Passages: Richard “Doc” Hunkler, Leading Proponent of Women’s Water Polo, Passes Away at 83

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Coach Richard Francis “Doc” Hunkler. Photo Courtesy: Lynn Kachmarik

As much as anyone over the past 40 years, including top-tier coaches like Monte Nitzkowski, Pete Cutino, Bob Horn, Bill Barrett, and the recently deceased Ted Newland, Coach Richard Francis “Doc” Hunkler shaped the sport of water polo in America. Hunkler, who passed away last week at the age of 83, changed the perception of women competing in sports, and helped elevate polo not only in the East, but nationally as well.

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A graduate of Texas A&M, where he was an All-American swimmer for the Aggies, the newly minted Ph.D. in mathematics arrived at Slippery Rock University, some 50 miles north of Pittsburgh, in 1968, and by 1972 had launched, by some measures, one of the most successful—certainly one of the more improbable—varsity programs in NCAA women’s water polo history.

rocky-logo-only-blackNot only did Slippery Rock become the first, and still the only, women’s team from the East to win a national championship (1995), the man who would become known as “Doc” enjoyed a three-decade career as the head coach of the school’s women’s and men’s water polo teams, as well as the Rock’s women’s swimming program.

For his efforts, in 2000 Hunkler was named to the USA Water Polo Association Hall of Fame, and in 2002 was named as a member of the inaugural class of inductees into the Collegiate Water Polo Association Hall of Fame. He was also named to the Slippery Rock Athletic Hall of Fame in 2011.

Doc’s role in helping to establish women’s water polo in the United States was critical—a pioneering effort that has resulted in Team USA becoming the world’s most dominant squad. In a Los Angeles Times article on the eve of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, where women were playing polo for the first time, he quipped: “I tell people if I’m the father [of American women’s polo], then Sandy Nitta is the mother.”

By phone earlier this week, Nitta, who now lives in Las Vegas, said of her fellow pioneer: “This fantastic man did just unbelievable things!” Nitta, who was the national team coach for almost two decades (1980-1996, 1998) said that it was Hunkler’s players who benefited most from his devotion to the sport.

“[T]he number one thing that people need to know about Hunkler is the respect and love that he had—not only for the sport, but for his players. [They] were very lucky to have someone to look up to as a coach, but even more so, the life lessons that Doc left with all of his players… [he was] more like a father-figure.”

And Nitta said that loyalty was reciprocated.

A passion for the game that inspired many

“Any one of his players would have done absolutely anything for Doc,” she added. “That’s what kind of man he was.”

One is a 1992 graduate of Slippery Rock, who was a three-time All-American playing for Hunkler, Alan Huckins. Now an assistant coach for the men’s program at the Air Force Academy, for 15 years Huckins led Hartwick women’s water polo to one of the winningest records in collegiate water polo.

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Hunkler and wife Billie. Photo Courtesy: Lynn Kachmarik

After red-shirting his first year as a transfer to Slippery Rock, Huckins was asked by his new coach to help out with the women’s team. “Doc ask if I would like to be his assistant coach for the women’s season. I accepted, and have loved coaching ever since,” he said in an email.

As an advocate for women’s participation in polo, Hunkler was second to none, which his former player acknowledged.

“Doc pushed hard for women’s water polo to be recognized by the NCAA,” Huckins said. “He would talk to a lot of men’s coaches about starting a women’s team, and usually got some response like: Water polo is a game for men—blah blah, blah—but this never deterred him. He finally won his battle, as he usually did.”

After almost three decades, the bond between coach and athlete remains strong.  “I can honestly say I loved that man and his wife Billie as much as I have loved anyone.” Huckins wrote. “He is part of who I am today. He will never be forgotten.”

That devotion is echoed by Lynn Kachmarik, who also played for Hunkler at Slippery Rock from 1976-80. One of the few players from the East to make the roster of the U.S. national team, in 1986 Kachmarik became the first-ever woman leading a men’s water polo team when she took the coaching reins at Bucknell following Dick Russell’s retirement.

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Throughout her long and varied career—from player to coach to a consultant seeking to improve sport culture at the youth, high school, and collegiate level—Hunkler has remained an inspiration to Kachmarik.

“[M]y journey on the national team as the only female outside of California for most of my ten years at times was lonely, hard and not always fair,” she wrote in an email. “If I had shared some of the truths with my parents, they would not have allowed me to return each year. Doc counseled me, called me, coached me, loved me, made me laugh and cry at the right times.”

Like Huckins, Kachmarik also underscored Hunkler’s tenacity when it came to fighting for what he believed in.

“His integrity to stand up for what was right and fair regardless of the personal impact on himself was life-changing,” she said. “I stood next to him time and time again and watched him fight for women, men, rules, the tougher path, the right rule changes, demanding honesty from our sport leaders, demanding integrity from our sport leaders, demanding equality from our sport leaders.”

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In 2016 photo, Hunkler with former players Tracy Best Grille, Lynn Kachmarik and Cindra Mirales. Photo Courtesy: Lynn Kachmarik

Even those whose contact with Hunkler was limited were still greatly impressed by the unassuming coach. As a high school player, Mark Gensheimer was coached by Hunkler, and those lessons lingered, even as he chose Bucknell for his collegiate playing career.

“He was able to get so much out of all of us because we knew that he knew the game so well, he cared so much about us and we wanted to win for him so badly,” Gensheimer said in an email. “Even though I went to Bucknell and he coached Slippery Rock, I would sit with Doc between games at college tournaments and we would talk about things on which I needed to focus.”

Identifying a quality often cited about the great coaches, Gensheimer said, “I felt like I had a special relationship with Doc, but I realized that I wasn’t alone. He’d do the same for any of us.”

A modest yet tenacious and inspiring man, Doc Hunkler left his mark on American polo—now and forever.

6 comments

  1. Roger Nekton

    An amazing human being. A legend in water polo in so many ways!

  2. avatar
    sally peavey

    A life long learner, an educator, a coach, and a manm with a comment for everyone that usually had a hidden message.

  3. avatar
    Kelli Billish Fitter

    From 1978-1981 I played water polo in Chicago when girls were just starting to have their own teams and our state championships were in the beginning phase. I so wanted to play in college, but at the time the choices were limited. As a HS senior I found out about Doc and Slippery Rock by writing a letter to the editor of Swimming World Magazine. The response was the best letter I ever received! I learned that women were playing water polo at Slippery Rock. I went to SRU and played for Doc for four years. I also had the privilege of playing for him on the National Tram. He was (and Sandy Nitta still is ) a champion of women’s water polo 🤽🏽‍♀️ He changed the trajectory of my life for the better! He will be missed and remembered by the many players whose lives he touched.

  4. avatar
    Laura Jenkins Coffman

    Doc championed women’s water polo and was a relentless advocate for us. I never played for him. He did not care. He supported me and mentored me as one of his own, as an “east coaster” who really lived in Chicago. It did not matter. In the early 80s, all of us playing outside of CA were a part of the same group and helping everyone made all of us better, regardless of what team we played for. Doc is a legend.

  5. avatar
    Dave Taylor, SRU faculty (ret)

    You “got” the same person as a coach, professor, friend, person, or colleague!

    • avatar
      Michael Randazzo

      Dear Dave:

      Thank you for your comment. I (unfortunately) never met Doc BUT had some correspondence w/him – and certainly knew about his outsized impact on women’s water polo nationally as well as pushing the East to grow.

      Polo has lost yet another great champion—now it’s up to the next generation to fill their shoes (and Doc Hunkler has VERY big shoes to fill!).

      Best,

      Your correspondent