From college angler to coach

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Craig Lamb

Hunter Sales talks to recruits at the Abu Garcia High School Combine.

Some B.A.S.S. college anglers choose to pursue a career as a pro angler, others take the fishing industry job path, and at least one has taken on the role of head coach. 

Hunter Sales, the head coach at Carson-Newman University in Jefferson City, Tenn., is a former member of the school’s Eagle Anglers, and in fact, he helped start the team. Sales, 24, has an undergraduate degree in business administration and an MBA in marketing from Carson-Newman.

Sales attended the Abu Garcia High School Combine, held over the weekend in Decatur, Ala., where he actively recruited prospects for the Carson-Newman fishing program. 

Upon earning his undergraduate degree at the age of 21, Sales stepped into the role as head coach in 2017, after the school offered him an academic scholarship for his MBA should he accept the job. He did and has never looked back about the decision to give back to his school, mentor other college anglers and grow the sport through the Christian-based university. 

“I tell my team and recruits that I want to walk with them through their college journey,” Sales said. “I can personally relate to the challenges they face academically, in college life, and bass fishing.” 

“How I look at what I’m doing as the head coach is putting together a complete mentorship model through our Christian-based mindset,” he continued. 

Cherokee and Douglas lakes are minutes away from the campus, and both are top tournament fisheries for smallmouth and largemouth in the area, making those fisheries appealing for a college angler. That was a key attractant for Sales when he chose Carson-Newman for his education. He would play on the baseball team through a scholarship, pursue his academic goals and then hitch up his boat and spend time fishing for fun on the lakes. 

The turning point came in 2016, his junior year, when the school sent an email to gauge student interest in participating in a Bassmaster College Series event at Cherokee. Sales and his baseball teammate, Tristan Stalsworth, signed up for the tournament, quickly put together a team, while thinking it would be a one-and-done opportunity. 

That would not be the case. The university, community and the Jefferson County Tourism Commission all got behind the idea of a team. The tourism commission makes national level tournaments at all levels a priority in its marketing mission. The stage was set for a team to take off.  

Sales gave up baseball in his senior year to focus on developing the Eagle Anglers bass fishing team. The team formed with six members, including Sales and Stalsworth. Sales graduated and at the age of 21, and became head coach in 2017. He wisely took advantage of his age and having gone through a collegiate bass fishing program to recruit students into the program. 

“Anytime a 21-year-old college kid can use that title around high schoolers it turns heads,” he said. 

The credit for the fast-tracked success of the program goes to Sales and the university. In his senior year, Sales put together a five-year business and marketing plan, the goals of which were increasing enrollment while applying the revenues to fund the fishing program. He presented the plan to the university CFO and got immediate sign off to budget the plan for the full five years. 

The plan called for growing the team base to 15 members. That milestone was reached in the second year. The Eagle Anglers now have 26 team members, including three women. Scholarships, a travel budget, on-campus storage for 19 boats and recruiting at the high school level — all are in place at Carson-Newman. Last year, the school’s website received over 200 inquiries about its fishing program. 

Sales shies away from taking any credit, pointing the success to the university. 

“I had this dream and the university got behind it, and they empower us all to reach for our dreams. When we do, they are fully behind helping us achieve them,” he said.

In creating the five-year plan, Sales turned to resources within the university to help him create the business plan, marketing collateral and the team budget. The controller provided guidance about liability insurance and finances. The media department produced videos, social media content and even designed and paid for his boat wrap to promote the campaign.

“It was tough for a 20-year-old college kid to get people’s attention about starting a college bass fishing team,” he continued. “And even more challenging to sit down with the CFO of the university, make a marketing pitch, lay out a budget, but they listened and opened the doors.”

“As a business minded person, I realized for the program to be successful we needed sponsors and support from the local community,” said Sales. 

“Jefferson County is such a fishing community, and especially Jefferson City and Dandridge, that everyone bought into the marketing and publicity efforts such a team could bring to the local economy,” explained Sales, who is from nearby Grainger County.

The plan is now in year four, and Sales is letting it continue to drive the program. His next focus is on mentoring students in a wholistic approach to prepare his team members for life after college. Much of his coaching philosophy is based on some of the hard lessons he learned during his college journey. 

“During my senior year, I began planning around what a college angler would want in an academic- and fishing-based program, from what I experienced along my journey,” he said. “And do that based on applying good business acumen from my formal education.” 

You might call that approach coming from the better of two worlds, as a student then a coach. Sales reached out to industry contacts, other coaches and closely watched as their programs grew. 

Another advantage for Sales is he is also competing in the Basspro.com Bassmaster Opens Series, the next level a college angler would take on a path to testing the waters as a pro angler. 

“I am sharing my firsthand experience on what they can expect at the Opens level, from traveling, to the competition and how to build their personal brand,” he said. “What’s most important is to share with them the reality of how to find a job that can fund their Opens journey.” 

Sales believes he is still on a journey, taking the students through his own, from college and into post-college life.

“Personal finance goals are so important if you want to continue in the sport,” he said. “Leaving behind a fully funded scholarship and entering the real world can be challenging.” 

If there is anyone who can lead young anglers along that journey, it would be Sales.