LEGENDS AN INSIDE HILLTOPPER SPORTS SPECIAL FEATURE

Photo Courtesy of WKU Athletics

Hannah Page l April 11, 2017

Thousands of cars whiz along a red underpass with a large, metal red towel sending its salutation to passersby. Students walk about campus wearing their favorite Western Kentucky University (WKU) sweatshirt: a red towel printed on the front of the garment. Prominently displayed upon a water tower, alongside the university, is a prodigious red towel. From Cherry Hall to Pearce Ford Tower, from cellphone cases to tailgating tents, you simply cannot ignore the innumerable red towels that grace WKU's campus.

Our story begins on Avenue of Champions, where the statue of a man in a suit waves a [red] towel. He proudly, yet humbly, stands at the fore of his namesake: E.A. Diddle Arena. It is here that WKU's Men's Basketball Team calls "home." It is here that unparalleled history and tradition fills the walls of the edifice. And it is here where legends are born.

1922-1964

Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association, Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, Ohio Valley Conference

Head Coach: Edgar Allen "E.A." Diddle (1x OVC Coach of the Year, Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer (1972) and National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Famer (2006))

Record: 759-302 (121-51 in conference)

Conference Regular Season Champions: 1949, 1950, 1952, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1960, 1961, 1962

Conference Tournament Champions: 1932, 1933, 1934, 1935, 1936, 1937, 1938, 1939, 1940, 1942, 1943, 1947, 1948, 1949, 1952, 1953, 1954

NCAA Tournament Appearances: 1940, 1960, 1962

NCAA Tournament Sweet 16: 1960, 1962

NCAA Tournament Elite 8: 1940

Photo Courtesy of WKU Athletics

WKU Basketball ("Western Kentucky State Normal School" at the time) had been in existence for about three seasons prior to Diddle’s arrival. From 1914-16, J.L. Arthur coached the newly established Hilltopper basketball team with to an overall record of 7-2. Due to international tensions leading up to and during World War I, WKU would be without a basketball program for five years. In 1921, a familiar name would take over for the Hilltoppers after their hiatus: L.T. Smith. While more recognized as a WKU Football coach, it was not uncommon for coaches to “tackle” (pun intended) multiple sports. Today, Smith’s namesake is displayed upon WKU Football’s stadium and scoreboard.

Hannah Page/WKU Rivals

While the efforts and lasting effects Arthur and Smith had on the program should not be overlooked, this story picks up steam when a Gradyville, KY (Adair County) native took the reigns of a relatively fresh-faced WKU Basketball team.

In 1922, E.A. Diddle came to WKU at the young age of 27: the same year the school was renamed to "Western Kentucky State Normal School and Teachers College." Additionally, Diddle coached football, baseball, women's basketball, and track. However, he spent the vast majority of his tenure with men's basketball.

It was during Diddle's 42 seasons with WKU Basketball that Diddle accumulated awe-inspiring accolades. He became the first coach to ever coach 1,000 games at one school. And when Diddle stepped down, he had more wins than any other coach in NCAA history (759-302 overall); today, Diddle ranks around #31 in that statistic. With 10 regular season championships, 17 conference tournament championships, 3 NCAA Tournament appearances, 2 Sweet 16 appearances, and 1 Elite 8 appearance, Diddle and the Hilltoppers were a force to be reckoned with.

Diddle had an immediate impact as did his players. During Diddle’s tenure, he recruited and coached the likes of Carlisle Towery, John Oldham (we will discuss him very soon), Tom Marshall, Bobby Rascoe, and Darel Carrier: all of which have had their jersey retired and hung on the rafters in E.A. Diddle Arena. Towery was a 2x All-American selection and was the first Hilltopper to score 1,000 points. Likewise, Marshall was also a 2x All-American, second team Associated Press selection with 1,909 career points 545 free throws, and 1,565 career rebounds, . Rascoe scored 1,687 points, was a 3x all-Ohio Valley Conference team selection, and an All-American selection. Carrier scored 1,318 points in just 69 games (3 seasons), averaged 19.1 points per game, scored 50 points in one game against Morehead State, and was an All-American selection. After WKU, Towery, Oldham, Marshall, Rascoe, and Carrier all moved on the professional playing careers. In all regards, these men were fundamental in the building and continued growth of WKU Basketball.

