Fort Lewis College Director of Athletics Gary Hunter announced his resignation Friday. According to a Fort Lewis College news release, the resignation is effective Sept. 1.
Hunter was hired as the FLC director of athletics in 2011. He previously spent time as the athletic director at Wichita State University and the University of Idaho. He also worked at University of Kansas as the associate director of athletics.
“I want to thank President Dene Thomas, the FLC community, the incredible coaches and the good people of Durango for the last six years,” Hunter said in a phone interview with The Durango Herald. “It was a great six years. My biggest regret is not being able to raise the money needed to improve the facilities here. It’s tough to recruit when we have the worst facilities in the league. It just killed me to see coaches doing bake sales and car washes to raise 40 percent of their budget in some cases. I regret not being able to do that.”
Declining enrollment and a significant loss in student fees became a major roadblock in Hunter’s quest to raise money. The lack of funds puts FLC coaches at a disadvantage compared to their Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference counterparts when it comes recruiting, and they’re already behind with the outdated and inferior facilities.
“It is a challenge for all athletic departments, but it has been particularly one for us the last couple of years where enrollment declined,” Fort Lewis College President Dr. Dene Kay Thomas said in a phone interview with the Herald. “The athletic department has had to tighten their belt. With fewer students, there is less athletic fees and they have less to spend. But Gary has been very good about making sure we stayed within the budgets we’ve had.”
Hunter planned on coming to Durango only for a few months to help Thomas. He stayed for six years, largely because of the friendship with Thomas.
In his time at FLC, Hunter pulled off the hire of well-known and well-respected football coach John L. Smith in an attempt jump-start the football program. Hunter, Smith and Thomas worked together previously at Idaho, and their friendship helped bring Smith to Durango.
Though he turned the FLC program into a winning team in his third season, Smith left in 2015 for a job at Division II’s Kentucky State. The Skyhawks took a step backward last year without him and finished with a 4-7 record. The football facility never received an upgrade, and the program finds itself exactly where it was before Smith’s arrival.
“The facilities are just killing us in football with recruiting,” Hunter said. “If you go out to Colorado Mines or (Colorado) Mesa or (CSU-Pueblo) and see the weight rooms they have to offer and the sold-out 12,000 capacity artificial turf stadiums, it’s tough to compete. I think we’ll be darn competitive next year, and I think the record last season didn’t tell the story of that team. We were about 12 plays from being 8-3, so I wouldn’t be shocked if the football team has a winning record next year.”
Fort Lewis boosted its roster size for football, which led to the creation of women’s golf and women’s indoor and outdoor track and field as full varsity sports under Hunter’s watch.
Some of the FLC rosters in other sports also were expanded to bring a small boost in enrollment to the school, which has seen declining enrollment in recent years.
The Skyhawks, which already pay coaches less than their Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference counterparts, have been unable to provide adequate numbers of assistant coaches to account for the increase in roster sizes.
“It’s remarkable how well the coaches have done recruiting and staying competitive,” Hunter said. “The fact that they keep bringing in high-quality academic, high-quality character athletes is a testament to how good the coaches we have are.”
One of Hunter’s proudest accomplishments is the fact that 450 FLC athletes finished this year with a 3.0 grade-point average or higher.
Thomas credits Hunter for running a clean department that followed NCAA regulations closely.
“We have had a run of very high-quality, clean operations with Gary,” Thomas said. “He really stressed the importance of academics and wanted all his coaches working with the student athletes in academics. We have a higher graduation rate than the student body as a whole with the athletic teams. The graduation rates have come up in all sports. If you take any one sport alone, the graduation rate is higher than the student body as a whole, and that’s very important.”
Upon Hunter’s arrival, the Skyhawks unveiled a new logo in 2012. The college upgraded the bleachers inside the basketball arena, Whalen Gymnasium, and a project to further renovate the gymnasium has been approved and will be completed as more funds are raised. That project will be one of the primary focuses of the next athletic director, Thomas said.
Hunter also oversaw the hiring of 10 coaches and a sports information director, some of whom were fired and some who resigned for various reasons.
The next challenge for Hunter will be developing a new stadium and starting a new professional baseball team in the Chicago suburb of Rosemont. Hunter already has experience at the professional level as an executive with the Colorado Avalanche and Denver Nuggets in the mid-1990s. As the senior executive vice president, he played a major role in the franchise development of the newly-relocated Avalanche from Quebec in 1995. Hunter also served as commissioner of the Continental Basketball Association.
As was the case with the Avalanche, Hunter will join forces and work alongside his son, Shawn, who also created the USA Pro Challenge cycling event before walking away to pursue another venture.
“I’m looking forward to the opportunity of working with my son again,” Hunter said. “I thought we made a pretty good team when we worked with the Avalanche. This is a dream of his, so I’m happy to be able to join him as a consultant and an investor.”
As for FLC, the search for Hunter’s replacement will begin immediately. Hunter said he will keep track of the Skyhawks’ progress from afar.
“I truly believe that every single program is headed in the right direction,” Hunter said. “Men’s and women’s basketball have had a lot of success and the coaches have incredible recruiting classes coming in. Softball, volleyball, golf are turning things around.
“It’s a positive future and the hardest part of this whole thing will be that I won’t be able to be here to see the success these programs will have in the next few years.”