York College mens basketball coach Matt Hunter instructs his players during practice. Hunter, 29, faces the challenge of following in the footsteps of Jeff
York College mens basketball coach Matt Hunter instructs his players during practice. Hunter, 29, faces the challenge of following in the footsteps of Jeff Gamber, who retired with 493 career victories. (Bill Kalina photo)

The dominoes first started falling at The College of New Jersey in April 2007.

The school's athletic director left to take a similar position at another college. TCNJ, an NCAA Division III school, responded by appointing its men's basketball coach as the interim athletic director. The interim AD then promoted Matt Hunter from assistant to interim head coach of the men's basketball program for the 2007-2008 season.

The moves raised some eyebrows, but not because all of it happened within a month. Rather, the main concern focused on the men's basketball team being handed to a 24-year-old who had just two years under his belt as an assistant at TCNJ.

York College men’s basketball coach Matt Hunter talks to his players during practice at the Grumbacher Sports and Fitness Center. The Spartans begin
York College men's basketball coach Matt Hunter talks to his players during practice at the Grumbacher Sports and Fitness Center. The Spartans begin their 2012-2013 season this Friday against Baruch as part of a four-team, two-day tournament at the University of Scranton. (Bill Kalina photo)

The ensuing season went about as well as one might expect, given the circumstances. Little did Hunter know, however, how much that season would help him a handful of years later when York College tagged him as its next men's basketball coach.

Filling Gamber's shoes: Hunter has spent his first month of practice as York's head coach instituting what he's learned at TCNJ and the last four seasons as an assistant at DeSales. The Spartans begin their 2012-2013 season this Friday against Baruch as part of a four-team, two-day tournament at the University of Scranton.

Hunter, now 29, faces the challenge of following in the footsteps of Jeff Gamber, the longtime men's basketball coach who retired at the end of last season following 35 years at the helm of the program. Gamber finished his coaching career last year by leading the Spartans to the Capital Athletic Conference Tournament title and a trip to the NCAA Division III Tournament. The performance helped Gamber nab the CAC Coach of the Year honor -- which was named after him before last season -- for the fifth time in his career. Gamber, who took the Spartans to the Final Four in 2005, retired with 493 career victories.

"A recruit's parents asked me about that the other day. I embrace it. It's not something I hide from," Hunter said of following Gamber. "He did a great job. He's built an unbelievable program from scratch basically."

Second chance: Hunter has wanted to be a head coach since the seventh grade. And in a sense, he's been waiting for this kind of opportunity since exiting TCNJ. He's excited for the chance to prove himself again. TCNJ went 6-19 in his interim season. There were many factors for the struggles that year, whether it was Hunter's inexperience as a coach, TCNJ's fairly young roster, or the fact Hunter was trying to do everything himself.

"The hardest thing to do is to release some responsibility to your assistants. That's something I really struggled with when I was the interim head coach (at TCNJ)," Hunter said. "I wanted to do everything."

Steve Holmes, who coached Hunter when he played at Salisbury University from 2002 to 2005, said that's understandable.

"Matt has a little bit of an edge with having the interim year at TCNJ," Holmes said. "My first coaching stint I had no budget for assistant coaches but I felt obligated to do everything. Especially in Matt's case because he was trying to win the job. He wanted his stamp on everything."

Obstacles: TCNJ would appoint a new head coach the ensuing offseason, which led to Hunter finding an assistant gig at DeSales. It was just another obstacle Hunter had to overcome to achieve his dream. But he'd been through tough situations before. Heck, he's the one who had to set the example as the oldest of five siblings growing up in a two-story New Jersey home.

"Me and my brother shared a room. Two of my sisters shared another room and then the other sister had her own room," Hunter said. "It was normal to me."

In his sophomore year in college, he made the Salisbury basketball team as a walk-on and soon earned a starting spot, in part because of his knowledge of the game.

"He knew where everybody was supposed to be on the floor," Holmes said. "He was on the same wavelength as the coaches."

Hunter took an assistant coaching spot down the road at TCNJ -- a 25-minute drive from his parents' home -- a few months after graduating from Salisbury with a bachelor's degree in physical education. He made a living that year by working as a substitute teacher and coaching the freshman baseball team at West Windsor-Plainsboro (N.J.) High School, his alma mater.

"I made more money coaching freshman baseball than I did being an assistant for the college team, that's for sure," Hunter said.

Experience: Hunter moved into his Springettsbury Township home over the summer with his wife, Annie, and their now seven-month-old daughter, Kelsey. He's been so busy recruiting and adjusting to his new role that he's had very little time to set up his office, aside from having the typical desk, chair, computer and phone. There's also a TV and a whiteboard hanging on the wall, filled with a dozen different plays. And some shelving holds up a few dozen books, which include subjects on coaching, basketball and golf -- he also took over for Gamber as York's golf coach.

"I'm not Hank Haney. I'm not out there working with guys on their swings," Hunter joked. "I'm moreso just relating with them on the mental aspect of things."

During his four-year tenure as an assistant under longtime DeSales' basketball coach Scott Coval, the Bulldogs went 84-32, won two Middle Atlantic Freedom Conference championships and advanced to the NCAA Division III Elite Eight in 2008-2009 and to the Sweet 16 in 2009-2010.

"He's an incredible coach," Coval said of Hunter. "That's a part of the reason we asked him to be involved in everything that we do."

Hunter also served as DeSales' recruiting coordinator for the athletic department, which caught the eye of Paul Saikia, York College's assistant dean for athletics and recreation. Saikia was one of a handful of people from York's athletic administration who had the task of narrowing down a pool of 90 candidates to find someone to take over what Saikia described as York's "most highly visible" coaching position.

"The situation at DeSales is the head coach of men's basketball is also the athletic director, so he needs his assistants to handle other responsibilities," Saikia said.

Hunter is also familiar with the recruiting area York has targeted over the years.

"I've recruited New Jersey. I've recruited Pennsylvania. I've recruited Philadelphia, Harrisburg and Baltimore when I was at DeSales," Hunter said. "So my recruiting radius didn't really have to change."

Style: Hunter will take advantage of the speed on his admittedly undersized York squad this year by using an up-tempo offense. As for his ultimate goals?

"If I can model my program after what Scott has done at DeSales, that's the ultimate thing we could do," Hunter said. "The guy has won an average of (21) games a year for the last 11 years."

And the daunting task of sticking around as long as Gamber?

"I don't want to come here for five years and move on," Hunter said. "My goal is to be a Division III head coach. That's what I am right now. We'll just take it and build it as far as we can."

-- Reach John Walk at jwalk@yorkdispatch.com.