Top Left: Tom Marshall's hand (Hannah Page/WKU Rivals). Bottom Left: Bobby Rascoe (Nathan Morgan/Bowling Green Daily News). Right: Tom Marshal (Photo Courtesy of WKU Athletics)

Although Diddle acquired unprecedented achievements, it was his spirit and morale that cultivated an esprit de corps that fans still feel and traditions that are still observed, today. Almost like an extension of himself, throughout his entire coaching career at WKU, Diddle would tightly grasp a towel: chewing it, throwing it, crying into it, signaling his players, and engaging the fanbase (WKU, 2014). However, the widely recognized "Red Towel" was not always red. Edgar "Ed" Stansbury - a former WKU football, basketball, and baseball player - would lead the charge in changing the towels from white to red to coordinate with WKU's main school color and to differentiate from the physical education department's towels. Today, a sea of red towels wave at every sporting event. Fans clutch their towel: chewing it, throwing it, and crying into it just as Mr. Diddle.

Image Source: WKU.edu

Diddle - a Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer (1972) and National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Famer (2006) - had an immeasurable effect upon players, the university, community, and college basketball. It was during Diddle's tenure that the WKU basketball program became one of the first programs from the South to recruit and sign African-American athletes (WKU, 2014). Toward the end of Diddle's coaching career, the fervent coach not only set the standard for WKU Basketball but created a culture by which Hilltopper Nation continues to practice and appreciate. So it seems most appropriate that in 1963 WKU ("Western Kentucky State College" at the time) built a new basketball arena and named the structure after Diddle: a recognition that he held close to his heart. In 1968, four years after his retirement, Diddle was in attendance for a game between WKU and Dayton. The retired coach stood atop a press table to lead the fans in cheer and chant. A Dayton sportswriter told Diddle to get down: that he could not climb the table. An impassioned Diddle responded (WKU, 2014):

"What do you mean I can't get on top of this table? This is my damn gym!" -E.A. Diddle

Little did WKU know, it was Diddle's very own player that would become his successor. And it was his own player that would honor Diddle's legacy on and off of the court.

1964-1971

Ohio Valley Conference

Head Coach: John Oldham (4x OVC Coach of the Year)

Record: 142-40 (81-17 in conference)

Conference Regular Season Champions: 1966, 1967, 1970, 1971*

Conference Tournament Champions: 1966, 1967

NCAA Tournament Appearances: 1966, 1967, 1970, 1971*

NCAA Tournament Sweet 16: 1966, 1971*

NCAA Tournament Elite 8: 1971*

NCAA Final 4: 1971*

Photo Courtesy of WKU Athletics

In 1942, a Hartford High School Basketball alumnus (now Ohio County High School) and All-State honor recipient - John Oldham - was recruited and came to "Western Kentucky State Teachers College" to play for Coach Diddle. Meanwhile, in international news, World War II began three years prior; however, the United States - who sought non-interventionism as part of the Neutrality Acts - did not enter war until after the Japanese bombed an American fleet in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. Now, back to Mr. Oldham. After Oldham's freshman season on the Hill, Oldham served in the U.S. Navy for three years during the war (WKU Alumni Association). Oldham returned to Western Kentucky State Teachers College in 1946. As a player, Oldham scored 1,006 points in his collegiate career, and was a United Press and Associated Press All-American. In 1949, Oldham was drafted in the 2nd round of the Basketball Association of America (BAA) by the Fort Wayne Pistons.

John Oldham (center, kneeling) listens to Coach Diddle (Photo Courtesy of WKU Athletics)

After his brief career as a Fort Wayne Piston (now Detroit Pistons), Oldham returned to Bowling Green, KY to coach the College High (now Ogden College) basketball team. In his first year, the team advanced to the state tournament (WKU Alumni Association). Then, Oldham took on the collegiate head coaching role at Tennessee Tech. It was during his nine years with Tennessee Tech that the Golden Eagles finished and/or tied for 1st in the Ohio Valley Conference (1956, 1958, 1963). Success for Oldham seemed inevitable.

Upon Diddle's retirement in 1964, John Oldham found himself in a familiar place, however, in different shoes as "Western Kentucky State College" Basketball's head coach. It did not take long for Oldham's destined success to kick into high gear.

Left: Clem Haskins (Photo Courtesy of WKU Athletics). Right: Dwight Smith (Photo Courtesy of WKU Athletics).

