Kirk Hunter's previous 10 seasons at Butler Community College doubled as a job interview to coach Wichita State cross country.
The athletes who ran for him at Butler and transferred to WSU loved his sense of humor and ability to make a grueling sport fun. Hunter made recruiting Butler athletes a pleasure for Shocker coaches with his straight-forward style. If that wasn't enough, he recruited fiercely around the state, sometimes winning against WSU. Desiraye Osburn, the best female distance runner in Shocker history, narrowed her choices to Butler and WSU. Current Shocker Leah Thompson chose Butler out of high school over WSU.
"He is completely prepared to go after every athlete in the state, and beyond," WSU track and field coach Steve Rainbolt said. "He defeated us on Leah Thompson. We recruited her hard. He got her."
Hunter, hired Aug. 6, watched WSU with equal interest, following Rainbolt's program as it became the Missouri Valley Conference's top women's distance program and one of the top in track and field.
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"Coach Rainbolt and I have talked a lot over the last 10 years," Hunter said. "It's a program I've respected for a lot of years. When you see success like that, with their Missouri Valley Conference championships all over the place, with all that, you want to be a part of it."
Rainbolt chose Marc Burns over Hunter four years ago to replace Randy Hasenbank, with Burns' Division I experience serving as a tiebreaker. When Burns left for Bradley this summer, Rainbolt took another run at Hunter, who coached the 2002 NJCAA women's champions at Butler.
"The athletes we recruited from his program, over and over, would speak so highly of him that you began to think 'This is a really good guy,' " Rainbolt said.
Thompson, from Salina, is one of those athletes. It was tough to leave Butler because of her affection for Hunter. He laughs and jokes and wears goofy socks, all with the intent of loosening the atmosphere.
"I remember on the first day of practice, he always says, 'You've got to watch out for my socks,' " Thompson said. "He always quizzes us about what kind of socks he has on."
Hunter's affection for socks with colorful designs or wacky characters — such as a space-alien design Thompson described — started as a way to stand out as a runner and became a coaching tool. He buys whatever catches his eye at a local running store. Sometimes his wife or boys will make a suggestion.
"It was simple runner thing that is still in my DNA," he said. "I wanted to be a little different and the kids enjoy it. I've always felt, as a coach, that if the athletes felt good about coming to practice, for whatever reason, that's a good start to the day."
The bigger goal is to make the athletes love running.
"It's a huge part of my life," he said. "It can lead them to great things, also. I feel it's part of my responsibility to show them it can be enjoyable and it can be a lifelong exercise or sport that they can do forever."
Hunter also knows how to work. Before his successful tenure at Butler, he coached Colby Community College from 1988-2000 and won the NJCAA Division II women's national title in 1999.
"We're at a Division-I level university, and in order to be successful we're going to have to work incredibly hard," he said of WSU. "All the training we're doing now is going to lead toward that. That means we're going to put in the work."
There are three former Butler athletes on the cross country roster and several more in track and field. That familiarity helps Hunter adjust to WSU. Thompson's familiarity with Hunter put to rest worries after Burns' departure. The WSU women have won five straight MVC titles and are favored to win again in 2010.
"I was nervous having to make that transition into a new coach," Thompson said. "I've already bought into his program, because I ran for him before. I told the girls, 'If you have anything, go talk to him. He knows what he's doing.' I'm not too worried about the change."