Gunter, Sue (1939–2005)

By: John Godwin

Type: Biography

Published: September 13, 2021

Updated: September 13, 2021


Pioneer women’s college basketball coach Sue Gunter was born in Walnut Grove, Mississippi, on May 22, 1939. She was the daughter of Lovette Golden Gunter and Ivadean (Barham) Gunter. She played basketball at Walnut Grove High School and led the team to a 44–4 record in 1956–57; she averaged twenty-eight points per game. Gunter played the 1957–58 season for East Central Community College in Decatur, Mississippi, before matriculating to Nashville Business College (NBC, 1958–62), where she led her team to the 1958 National Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) Championship. While playing at NBC, Gunter earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree from nearby Peabody College (since 1979 a part of Vanderbilt University), which did not have a women’s basketball team. Gunter, a 1960 All-American, joined the U. S. National Team that year. In 1962 she ended her playing career upon becoming women’s basketball coach at Middle Tennessee State College (now University) in Murfreesboro, where she went undefeated in two seasons.

In 1964 Gunter became the head women’s basketball coach at Stephen F. Austin State College (now University) in Nacogdoches, Texas. In sixteen seasons, Gunter led the Ladyjacks to 266 wins. Her teams made the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) playoffs five times, often playing and defeating much larger schools from across the country. Stephen F. Austin finished in the top ten national rankings four times, won four unofficial state titles, and captured a regional crown. In both 1979 and 1980­ Gunter’s Ladyjacks finished fifth in the country in the final Associated Press polls for all schools of all sizes. In 1978–79 they finished 30–5, including wins over Houston, Mississippi, Tennessee, Maryland, Texas, and UCLA. In 1979–80 Stephen F. Austin rose to as high as number two, with wins over Texas A&M, Baylor, Missouri, Texas, and Oregon. The Ladyjacks had become a powerhouse, not as a small or medium school, but under Gunter they were a national leader in women’s basketball.  SFA’s unlikely prominence was reflected in a story titled “In Nacogdoches the Ladyjacks are King” in the March 14, 1980, edition of the Eugene (Oregon) Register-Guard. The story described the difficulty the University of Oregon Ducks experienced getting to and even finding Nacogdoches to face the then third-ranked Ladyjacks, who had won home court for that season’s playoffs.

Gunter not only brought Ladyjack basketball to national prominence but was also a major player in laying a foundation for modern women’s basketball at all levels. Her early career was quite Spartan; women’s basketball was almost a novelty, and few considered it a real sport. Gunter’s two years at Middle Tennessee and her first four at SFA did not count towards the records she would set over her career, because the NCAA did not yet exist for women’s athletics. At SFA, she also coached softball, tennis, and track. “She was an administrator,” longtime assistant Pokey Chatman said in 2004. “She probably taught a class. She drove the bus. She coached the team.” In recognition of her success and promotion of women’s basketball, Gunter was named assistant coach of the 1976 Olympic team that won silver in Montreal. She was head coach of U. S. National teams in 1976, 1978, and 1980. The latter year Gunter also coached the U.S. Olympic women’s team. That team, which included two of Gunter’s own Ladyjack players—Barbara Brown and Rosie Walker—did not go to the Moscow Games because of a U. S. boycott protesting the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. On July 26, 1980, the Stephen F. Austin Board of Regents passed a resolution in appreciation of Coach Gunter upon her retirement from active coaching, after which she became SFA’s Director of Woman’s Intercollegiate Athletics.

Gunter’s retirement from coaching was short-lived, however, and a second career in the Southeastern Conference began in 1982, when she became head coach of the Louisiana State University (LSU) women’s basketball team. In twenty-two years leading the Lady Tigers, she won another 442 games, took two SEC titles and made fourteen NCAA post-season tournament appearances, including eight Sweet 16s, four Elite Eights, and one Final Four. She was named 1983 National Coach of the Year, and in 1985 her Lady Tigers won the Women’s National Invitational Tournament. In 1994 the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association recognized Gunter with its Carol Eckman Award, given to a member coach who best reflects Eckman’s character traits of “courage, ethical behavior, honesty, sportsmanship and commitment to the student-athlete.” Gunter was named SEC Coach of the Year in 1997 and 1999. She was subsequently elected to the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2000 and inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2005.

Gunter died of respiratory failure on August 4, 2005, in Baton Rouge. A heavy smoker who was dependent on oxygen, she had stopped coaching during the 2003–04 season because of severe emphysema and acute bronchitis. She was known for five basic coaching principles:  empowering the people around you, the importance of character, flexibility, taking input, and constantly developing one’s players. At the time of her death, she was the third winningest coach in women’s basketball with an overall record of 708–308. A fellow record-setting coach, Jody Conradt of the University of Texas, told the New York Times: “Sue is one of a group of coaches who, early on, made a commitment to the sport when there was no tangible reason to do it. We weren’t paid very well. We toiled in obscurity. The joy of being able to coach young women was reward enough.” Gunter was buried beside her parents in Mount Zion Cemetery in her hometown of Walnut Grove, Mississippi.

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Gary Blair and Rusty Burson A Coaching Life (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2017). Eugene (Oregon) Register-Guard, March 14, 1980. Robert W. Ikard, Just for Fun: The Story of AAU Women’s Basketball (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2005). David L. Porter, ed., Basketball: A Biographical Dictionary (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2005). Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame: Sue Gunter (https://www.hoophall.com/hall-of-famers/sue-gunter/), accessed September 5, 2021. New York Times, August 5, 2005. Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame: Sue Gunter (https://www.wbhof.com/famers/sue-gunter/), accessed September 5, 2021.

Categories:

  • Sports and Recreation
  • Coaches
  • Sports (Basketball)
  • Women

Time Periods:

  • Texas Post World War II
  • Texas in the 21st Century

Places:

  • East Texas
  • East Central Texas
  • Nacogdoches

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

John Godwin, “Gunter, Sue,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed December 05, 2021, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/gunter-sue.

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September 13, 2021
September 13, 2021

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