Coach Diddle marked the end of his tenure by recruiting two of the first African-Americans to integrate WKU's program in the fall of 1963: Clem Haskins and Dwight Smith. And it was Oldham who was able to reap the benefits of Diddle's stellar recruiting. Haskins ended his career on the Hill as a 3x All-American, OVC Player of the Year, All-Conference honoree, and 4th all-time leading scorer at the time (11th today) with 1,680 career points. He also scored the most points in a single game: 55 against rival Middle Tennessee State University (January 30, 1965). Haskins was the 3rd overall pick in the 1st round of the 1967 NBA Draft: selected by the Chicago Bulls. Smith - a Princeton, KY native and Dotson High School valedictorian - had a tremendous playing career at WKU as the nation's top rebounding guard is sophomore (11.3) and senior (11.9) years. He was the the 6th all-time leading scorer for WKU with 1,142 points (now 33rd) and was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1967 NBA Draft. However, a tragic car accident took the life of Smith and his sister on Mother's Day weekend in 1967: a humble, rising star's life taken too soon.

Hannah Page/WKU Rivals

Haskins and Smith, along with Steve Cunningham and every other Hilltopper during Oldham's tenure exemplified the program's best and were formative in the continued development and influence of Western Kentucky Basketball. In Oldham's first three seasons as head coach, the Hilltoppers went 66-15 (37-5 in conference), were 1st place in the OVC twice ( 1966 and 1967,) made it to the NIT 2nd Round (1965), appeared in the NCAA Sweet 16 (1966), and appeared in the NCAA Round of 23 (1967).

The 1966 Sweet 16 team would end in both delight and disappointment. Haskins declared that WKU was the most talented team in the country, and, arguably, they were. However, the Hilltoppers' run in the NCAA Tournament came to a devastating conclusion when a controversial foul call on a jump ball - a call that is considered one of the worst in NCAA Tournament history - thwarted WKU's lead and chance to advance in the tournament; the Hilltoppers were defeated 80-79 at the hands of the University of Michigan...and poor officiating. In that same tournament, Texas Western (later UTEP) beat the Kentucky Wildcats in a game dubbed the Brown vs. Board of Education of college basketball, as Texas Western's African-American starters beat Ketucky's white lineup (The New York Times, 2008). The vocal Haskins remarked:

"There should have been no 'Glory Road.' We'd have played Kentucky in the next game and beat them and there wouldn't have been a 'Glory Road.'" -Clem Haskins
Jim McDaniels (Photo Courtesy of WKU Athletics)

There is often wonder and doubt when a coach departs for another program, or retires from the game, concerning how well the succeeding coach will recruit. IF there were ever any doubts surrounding Oldham, they were silenced with Scottsville, KY native Jim McDaniels. By the end of McDaniels' junior season, the 6'11" power forward/center had already joined the 1,000 point club. And upon the conclusion of his senior season McDaniels had accumulated 2,238 points (still tied for 1st in all-time leading scorers) and 1,118 career rebounds.

Two years after the Civil Rights Movement, tensions were still high. In the fall of 1970, Coach Oldham was questioned by two members of the Board of Regents to discuss a decision he had made that would, ultimately, shape WKU athletics. One member boorishly asked if Oldham intended on starting five black players. After Oldham confirmed that he was, the board member threatened to stop attending games (he did, in fact, stop attending) and did not return as a board member the following year (WKU Herald, 2014) (The New York Times, 2008). Oldham and the Hilltoppers continued to receive harsh criticism and threats for some time. But the forward thinking of Oldham would triumph over the naysayers and allowed WKU Basketball to press onward.

That same season, Oldham led the Hilltoppers to the 1971 NCAA Tournament which included a 101-83 victory over Adolph Rupp's Kentucky Wildcats. In a KET documentary, Basketball in Kentucky: Great Balls of Fire, Coach Oldham explained that he kept a folder on Coach Rupp. When Oldham had recruited McDaniels and Jim Rose, Coach Rupp made a statement that McDaniels and Rose could not "academically" get into Kentucky. Oldham used Rupp's statement to fuel his Hilltoppers, telling KET:

Of course the day before we left [for the tournament], I took that write-up on the bulletin board where Coach Rupp said they weren't smart enough to play at Kentucky. I didn't have to worry about them [the team] being ready. -John Oldham

The Hilltoppers made it to the Final 4, lost to Villanova, then defeated Kansas for a 3rd place finish. However, years later, the NCAA vacated WKU's finish due to allegations that the Carolina Cougars of the American Basketball Association (ABA) made an offer to McDaniels and he agreed to sign with the professional team before the end of his collegiate career.

