Football coaches are notorious for going the extra mile to plan for their teams. They plan workouts, practices and certainly game plans against opponents covering every detail. But in 1996, Isabella Head Coach Craig Hunnicutt got hit with a life changing situation that was not in his game plan.
Recently married and in his first year as a head coach at Isabella, Coach Hunnicutt was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Up to that point, his career had looked like most young coaches. A graduate of Demopolis Academy and the University of Alabama, he had worked as an assistant at Central in Tuscaloosa before taking a job as linebacker coach and defensive coordinator at Holt High School. He then coached the offensive and defensive line at Cordova High School and then Kendrick High School in Columbus, Georgia. He was finally ready for his first head coaching job and he was thrilled to be the coach of the Isabella Mustangs when he received the devastating news.
Realizing his time in coaching might be short, Coach Hunnicutt poured his all into the Isabella program. He became the definition of a “hands on coach.” Under his leadership, the community and school worked to upgrade the athletic facilities. He convinced everyone that a new athletic fieldhouse was needed and soon the building was designed, paid for and constructed. He worked tirelessly around the school cutting grass, painting and whatever he could do. It seems he had a knack for bringing people together.
Craig did the same thing with the Mustang football team. They saw his work ethic and his desire to coach in spite of his illness. His speech and physical skills gradually deteriorated, but his spirit and competitiveness did not. He created the phrase “Mustang Pride” and the school continues to use it as a rally cry even today. The phrase has gained such reverence since Hunnicutt first uttered it several years ago that “I will have Mustang Pride” is the last line recited as part of the school’s creed.
Coach Hunnicutt was a member of Mulberry Baptist Church and continued to teach Sunday School after he was diagnosed with his illness. His faith was evident to his players. Before and after practices, he would often motivate his team with a stirring message, often lessons from the Bible.
A struggling 1A team upon his arrival, the Isabella team gradually improved its on the field performance as well. The Mustangs got more competitive under Hunnicutt, snapping a string of 7 losing seasons in in 1998. In 2000, Isabella went 7-4 and made the 1A playoffs for the first time in 9 years. Coach Hunnicutt was forced to retire because of his health after five seasons following 2000 season.
Ray Sosa, a 1976 graduate of Isabella, said that Coach Hunnicutt’s influence on those he coached could not be understated. “His Christian beliefs were demonstrated daily for the students at Isabella,” he said.
That influence was huge in the life of Tate Leonard. He was a ninth grader when Coach Hunnicutt arrived in 1996, and today is the head coach at Isabella High School.
“He didn’t let his illness define him, he let his relationship with Christ define him,” Leonard said. “He was a very good Christian role model. You knew that he loved you and cared for you as a coach, there was no doubt.”
After battling ALS and cancer for 22 years, Craig Hunnicutt passed away in October of 2019. He left his wife Tanya and two daughters, Taylor and Sara and his son Luke. But he also left a legacy of love and commitment to the Isabella High School that truly exists today. That legacy extends to Coach Leonard who chose the coaching profession because of Coach Hunnicutt and has modeled his coaching after his mentor.
And the Isabella football team? They have used “Mustang Pride” to win 49 games the last five seasons under Tate Leonard.
Although his lifetime in coaching was cut short, Craig Hunnicutt’s lasting imprint was not.
The Alabama Football Coaches Association is proud to present its Lifetime Achievement Award to Coach Craig Hunnicutt.