Photo by Kate Nuelle
Over his 20 years leading the men’s basketball team, Pat Cunningham has guided the Tigers to seven Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference (SCAC) championships on the way to becoming the winningest men’s basektball coach in school history. This year Cunningham earned his 500th career victory, and he ranks in the top 20 of active National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division III coaches for all-time wins. As the Tigers head into the home stretch of their season, Cunningham discussed what he loves about Trinity along with what keeps him wanting to coach year after year.
Over your 21 years coaching at Trinity, can you point to a favorite memory?
My memory is not that long, so I will say I really enjoyed the celebration our team had after we beat [Colorado College this year], and it was my 500th win. You know, it’s interesting because I was thinking back the other day for some reason — I think I was talking to my wife and just talking in general — and favorite memories usually have to do with players, and so things that pop up in my mind [were] that celebration or going to a wedding of one of our former players in Colorado or at the last home game [former Trinity guard] B.J. Moon with his little kid being there and seeing him as he’s gotten older and been a meaningful member of the community. The memories that hit me are those of former players and things they’ve done and their lives and how they’re doing.
What did that celebration look like?
Well, I think it was more just that [the team] wanted to get a chance to throw water on me, so it was a kind of a two-edged sword. I think they were generally pleased, but they also got a chance to get back at coach and get me all wet.
What has been the biggest difference coaching at Trinity versus the other two schools you were a head coach at before?
Well, each school is unique. I think Trinity has a lot of similarities to the University of Chicago. I think there was a quite a big difference between Manchester University and Chicago relative to the kind of students that the universities were looking for, that they attracted … I think that one of the biggest differences I think [is] that the sense of community at Trinity is what attracted myself and [my wife], Mary Jo, and [our children], Casey and Claire, when we first moved here in 1999, so I think that the fiber of the campus community is what attracted us and what is I think the biggest difference between the University of Chicago. I tell people, my kids grew up around the campus, hanging out at camps and games and come to work and those kinds of things, so I think Trinity supports that and promotes that, and I think the environment here is exciting and is different.
What is it about coaching in general that keeps you coming back every season?
Well, again, it’s the players. My line is ‘I get paid to watch kids play games.’ I don’t get paid a lot, but I get paid. And it has a lot of truth to that. I tell people, ‘I’ve been blessed because I really haven’t come to work a day in my life.’ This job is the interaction with people and dealing with student-athletes. The things that we get to do, the impact in putting together, whether it be practices in game strategy, whether it be for other aspects of the job, it’s the interaction with people, and whether it be people in the academic community, people in the athletic community [or] people in the student community. I think that’s the joy of what I do.
In light of the news of Kobe Bryant’s death, from a coach’s perspective, what can you say about the impact Bryant had on younger basketball players?
He was in that era when I was coaching, and coming straight from high school to the pros, I think he gave a lot of kids dreams, relative to what they could do. I think he’s made mistakes as we all have in life relative to his own personal life, but I think that from all the things I’ve read, he’s improved himself over the years which is all any of us can do, and so I think he’s had a positive impact on young players.
If you could build a franchise around any current NBA player, who would you choose and why?
I think that would be a better question for a lot of people better than me because I just don’t follow pro sports that much, but there’s a lot of good players. I think the answer to [the] question is, I would have to do some research, and I think the thing that you look for first and foremost is character. I think that’s one of the things that when you look at the Spurs organization for all those years that they were successful is that the character of the people involved, whether it be the leadership of [Gregg] Popovich or whether it be Tim Duncan or whether it be David Robinson, [for] those guys, character was an important aspect of it and I think you can just look at abilities, but if you don’t have that other component, then I wouldn’t start my franchise with them.
If you were stranded on an island with one person, who would you choose to be with and why?
Well, it would be my wife. We’ve been together 30 some years, and we enjoy each other’s company, and that’s who I’ve chosen to spend my life with and wouldn’t change it for the world.
What three people would you invite to your dream dinner party?
I never had a chance to really spend time or talk to John Wooden as a basketball coach. I would love to spend time with him. I think that he’s a flawed character, but an interesting character would be John F. Kennedy. That’s the era I grew up with. I’ll date myself, and he was a character, but I’ll invite Frank Sinatra. He would have some stories.
What would you eat at this dinner?
My favorite meals would be surf and turf: light steak and either salmon or shrimp and a baked potato and salad and probably a glass of wine to go with it would be perfect.
Is there something that people would be surprised that you love?
Not really. I think I’m pretty open about what I do. I do like rock and roll music, and I like soft rock especially. I mean, I’m a product of the ‘60s. People would probably be surprised that I had long hair in college and was a little bit of a hippie at that time back in the ‘70s.
If you could tell the world one thing about yourself, what would you say?
I think that I have tried to live a faith-filled life, and I’ve tried to be positive and help people’s lives as I’ve gone through life. I think that’s what I’ve tried to do, and if that hasn’t happened, then I haven’t been as successful as I hope I’ve been, and if I have, then that’s great.