Image Source: WKU Libraries Blog

Like Diddle, Oldham's influence goes beyond his success on the court. The "Red Towel" was not always WKU's logo; it was simply associated with Coach Diddle. However, the concept of the "Red Towel" as an official logo comes from Oldham shortly after Coach Diddle's passing. During the transition from coach to WKU's athletic director in 1971, Oldham drew a sketch of a hand holding a towel. On the same piece of paper as the sketch, Oldham wrote to Dr. Chuck Crume: "Chuck, Could you do a drawing that looks like Coach Diddle waving a red towel. General idea above. John." Dr. Crume responded on May 10, 1971 with WKU's first "Red Towel" logo and wrote: "John - This is our idea of what a Hilltopper looks like. Chuck."

Image Source: Nathan Morgan/Bowling Green Daily News

On December 27, 2012, WKU honored the program's winningest - and arguably one of WKU's most influential - coach in a pregame ceremony in which the Diddle Arena court was entitled "John Oldham Court." With some assistance from Oldham, himself, his name is displayed on the court, below the half-court WKU Red Towel logo.

1971-1980

Ohio Valley Conference

Head Coaches: Jim Richards (1971-1978); Gene Keady (1978-1980)

Record: Richards (102-84; 60-38 in conference); Keady (38-19; 17-7 in conference)

Conference Regular Season Champions: 1972, 1976, 1980

Conference Tournament Champions: 1976, 1978, 1980

NCAA Tournament Appearances: 1976, 1978, 1980

NCAA Tournament Round of 32: 1976, 1978

NCAA Tournament Sweet 16: 1978

Image Source: Jeff Brown/College Heights Herald

Jim Richards

In the story that is WKU Basketball, you will find that many players and coaches had previous connections to one another and/or WKU before their playing or coaching career. For Jim Richards, it was no different. Richards - an Adair County, KY native - had only played basketball for one year at Adair County High School. It was Coach Diddle - a fellow Adair Countian - who approached and recruited Richards to play baseball at WKU. Richards was a member of the Hilltopper Baseball team from 1955-58. At this point, it should come at no surprise that Diddle gave many coaches their first "break" (and those coaches would give more Hilltoppers their big "break"). After Richards' collegiate career, Diddle encouraged Richards to officiate high school basketball which, eventually, led to the hiring of Richards as head basketball coach at Auburn High School (Logan County, KY). After Auburn, Richards went to Glasgow High School, where he led the Scotties to a state championship in 1968.

Image Sources: ColumbiaMagazine.com

When Gene Rhodes left WKU Basketball for the ABA's Kentucky Colonels during Oldham's tenure, Oldham brought Richards on staff as an assistant coach, and Richards would be a part of the 1971 Final Four team. When Oldham stepped down to become WKU's athletic director, Richards climbed the ranks and became WKU Basketball's head coach in 1971. Richards continued WKU's winning tradition: going 102-84 in seven seasons. Even after a three season probation from the NCAA Tournament for the McDaniels/Carolina Cougars incident, Richards promptly led the Hilltoppers back to the NCAA Tournament Round of 32 in 1976. The following season, Richards followed in the tradition of giving Hilltopper alumnus their big break by hiring, none other than, Clem Haskins (and Bobby Rascoe) as an assistant coach. Richards' legacy would include three time OVC champions and two trips to the NCAA Tournament. After stepping down as basketball's head coach in 1978, Richards took on the role of WKU Men's Golf head coach. One of Richards' first recruits was Kenny Perry who would later play professionally in, both, the PGA Tour and [currently] Champions Tour.

__________

Gene Keady

Whether a coach stays for 42 seasons or 2 seasons, their time - no matter the duration - has an impact on the program (and potentially other programs). Gene Keady took the reigns for WKU Basketball in 1978. Keady was previously an assistant coach for Arkansas and helped lead the Razorbacks to a 1978 Final Four appearance. He was known for his impressive recruiting skills, and after the 1978 season, Keady was ready to become a head coach. With him, Keady brought on assistant coach Bruce Weber; both Keady and Weber were with the Hilltoppers for two seasons and compiled a record of 38-19. Though a brief stint, Keady led the Hilltoppers to a [tied] 1st-place finish in the OVC (1980) and NCAA Tournament Round of 48 appearance (1980). His team included the likes of Craig McCormick, Billy Bryant, and Kurtis Townsend. Keady would depart WKU for Purdue where he spent 25 years with the Boilermakers and become a Hall of Famer, Weber is now head coach at Kansas State, and Townsend is an assistant coach with Kansas.

