(b. 22 May 1939 in Walnut Grove, Mississippi; d. 4 August 2005 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana), pioneer women’s basketball player and legendary women’s college basketball coach who devoted her life to the development of women’s basketball as a major sport.
Gunter grew up on a farm just outside the small town of Walnut Grove, the only child of Lovette Golden Gunter and Ivadean (Barham) Gunter. She began playing basketball at age four, emulating her two older male cousins. In this small farming community, basketball was king; as Gunter once noted, if you wanted to be popular, you played basketball. Throughout high school she played year round. After graduating from Walnut Grove High School, she attended East Central Junior College (later East Central Community College) in Decatur, Mississippi, from 1957 to 1958. The college offers a scholarship in her name, which was established by her friend and classmate Jessie Whittle.
In 1958 Gunter tried unsuccessfully to get a basketball scholarship to the Wayland Baptist College team in Plainville, Texas. Wayland had one of the premier Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) women’s basketball teams of the time. When that failed, she successfully tried out for the Nashville Business College (NBC) team in Tennessee, a perennial rival of Wayland’s. In later years Gunter described the two teams as the “Cadillac and Lincoln Continental” of AAU basketball. With Gunter’s help, NBC won two national AAU women’s basketball championships, in 1960 and 1962, and was runner-up to Wayland in 1959 and 1961. For her outstanding play as a shooting guard, Gunter was named an AAU All-American in 1960. In 1960, 1961, and 1962 she was also selected to be a member of the U.S. National Teams that competed against the Soviet Union. While playing guard for NBC (1958–1962), she pursued her college degree at nearby Peabody College in Nashville. In 1962 she received both a BA and an MA from Peabody.
Her playing days over, Gunter accepted a job as a physical education teacher and women’s basketball coach at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. In her two years of coaching (1963–1964), the basketball team was undefeated. In 1965 she left to take a position coaching basketball, tennis, track, and softball at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. This was before the passage of Title IX in 1972, which meant that Gunter had to develop a women’s basketball program with little program money and no athletic scholarships. From 1965 to 1980 she built the Lady Jacks basketball program into a national powerhouse. During that time she compiled a 266–87 win-loss record.
In 1972 Gunter was instrumental in founding the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW), the counterpart to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which sponsored men’s inter-collegiate athletic championships. The AIAW sponsored the intercollegiate women’s basketball championships through the season 1981–1982, when the NCAA hosted its first women’s basketball tournament. During the AIAW period the Lady Jacks achieved four top-ten AIAW rankings.
Recognized as one of the top women’s basketball coaches in the United States in the 1970s, Gunter was selected to be the head coach of the U.S. Women’s Basketball National Teams in 1976, 1978, and 1980. In 1976, the first year that women’s basketball became an official Olympic sport, Gunter was selected as the assistant coach of the U.S. Olympic team. She helped to coach the team to a silver medal at the Montreal Olympics. In 1980 she was made the head coach of the U.S. Women’s Olympic basketball team, which was to compete in Moscow, U.S.S.R. They won an Olympic qualifying tournament but never competed, because President Jimmy Carter boycotted the Olympics as a U.S. protest of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.
In 1981 Gunter was promoted to director of women’s athletics at Stephen F. Austin University. She served in this capacity for two years before becoming the head coach of women’s basketball at Louisiana State University (LSU). During her tenure at LSU she built the Lady Tigers into a perennial powerhouse and become a coaching legend. In 1983 she was selected as the Converse Region IV Coach of the Year, Basketball News National Coach of the Year, and Louisiana Coach of the Year. (She was named Louisiana’s Coach of the Year for a second time in 1997.) In 1985 the Lady Tigers became the Women’s National Invitational Tournament champions. In 1991 they were the Southeastern Conference (SEC) Tournament champions. In her twenty-two-year career at LSU, Gunter compiled a 442–221 record and coached the Lady Tigers to fourteen NCAA Tournament appearances. In the 2002–2003 season, she won her 400th game as LSU’s head coach and, the following year, capped her 700th career victory. Her 708 career victories (not including her pre-NCAA wins) made her the fourth-highest-winning head coach in NCAA women’s basketball history, behind Pat Summitt, Jody Conradt, and C. Vivian Stringer.
Her last season at LSU (2003–2004) was a very poignant one. The Lady Tigers won the SEC Tournament championship and were seeded number one in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament. Gunter was unable to be there when they won the NCAA Women’s National Basketball Championship, as respiratory problems in the middle of the season had forced her to go on medical leave. Sick with pneumonia, she watched from her hospital bed as her assistant coach and protégée, Pokey Chatman, led LSU to the Women’s Basketball Final Four Championship. Gunter died from respiratory failure at her home in Baton Rouge at age sixty-six. She is buried next to her parents in Mount Zion Cemetery in Walnut Grove.
Gunter’s many coaching honors include being named the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) Carol Eckman Award winner (1994), SEC Coach of the Year (1997 and 1999), Louisiana Coach of the Year (1983, 2002, and 2003), WBCA District III Coach of the Year (1999), WBCA Regional Coach of the Year (2003), and WBCA Jostens-Berenson Service Award winner (2006). She was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame (2000), Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame (2003), Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame (2005), and Nai-smith National Basketball Hall of Fame (2005).
For general histories of women’s basketball that include details about Gunter’s career, see Pamela Grundy and Susan Shackelford, Shattering the Glass: The Remarkable History of Women’s Basketball (2005); and Robert W. Ikard, Just for Fun: The Story of AAU Women’s Basketball (2005). An obituary is in the New York Times (5 Aug. 2005).
Gai Ingham Berlage