Chris Hunter gains valuable experience as a temporary Michigan aide
Hunter Dickinson had just scored a career-high 33 points in a win over Michigan State as he headed to his postgame press conference. But when asked about the adjustments he made between the Michigan men’s basketball team’s first game against the Spartans and that night, the sophomore was quick to deflect the attention to himself.
Without hesitation, Dickinson credited Chris Hunter. A few minutes later, when asked a similar question, associate head coach Phil Martelli did the same.
Lost in the reshuffle of Michigan coach Juwan Howard’s five-game suspension and Martelli’s subsequent rise to interim head coach, Howard’s absence left a vacant seat on the bench. Hunter, director of basketball operations for the Wolverines, was named to fill that third assistant coaching position and work with Michigan’s big men — a role Howard typically fills.
For Hunter, who has been on staff since 2014, the temporary elevation has been a long time coming.
After four years playing at Michigan, Hunter bounced around the professional leagues, from Poland to Belgium to the NBA D League — now the G League — for a brief stint in the NBA. But in 2014, after eight years of mobility, it was time to pack up and set a new goal: to become a top-level Division I coach.
Around the same time, former Michigan coach John Beilein had an opening to fill in his support team. Although Hunter had never played for Beilein, he came highly recommended and, as a former Michigan player with professional experience, he was the perfect choice. After a few interviews, Beilein offered Hunter the position of program personnel manager, and he accepted.
“A really brilliant young man,” Beilein told The Daily. “And after an interview or two, it was a no-brainer because I knew he would connect with our players. He had some Michigan experience, knew the campus, knew the environment, knew what we were looking for and had also played professionally.
“…You don’t know how your hires will go at that time, but it turned out to be a home run for me and my staff and Michigan as a whole.”
Three years later, Beilein had a few more openings. Assistants Jeff Meyer and Billy Donlon both left the program, leaving it with two critical hires to make. Hunter was under consideration, his goal of becoming a major coach — at his alma mater, no less — within reach.
But Beilein went in another direction, bringing in outside recruits Luke Yaklich and DeAndre Haynes instead. Hunter, however, was promoted to director of basketball operations.
“Every time we’ve hired someone, it’s not like we’ve hired someone with a similar resume to him,” Beilein said. “Everyone had been an assistant for several years before we hired them, and he had just broken in at the time. He understands the patience of this thing. And I think he also understands that Michigan is a very good place to be the Director of Basketball (Operations).
According to Beilein, the privileges of a director of basketball operations were much more limited a decade ago. They could never be on the floor during practices and weren’t even allowed to be involved in basketball-related decisions.
However, during Hunter’s time in the position, the restrictions eased. Hunter still has a voice in staff meetings and for the past two years has been able to participate in training due to COVID-related rule changes.
“We can have conversations with the coaches and we bring our energy and our enthusiasm about what’s going on in training and we cheer and that kind of stuff,” Hunter told The Daily. “So, day to day, we are as present as the coaches. And then the good thing about it is in our coaches and staff meetings, everyone has a voice, whether you’re an assistant coach, whether you’re the video coordinator, myself, Jay Smith, all the staff really have a voice.
Hunter even had the chance to occasionally fill in as an assistant. During changes in coaching staff, he sometimes worked on the pitch in training and on the recruiting track. He had, however, never served as an assistant during a game.
Until three weeks ago.
In the aftermath of the February 20 postgame altercation in Wisconsin, the idea of replacing as an assistant was remote for Hunter. His main goal was to take care of all his players. But it would be remiss to say that it never crossed his mind.
He found out the next day, starting two turbulent weeks for Hunter. He still performed all of his normal duties as director of basketball operations, while also taking on the additional responsibilities of assistant coach. This included coaching during practices, assisting Martelli with substitution schemes during games, and reinforcing the game plan for players during time outs.
Hunter was well prepared, however. After all, it wasn’t the first time he performed drills in training. And while his in-game responsibilities were expanded, it wasn’t completely uncharted territory for him; he’s always on the bench every game even though he’s not a coach, just with a lesser role.
“It’s something very much like what I experienced during and during my time here,” Hunter said. “Just being around a lot of coaches, understanding what I know and what I’m doing, (it was) pretty easy, pretty transparent to be able to get in there and fit in where I needed to be. integrate to help.”
In preparation, Hunter spoke to Howard to ensure he maintained consistency in Howard’s absence; he would only hold the position for two weeks and his job was not to “reinvent the wheel”, as he put it.
But for the most part, coaching the big boys was just based on his experiences in Michigan and what he knew. Even when he’s not allowed to train on the pitch, he’s still watching. He’s studying film, just like coaching, and he draws on four years of college acting experience, as well as eight years of professional experience.
“When he’s on the pitch and explaining things to the players, he’s as good as he can be,” Beilein said. “And because he’s played, but some guys can play and they can’t explain it. He can break it down for people.
His most significant experience, however, came last season. COVID-19 rules limited the number of student-managers allowed on the field to train, and teams were allowed to have two additional coaches on the field instead. Hunter therefore gained an entire season of coaching experience alongside the same staff he worked with during his temporary two-week stint.
“I think last year was definitely kind of a prelude to that opportunity,” Hunter said. “I worked hand-in-hand with (Howard) and helped him facilitate the things he wanted to do in training last year. … Definitely last year, being part of it day in and day out made it kind of a smooth transition for sure.
For two weeks, Hunter was almost a full-fledged assistant coach. Scouting assignments for upcoming opponents were still left to Michigan’s full-time assistants, but Hunter handled everything else. And for someone whose goal is to become a major assistant, that experience is invaluable.
As Beilein mentioned when discussing hirings for Yaklich and Haynes, high-level programs often look for assistants with previous coaching experience. Hunter is very limited, and only in a temporary role. But even though he only served as an in-season assistant for two weeks, he now has something he can point to in interviews. He is filling out his CV, getting ready for the next call he will receive. It might even be Michigan.
“Sometimes when you have up-and-coming guys in these various support staff roles, sometimes the knock is that you’ve never coached before – you don’t have the coaching experience,” Hunter said. . “So now, being in those positions… I did everything you would need to do in those spans to say, ‘Hey, he’s got the experience to do it. ”
For Hunter, the two-week stint was just a stepping stone to what he hopes will be a long coaching career. And although the current goal is to become an assistant, some believe that he can reach even greater heights.
“He’s a head coach waiting to happen at some point because he has the qualities you’re looking for,” Beilein said. “He has a great presence. He can teach. He relates to everyone.
“I know he has a bright future.”