Earl Schunk retired from the Buffalo schools in 2010 after a long career as a teacher and coach, the last 12 years as head coach basketball at Grover Cleveland. He was a little lost.
“Obviously, I flunked retirement,” Schunk said recently at D’Youville College, where he’s the head basketball coach.
“I was 55 and thought, ‘What the hell am I going to do with myself?’ So I taught a couple of classes at Medaille as an adjunct and coached Tapestry Charter. That year we get to the sectional finals and who do we wind up playing? Grover Cleveland.”
A few months later, Schunk was offered the head coaching position at D’Youville, at the time a Division III program on Porter Avenue in the city.
“It was ‘What the heck?’ Schunk recalled. “I never thought I would be coaching Division II. And I never, never thought I would still be here.”
But there he is, in his 11th season at D’Youville, running his signature wide-open style and struggling to create a competitive small-college hoop program at a school that made the ambitious jump from Division III athletics to Division II in 2019.
To say the least, it has been challenging. The Saints went 2-12 last season in their debut in Division II. They went winless in an East Coast Conference season abbreviated by Covid-19.
This season, they’re off to a 1-6 start. They lost by nine to Buffalo State early this week, which shows Schunk’s squad can still have trouble with an average Division III team. On Friday night, they open their 2021-22 ECC slate at home against Bridgeport.
“Last year, we were supposed to play a hybrid schedule,” said Schunk, who scored five points for the Canisius College freshmen before moving on to youth coaching. “But then with Covid, our new conference needed us to step up and play, so we played everybody. It was good. We learned a lot. I said, ‘Let’s just jump in the deep end and see what we got.’
“We’ve been struggling to swim a little bit.”
They played two days in a row last February at Mercyhurst, one of the top programs in the East. The first game was tied seconds before halftime when Mercyhurst hit a three-pointer at the buzzer.
“At halftime I’m saying to myself, ‘This can’t be this easy.’” Schunk said. “And I was totally right. They outscored us like 50-14 (actually, 53-22) in the second half. They just took the breath out of us.”
The next day, Mercyhurst buried them by 68. They lost by 34 and 31 to Daemen, which has become a D-II sports power since moving up from Division III eight years and provided the local model that D’Youville is looking to emulate.
“I think it will be a positive thing,” Daemen coach Mike MacDonald said. “Number one, competition makes you better. Number two, it’s one less long trip when you’re playing a road game.
“It’s great to have a rivalry within the city,” MacDonald said. “If we can establish that and became a rival, that’s great.”
D’Youville is a long way from being a rival to its cousin on Main Street in Amherst. It remains to be seen if Buffalo is big enough for two D-II programs. The jump up in class wasn’t universally embraced when D’Youville president Lorrie Clemo, a polarizing figure at the college, decided to take the athletic program D-II.
“It was a learning experience last year,” Schunk said. “Nobody died from it. Last year we had like two weeks to prepare. It was like having an AAU team. We ran the most rudimentary stuff.”
Schunk isn’t known for scheming opponents to death. In high school, he let his teams play a loose, uptempo style that resulted in high-scoring games. In 2018-19, the Saints made the AMCC playoffs, led the league in scoring, and finished 11-15.
D’Youville had some dynamic, high-scoring teams under Schunk, but that 11-win season was the high mark in his first 10 seasons. It wasn’t easy getting players to a D-III school in the city. Now he can give scholarship money, which helps in recruiting.
“I’ve got five who are getting some money,” he said. “They’re requiring all freshmen to stay on campus. Our first home game, it was packed with students. It was a great atmosphere. We’ve got a fun, athletic team.
“I’m building something here. I’m looking forward to this challenge. We’ve got some good guys in. The freshmen are extremely talented.”
Every college coach needs a fertile recruiting ground. Schunk went to Florida and found four freshmen: Nelson St. Louis, a 6-5 guard, is his leading scorer. Jared Sullivan, a 6-6 forward, is third in scoring; Rod Johnson, a 6-4 forward, is his leading rebounder.
“It’s surprising how many kids in Florida want to get out of Florida,” Schunk said. “There’s no D-III’s and one Division II conference that recruits like Division I and they don’t recruit a lot of Florida kids. So, you have all these kids with all this talent and honestly, not the best coaching in high school, though it’s getting better.
“I started making connections down there and found out it’s the easiest place on Earth to recruit. The school is looking to expand its base for students outside the area, so it turned out that Florida is a pretty good place.”
St. Louis, who is from Port St. Lucie, Fla., said D’Youville was a good fit, a place where he could play big minutes as a freshman and get away from Florida.
“It’s definitely been an adjustment, but a good one,” said St. Louis, who was recently ECC rookie of the week. “I can tell you, being here for three months, it’s a family atmosphere, very friendly. My coaches back home always told me, home is what you make it.”
Of course, much of the existing roster was players who call Western New York home and went to D’Youville when it was D-III. Schunk concedes that it has been an awkward mix at times, especially when they’re losing badly.
“They understand it’s a process,” he said. “It’s hard when my best players, or pretty close to my best players, are my younger guys. And I’ve got older guys who have been with me three or four years. It’s like when you’re the oldest son and they have a second baby and all of a sudden you’re not the favorite anymore.”
Noah Denz, who is from East Aurora, is one of the “older guys.” He’s a versatile 6-5 junior who leads the team in minutes. Denz wasn’t aware the Saints were heading to D-II when he joined the team, but he was excited by the prospect.
“You can tell the difference between Division III and II, the competition and the overall school morale,” Denz said. “We’re still going through the rough patches, but everyone is enjoying it. It’s different. The competition is better, but it’s more fun.”
Schunk said he’s hopeful. The young guys will only get better. He believes they can compete with the bottom half of the ECC this season. They don’t quite match up with the top teams yet.
He has two energetic young assistants in Simeon Heard and Devon Camel. Mike Haskell, who coached at Pioneer for more than 30 years, has been with him from the start. Schunk has the backing of the college, a redesigned gym with a video board, the city skyline on the floor at the Peace Bridge on the wall.
Now all he has to do is win some games. This is his life, his passion. He has no children of his own, no wife. Before he began coaching full-time, he was in a serious relationship.
“She said, ‘You won’t have time for me,’” Schunk said. “I said, ‘You know, you’re right.’
“I’m here until they drag me out. You’re talking about us getting our ass kicked, that’s the part I like, the struggle.”
The hope is that the struggle will eventually pay off, that one day D’Youville will be a D-II basketball powerhouse. Denz and St. Louis said they feel like they’re laying the foundation.
“Sure, that’s something I take pride in,” Denz said. “In the future, I can come back and see them running. We walked so they could run.”
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.