Before national television contracts, 64-team NCAA Tournament brackets, sellout crowds at the Women's Final Four, Gunter was a player. A player on the ground floor of women's basketball as an All-American guard for Nashville Business College, then a successful coach at Stephen F. Austin and LSU along with forays into the international game.
"Sue laid the foundation," said LSU athletic director Skip Bertman, who arrived as the Tigers' baseball coach a year after Gunter showed up in 1982-83. "Jody Conradt, Pat Summitt, Leon Barmore, and others, all say, 'I learned a lot from Sue Gunter.' There weren't many mentors, but she was one of them."
Gunter started playing basketball when the women's game was only played on half the court and its appeal didn't extend far beyond the gym door. But someone had to start.
From the beginning, from before the beginning, Gunter was there.
"She was an administrator," said current LSU women's coach Pokey Chatman, an All-American point guard for Gunter in 1991 and her assistant until becoming her successor last year. "She probably taught a class. She drove the bus. She coached the team.
"I remember she told me when she became head coach at Stephen F. Austin she
was making $6,500 a year and she thought she'd hit the lottery."
The beginning of Gunter's career is lost in the mists of the stone age of women's basketball. She started at Middle Tennessee in the mid-1960s, leading the Blue Raiders to a pair of undefeated seasons.
She then moved on to Stephen F. Austin, in the piney woods of East Texas. Gunter coached four sports at SFA -- women's basketball, softball, tennis and track. It was with the women's basketball program that Gunter made her name -- and established SFA's identity among the nation's trendsetters in the sport as Gunter guided the Ladyjacks to a 266-87 record in 12 seasons.
In 1976, Gunter was an assistant coach on the first U.S. Olympic women's basketball team. One of her players was Pat Head Summitt. Together, they helped Team USA capture a silver medal.
"When I started being coached by her I had just taken the job at Tennessee when I was 22," said Summitt, the winningest coach in college basketball history with a record of 882-172. She was 23 when she began playing for Gunter on the national team and 24 when they went to Montreal for the 1976 Olympics.
"I just enjoyed it," Summitt said. "I had so much fun but I learned a lot from an opportunity to be coached by her as an assistant in Montreal. Then she asked me to be her assistant in 1980."
Gunter was named head coach for the 1980 U.S. Olympic team, a team that didn't get to compete because of President Carter's ordered boycott of the Moscow Games after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.
"It was difficult for the kids to understand," Gunter said in 2000. "For 90 percent of the athletes, it was their one chance. I just felt I missed my shot."
Summitt succeeded Gunter as Olympic coach in 1984 and led the U.S. to gold in Los Angeles, fielding a team that included 2005 Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame inductee Janice Lawrence. By that time, Gunter was already at LSU, resuming her college coaching career after a brief hiatus because of her duties as Olympic coach.
"She had to do a lot in terms of changing from the way she was brought up playing the game to where it is now, where it's more of a contact sport," said LSU senior Seimone Augustus, the consensus national player of the year last season. "Just her being able to evolve with the changes in basketball is something important."
Gunter didn't just evolve with women's basketball, she thrived. In 22 years at LSU her Lady Tigers recorded 14 20-win seasons and made 14 NCAA Tournament appearances, reaching the Final Four in 2004 and the Elite Eight in 1986, 2000 and 2003 along with SEC Tournament championships in 1991 and 2003, and the 1985 WNIT title.
In 2000, Gunter was a member of the second class inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tenn. Gunter attended that induction ceremony, and when LSU played at Tennessee she would bring her Lady Tigers to the hall to learn something about the game -- and her. The players, who could scarcely imagine a game before they began playing it, laughed and joked when Gunter would show them photos of her young playing self in her shiny Nashville Business College uniform.
Midway through the 2003-04 season, Gunter stepped aside due to a serious lung ailment that eventually ended her career. Chatman succeeded her as interim coach, leading LSU to its first appearance in the Final Four.
Though Chatman was on the bench, Gunter got credit for the season and the Final Four appearance. Her final career record stood at 708-308, including a 442-221 record in 22 seasons at LSU.
This year, Gunter is being inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame
and in August, the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., going in with
such coaching legends as Jim Calhoun of Connecticut, Jim Boeheim of Syracuse and
long-time NBA coach Hubie Brown.
Unfortunately, Gunter won't likely be able to attend either induction ceremony. Like being the Olympic coach in 1980 and putting together the first LSU team to reach the Women's Final Four, Gunter was once again able to get within sight of the promised land but couldn't cross over.
"Life is not always fair," Summitt said, "and it doesn't seem like it's been fair for someone who broke new ground and really worked so hard for this game, only to be denied both opportunities. When she couldn't coach (the 2004 Final Four) in New Orleans it just broke my heart. But I'm very happy for her now."