The late Sue Gunter was a pioneer in women's basketball, but what defined the Hall of Famer was something much more than 708 wins in 40 seasons. She was a mentor and a friend and she did it with integrity and class.
Those two traits are easy to see why her legacy lives on in Baton Rouge and throughout the women's game today. There are reminders everywhere at LSU of what she meant to the program. A bronze statue and painting stands in the complex named in her honor. A banner hangs from the Maravich Center rafters with her accomplishments. Her phrase "dream big, work hard," is prominent among the current class of players.
Then there are the people she affected on a daily basis during her coaching career - the players, the managers, the coaches and the support staff. A painting proudly hangs from the wall of LSU associate head coach Bob Starkey's office. A photo sits on the desk of Cornelia Gayden, a three-time All-Southeastern Conference guard from 1993-95, in her office in McComb, Miss.
"Playing for Coach Gunter was one of the most amazing things to ever happen to me in my life," said Gayden, a 1995 All-American. "She was not only a great coach and a great mentor for all of us. She was concerned about our education and concerned about us as people first and foremost. That just made it easy to want to play for her."
"Coach Gunter is someone who has greatly influenced me as a coach and as a person," Starkey said. "That influence is just as strong today ever before. I feel obligated to carry on her legacy of love for the game and the players that play it so that I can share her influence."
Gunter came to LSU in 1982 after compiling a 226-87 record in 12 years as head coach and then director of women's athletics at Stephen F. Austin. She inherited a Lady Tiger program in just its eighth year of existence. She led LSU to five straight 20-win seasons, an NCAA Sweet 16 berth in her second year and an Elite Eight appearance two seasons later in 1986.
There were tough times with three straight losing seasons from 1992-95, but Gunter would win her 500th career game on Feb. 9, 1995, a day that remains in the NCAA record book. Gayden scored an LSU record 49 points and buried an NCAA record 12 three-pointers against Jackson State, but that accomplishment was an afterthought to the All-SEC player.
"That record was the farthest thing from my mind," Gayden said. "The only thing that mattered was getting a win for Coach Gunter. She was the star that night, not me. It was such a tough season, and I could see the wear and tear on her after losing the amount of games we did. My focus wasn't about the record. It was about winning for Coach Gunter."
Brighter days lay ahead for an LSU program reaching new heights under Gunter's leadership. The Lady Tigers got back to the Sweet 16 in 1997 and then again in 1999 before losing to Louisiana Tech, 73-52, in the regional semifinal. That loss served as a turning point for the program seeking to reach an Elite Eight for the first time.
"There probably would have been a lot of coaches who patted everyone on the back and said congratulations on a great season," said Starkey, who served as an assistant under Gunter for six seasons. "Normally that would have been Coach Gunter, but we only had one senior on that team. She let everyone know in that locker room that we did not finish and that was an unacceptable way to finish the season."
Gunter ordered everyone on the bus and back to the hotel where the team gathered in a meeting room and brainstormed on what was needed to get over the hump and reach an Elite Eight. One year later, the Lady Tigers broke through upsetting second-seeded Duke in the regional semifinal for the school's first Elite Eight appearance.
The signing of Seimone Augustus, who would go on to win two National Player of the Year awards, and the leadership of point guard Temeka Johnson gave LSU a 30-win season in 2003 and another Elite Eight appearance. In Gunter's last season at LSU, the Lady Tigers broke through for the program's first Final Four appearance, a crowning achievement for an already brilliant career.
Gunter missed the final 20 games due to illness that year, but the Lady Tigers fought on in a season that culminated in New Orleans. Johnson says Gunter shaped her career and the person she is today.
"To me, the first thing that comes to mind is character," she said. "That's what she instilled in us. It was not just always about basketball. It was about us being individual women in the world today. Basketball was definitely a luxury, so I was honored to have the opportunity to play for her, get to know her, and spend as much time as possible with her."
Gunter completed her career as the third winningest women's basketball coach in history with an overall record of 708-308. Gunter's LSU record was 442-221, which makes her the winningest coach in school history.
In 22 seasons, she guided the Lady Tigers to 14 NCAA Tournament appearances, one NCAA Final Four, four NCAA Elite Eight appearances, eight NCAA Sweet 16 appearances, two SEC Tournament titles while winning several Coach of the Year honors.
In 2000, she was inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame. Five years later, she reached the sport's ultimate shrine, the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2005. She passed away that year on Aug. 4, 2005, but her legacy lives on.
"There would be an enormous amount of pride and perseverance because of what it took to get the program to where it is now," Starkey said. "Then her competitiveness would kick in and she would ask how we could build on this. She spent a lot of hours making this program better."
In the fall of 2009, LSU established the Sue Gunter Classic, a tournament that will be played annually in her honor. Dozens of former players came back for the tournament's inaugural banquet. The theme was unison on how much Gunter meant to her players. New generations of Lady Tigers see and hear about the Hall of Famer on nearly a daily basis.
"It was about two things when we stepped out on the floor - winning and playing for our coach," said Gayden. "We loved and respected her to the highest level. Even a few years after her death and today, if something wonderful happens in my life, she is one of the first people who come to mind that I would love to talk to. A part of her continues to live in me."
"A big part of what we do here is that we have a large number of players come back and that is a testament to Coach Gunter," Starkey added. "These players constantly talk to our current team about who Coach Gunter was and what she believed in. Her legacy is passed down."
In addition to her Basketball Hall of Fame accolades and USA Basketball experience, Gunter can add one final honor to her historic career. On Saturday, she will officially go into the LSU Athletic Hall of Fame in the building she called home for 22 passionate years.
"For her to be inducted into the LSU (Athletic) Hall of Fame, it is a tremendous way to maintain her legacy and educate more people today on her accomplishments of the past," Starkey said. "If Coach Gunter were here today, I think she would be proud of making it to the Hall of Fame but more so because she would look at it as a program honor. She would always deflect any type of publicity she got. It was about the team, the players and the fans."