Gielczyk: Onekama’s Hunter Talks Upcoming Hall of Fame Induction
Following in the footsteps of a living legend is a daunting task. In fact, all too often it can end under less than ideal circumstances. Sometimes, the shoes are too big for a comfortable fit for the next man.
But, that was not the case for retired Onekama Hall of Fame football coach Jim Hunter.
The Portagers fashioned with a 118-67-3 record during Jim Taylor’s 25 years at the helm, which included a 60-19-1 mark in the 1970s. Onekama qualified for the MHSAA playoffs in 1986.
Hunter tackled the unenviable challenge of replacing Jim Taylor, who was the Portagers only coach since the football program’s inception in 1964 until he decided to step down following the 1989 season.
It would be another 27 years before the Portagers would need to look for another football coach, after Hunter retired following the 2016 season, and qualifying for the playoffs for a seventh time on his watch.
Now, he’s being honored by his peers with inclusion in the 2018 Michigan High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame class with 12 other coaches following a long and successful career.
“It’s a strange thing, being honored for doing something that was an honor to do, but I do appreciate it,” said Hunter. “I’ve been lucky enough to be around coaches, the ones I was blessed to coach with, who did it the right way.
“They loved football, but they loved kids more. That’s something I picked up as a player, and something I tried to project every year I coached.”
Hunter played football at Alma College, and became the freshman football coach at Alma High School while he was doing his student teaching, and started coaching the junior varsity there when he learned that Manistique had offered him the head coach position.
After two years as junior varsity coach, Hunter became the varsity coach in 1980 when the current varsity coach quit just three games into the season. Hunter remained at Manistique for 11 years before moving to Onekama and taking over for Taylor, where he would teach science and physical education as well as coach baseball, wrestling, basketball and track.
“It was too fast a road now that I look back on it,” Hunter said. “I should have had a lot more seasoning before I became a head coach. I’m just so thankful for players and patient parents in those early years.
“If I went back and coached against myself now, I’d kick my butt. You don’t even know enough what to ask. It was kind of a bumpy road. While I was at Manistique I had seven different assistant coaches in nine years. It was just a carousel.
“We couldn’t find people on staff to coach, and guys would come out of the community. They’d find out how much time it took, and it just didn’t work.”
Things were different when he came to Onekama, as Hunter hooked up with three Hall of Famers in career assistants Carl Foster and Jim Anderson, while Taylor eventually returned and stayed on staff for a number of years.
Hunter, whose wife, Mary, was a teacher at Manistee, knew a little bit about Onekama’s tradition, but not very much. He didn’t even know where the high school was located in the small village.
“It didn’t take long to find out what kind of an impact coach Taylor had made,” said Hunter. “I got to see it so many times toward the tail end when he was still coaching with me. Ex-players would make a point of grabbing him after a game if they were in town to watch, and share some memories with.
“He impacted an awful lot of people, and I was blessed to have a long run like that, too, and have the same kind of impact. It’s one of the greatest thrills in football. In 10 years as a player and 40 as a coach, I’ve learned that nobody stays in this profession very long if all they’re concerned about is winning, and winning conference championships.
“Not that those ring hollow. It was just as exciting my last year getting into the playoffs, as my first year and won my first game. That never left. But, that’s a fleeting thing. The relationships are lifetime, and they impact those kids, and they turn around and impact the communities and the families they’ve become a part of.
“I benefited from it when coaches took me under their wing, and I’ve just tried to pay it back these last 40 years.”
The moments Hunter says he’ll remember most are when he knew a kid could succeed, but didn’t think he could, finally caved to all of Hunter’s cajoling and prodding, and had pulled all the tricks out of his coach’s bag and found that he could be successful.
It was the way that kid’s face lit up afterward that Hunter will cherish as he looks back on his career in retirement.
Hunter said he didn’t step down from coaching because he was burned out. He still loved the intensity of coaching the players, going over film before taking the field for practice, and the courage of the players to overcome injuries and days when times were hard and the kids were disciplined enough to get through it.
“It was time for me to go, but it wasn’t because that thrill, that part of it was gone,” said Hunter. “I think what we do (as coaches) is so important. I did a lot of different (sports), and they all have the things that are unique to them.
“Football (is different) just because of the game. A lot of it starts with the sacrifice kids have to make to be part of something bigger than they are. I think the kids already have the character in them, but we provide them the opportunity to bring out, and develop it, and strengthen it. That part of the game I could have done until I was in my grave.”
No matter how much Hunter put into the game, as both a player and a coach, he says he felt he got much more back.
Greg Gielczyk is an award-winning sports columnist and sportwriter who worked a total 36 years — interrupted for an 18-month period from 1997-99 — at the Manistee News Advocate as sports editor until 2006 and is now retired. He currently is a freelance sportswriter for the Ludington Daily News. Gielczyk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for story ideas.