KOKOMO, Ind. He stands on the sidelines, watching intently as the team lines up around the free throw line. Three times the ball thuds against the floor, a moment of silence, and then the swish as it goes through the net. The players clap once, nearly in unison, before shifting places to the left, for the next player to shoot.
As Cliff Hunt observes the Indiana University Kokomo men’s basketball team preparing for its next game, it has to bring back memories of an earlier time, and earlier team, when the campus made its first foray into intercollegiate athletics.
Hunt, now 88, coached the IU Kokomo Knights from 1981 to 1991, starting the team as a club sport, and growing it to play against other schools.
“It just wasn’t the right time,” he said, adding he was thrilled when the campus’s athletic programs, now branded as the Cougars, earned NAIA membership in 2013.
“That’s what I always wanted, and I knew we’d get there,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed seeing how far athletics has come on campus.”
Hunt, who grew up in Marion and played in two state finals with the Marion High School Giants, moved to Kokomo after serving in the U.S. Air Force. His first coaching experience came in the military, coaching successful squadron and base basketball teams at Keesler Air Force Base, Biloxi, Mississippi.
Basketball took a backseat to working and raising a family for a while, until he saw an advertisement for a basketball coach at IU Kokomo.
“I’ve always been a gym rat,” he said. “They thought it was time to try to get into intercollegiate athletics, and I had some coaching experience, so I applied and got the job.”
It wasn’t an easy task to start a team on what was then a commuter campus, with a population mostly made of older returning adult students. Hunt started recruiting by hanging signs. As long as a student was enrolled in at least one class, he qualified to play.
“We didn’t really have anything to offer them,” Hunt recalled. “We just had to find kids who were going to IU Kokomo, and convince them to play. I talked to several local high school coaches, and we got together a decent team.”
IU Kokomo didn’t have a gym, so games were at the Armory and Washington School, with practices at Elwood Haynes Elementary, and “just about any place we could get.”
There were no excused absences from class for games or practices, so most were held in the evening, and whoever could attend would be there — almost never the full team.
“We made it work, to a degree, over a period of time,” Hunt said, “We had a couple of good teams.”
They started out playing college junior varsity teams, then advanced to playing against varsity, from schools like Ivy Tech, Huntington, Marion (now Indiana Wesleyan) and other area schools.
Hunt remembers with pride defeating Gallaudet University, a school for the deaf and hard of hearing in Washington D.C. The team was in Indiana to play another university, and offered Hunt a game. He suspects they expected an easy win, and were surprised to lose to the Knights.
Hunt retired from coaching in 1991, and the program fizzled out.
Twenty years later, campus leaders asked him to serve on an athletics advisory board, as IU Kokomo again began an athletic program as the Cougars, with men’s basketball and women’s volleyball.
Each of the three men’s basketball coaches have invited him to attend practices and games, an honor he appreciates. He also attends local high school games as a scout, identifying potential future team members.
“It gives me something to do,” he said. “When you’re my age, there aren’t a lot of things you can do. I’m not here to interfere with practices, I’m just enjoying myself.”
Hunt enjoys the success Cougar athletics has had, and the support the 12 teams receive from the campus and community — especially the construction of the new Student Activities and Events Center, which will be home for the programs. He has continued to support the athletic program financially including a gift to the new building.
With the men’s basketball season beginning its season ranked first in the River States Conference, and 10th in the NAIA, he offered a rare piece of advice to the players.
“I told them all at the first practice, ‘You know you’re going to have one big target on your back,’” he said. “They’re going to have fun this season.”
Indiana University Kokomo celebrates 75 years as north central Indiana’s choice for higher education.