Ron Hunter is IUPUI's all-time winning coach with 221 victories. But that's not what accounted for the excitement at this week's game against Oakland. Hunter partnered with an organization called Samaritan's Feet to collect more than 40,000 pairs of shoes for needy children.
Four years ago, Hunter was on a recruiting trip to Lagos, Nigeria, and what he saw broke his heart.
"I was absolutely amazed by the number of people that lived in poverty, the number of people that lived on the streets. The number of children that had no shoes — and I'll be honest with you, they looked like they had no hope," recalled Hunter.
The coach is now on a mission to help brings those kids hope — and shoes.
"I got a phone call late one night," he recalled. "Usually, nobody calls me at home, they call me on my cell phone. It was an 11 o'clock call. A friend of mine I hadn't talked to in about three or four years called me and said he was with a group called Samaritan's Feet, and they needed to do something to bring awareness to what they were trying to do."
His friend asked him about coaching a game barefoot.
"I gave them a long pause, and I wasn't sure they were serious. I thought they had too many cocktails that night, because they were in New York City when they called me," Hunter said.
But Hunter accepted the challenge, and promised to coach a game in his bare feet. And then he set an improbable goal.
"I was trying to raise 40,000 [pairs of] shoes, to be honest with you, because of ... the 40th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King, who I am a great admirer of," said Hunter. He added that he doesn't believe he'd be the head coach of a Division I basketball team, if it weren't for King.
To come up with 40,000 pairs of shoes, Hunter needed to get the word out. On Thursday, he wasn't sure he'd make it. And before the big game yesterday, he was still 10,000 pairs short.
Then, Converse Shoes donated 15,000 pairs of shoes, and Hunter was over his goal of 40,000 pairs.
"When she said 15,000, I'll be honest with you, people couldn't see me, but I was crying," Hunter admitted.
It was then time for Hunter to appear, yes, barefoot. But how would those size 13s look in all their naked glory?
"For all the men in the world, I'll say, no, I didn't [get a pedicure], but ... I actually got one a couple of hours ago," Hunter confessed, laughing, shortly before the game.
"So, if you could just keep that between you [and me]," the coach said, before adding, "Actually, I liked it."
The game against Oakland was sold out. Folks donated shoes and went shoeless in solidarity with Hunter.
Before the game, Hunter was "worried about officials stepping on my toes. I'm worried about the opponent. The opposing coach told me he was going to have his players run over and accidentally step on my feet, so this is going to be fun."
But no one stepped on his toes, and Hunter's Jaguars won, 82-69.
The coach doesn't get caught up in the numbers. "Even if we didn't get the 40,000. If I got the 10 shoes ... that's going to make their lives different. That they won't have diseases, that they can walk to school, that they won't be ridiculed, that they'll smile, that they'll be able to be a better person in wherever their community might be. Then I think we're doing the right thing."
Thursday night's game brought him up to a total of 110,000 pairs of shoes, which the coach, himself, will take to Africa in July.
"I am trying to get a waiver from the NCAA so I can take my entire team. My team came to me. I didn't ask them. They said, 'Coach, we want to help you with this mission. We want to go to Africa. We want to deliver the shoes to the children ourselves,'" he said proudly. "And so, I'm in a process now, petitioning the NCAA to allow our basketball [team] in July to take [the shoes] to these kids."
Samaritan's Feet is organizing the trip, and Hunter hopes to re-visit the cities in Africa he traveled to four years ago. But he's leaving that decision up to the charity. His only concern is that Samartian's Feet send him "wherever they feel like [it's] needed most."