mexico basketball coach who never was.
When you look at the long basketball journey of Dick Hunsaker — from his family’s ties to sugar beet farming in Clovis and playing for the likes of Brooks Jennings, Jimmy Joe Robinson and Steve White to playing for Don Haskins at UTEP and coaching with the likes of Neil McCarthy, Rick Majerus through the years to his ties with former Lobo coaches Bob King, Norm Ellenberger, Steve Alford and Craig Neal — it’s hard to imagine anyone has deeper basketball roots in this region.
And hard to figure out how he never coached in the Land of Enchantment.
The 64-year-old former Mountain West Coach of the Year (at Utah) and Western Athletic Conference champion (Utah Valley) spent a week back home in Albuquerque earlier this month as a guest of University of New Mexico men’s basketball coach Paul Weir.
Hunsaker spent his time back in Albuquerque as a guest speaker at Weir’s high school coaches clinic and also observed several days of Weir and the entire Lobos coaching staff running their program, offering his thoughts, criticisms and observations. And when it was done, he spent an hour with the Journal last week to record a podcast conversation about that experience and the coaching influences he’s had throughout his career — one he hopes will continue in some capacity again soon.
Aside from his years as a head coach at stops like Utah, Utah Valley and even leading Ball State to the Sweet 16 in 1990, it was decades of observing coaching greats as a player and assistant that has him optimistic about watching how Weir is going about the rebuilding of the Lobos program.
“I can’t tell you how impressed that I was when I came away from there,” Hunsaker said of watching the Lobos for a week.
He said he saw the Lobos use a detail-oriented approach to practice and liked “the things that (Weir) was doing with a vision — with a long term, with a big picture vision of it and the way he conducts his program, builds his team.”
It was back in Clovis when Hunsaker says his basketball foundation was being built, crediting his good fortune for playing under and learning from the likes of White, Robinson and Jennings, in particular, who was the longtime Clovis athletic director and statewide basketball referee.
“I developed a special relationship with Brooks Jennings, who really was that father figure and, to this day, was probably that person my heart feels closest to in the game of basketball and as a person,” said Hunsaker.
From Clovis, it was on to a crash course in discipline at UTEP to play for the legendary Haskins, who Hunsaker “probably imprinted my coaching philosophy more than anyone.”
A stint playing for Neil McCarthy, who later found great success coaching New Mexico State, after transferring to Weber State in Utah led to Hunsaker’s first coaching job after graduation.
By the late 1980s, Hunsaker decided to join the new coaching staff at Ball State with Majerus, whom he also coached with again later at Utah (in between, Hunsaker replaced Alford at Manchester College and even coached Craig Neal briefly in the Continental Basketball Association).
“Rick was a real guy,” Hunsaker said of Majerus, a longtime favorite in the Pit. “Rick became bigger than life. … If there was a clinic going on in 2000, and at that time Bobby Knight, Mike Krzyzewski, Rick Pitino and Rick Majerus were all speaking, 80 percent of that crowd is going to be in the Majerus gym listening to him. He was that big and had that big of an impact on the game. Nobody could combine the personality, the humor and the incredible knowledge that Rick had.”
Hunsaker went on to coach Utah Valley for 13 seasons, leading the program from a junior college into Division I status and even winning the WAC in the 2013-14 season.
“Winning the WAC that first year was arguably the biggest achievement of my career,” Hunsaker recalled.
His last couple seasons at Utah Valley in the WAC was when he became aware of Weir at NMSU. After a week of observing Lobo practices, even with all his years of experience of his own as a head coach and learning from some of the greats, Hunsaker said there isn’t much he can critique of Weir’s approach.
“If you come in and are going to explain the weaknesses or the loopholes of what he’s trying to achieve or do with his team, I think he’s going to be two or three steps ahead of you,” Hunsaker said. “He knows what his objective is.”