1980-1986

Ohio Valley Conference, Sun Belt Conference

Head Coach: Clem Haskins (1x OVC Coach of the Year)

Record: 101-73 (49-37 in conference)

Conference Regular Season Champions: 1981, 1982

Conference Tournament Champions: 1981

NCAA Tournament Appearances: 1981, 1986

NCAA Tournament Round of 32: 1986

Photo Courtesy of WKU Athletics

There has always been something special and heartwarming about alumni "coming home" to coach their alma mater. That feeling resonated with Hilltopper Nation when assistant coach and alumnus Clem "The Gem" Haskins was announced as WKU Basketball's next head coach. To that point, Haskins had a tremendous ride and was an inspiration to all (and still is, today).

As expected, Haskins continued in WKU Basketball's success. In his first two seasons as head coch, Haskins and the Hilltoppers went 40-18, were back-to-back OVC regular season champions, OVC tournament champions in 1982, appeared in the NCAA Round of 48 (1980), and appeared in the NIT 1st Round (1981). The 1980-81 team included Craig McCormick, Tony Wilson, and Mike Reese who stayed at WKU rather than following Coach Keady. In addition, Haskins recruited or coached the likes of Bobby Jones, Kannard Johnson, and Clarence Martin. Johnson would become the only Hilltopper to earn All-Sun Belt Conference honors for four-straight seasons, ended his career with 1,738 points which would now be eighth in all-time leading scoring, and hit a buzzer-beater against West Virginia to win 64-62 and advance in the 1987 NCAA tournament.

Image Source: WKUSports.com

However, every program has their rocky and disappointing season(s). For WKU, it began during the 1982-83 season when the Hilltoppers went 12-16 (4-10 in conference). But with a closer look, it is apparent that the rough patch is much attributed to a change in conference. Between the 1981-82 season and 1982-83 season, WKU went from the OVC to Sun Belt Conference: comprised of Univeristy of Alabama at Birmingham, Jacksonville University, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Old Dominion University, University of South Florida, University of South Alabama, and Virginia Commonwealth University. It was during WKU Basketball's third season with the Sun Belt that the team went 0.500 (14-14). And during the 1985-86 season, Haskins led the team to a 2nd place finish in the conference and appeared in the NCAA Round of 32. WKU defeated the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the first round, and lost to Kentucky in the following round: 71-64.

Talent ran in the Haskins' bloodline. Clemette Haskins - the daughter of Coach Haskins - was a star player at Warren Central High School in Bowling Green, KY: just a three minute drive from WKU. Heading into Coach Haskins' third season with WKU Basketball, Clemette joined WKU's Lady Toppers Basketball squad in 1983. Not surprisingly, she lived up to the hype and led the Lady Toppers to a Final Four in 1986, earned All-Tournament Team honors, 1,762 career points, and whose #21 jersey is now retired.

The WKU Basketball program had garnered nationwide attention and respect over the course of its existence. In addition to Haskins' success and ability to turnaround a [briefly] struggling Hilltopper team, a scandal-plagued Minnesota program took notice of the rising program and coach. After the 1985-86 season, Haskins departed WKU and became the Golden Gophers' head coach where he found success with six NCAA appearances (which included one Sweet 16, one Elite 8, and one Final Four appearance) and four NIT appearances (which included a championship).

1986-1998

Sun Belt Conference

Head Coach: Murray Arnold (1986-1990); Ralph Willard (1990-1994); Matt Kilcullen (1994-1998; Ron Brown & Al Seibert coached last 6 games in 1998 season)

Record: Murray Arnold (71-54; 29-27 in conference); Ralph Willard (81-42; 46-20 in conference); Matt Kilcullen (59-49; 42-30 in conference); Ron Brown & Al Seibert (3-3).

Conference Regular Season Champions: 1987, 1994, 1995

Conference Tournament Champions: 1993, 1995

NCAA Tournament Appearances: 1987, 1993, 1994, 1995

NCAA Tournament Round of 32: 1987, 1993, 1995

NCAA Tournament Sweet 16: 1993

Image Source: UL Media Relations

For the next twelve years, WKU Basketball saw three different coaches and each serving four year stints: Murray Arnold, Ralph Willard, and Matt Kilcullen.

Murray Arnold

Arnold filled the position left by Haskins in 1986. The University Park, Maryland native had spent time at Mississippi State (assistant coach), Chattanooga (head coach), and the Chicago Bulls (assistant coach). In a Bowling Green Daily News article from 2012, "Arnold knew hoops but was misunderstood at WKU," writer Joe Medley summed up Arnold's time with WKU as such: "He wound up misunderstood and sometimes vilified during his time in Bowling Green, a sad reality that arose partly from timing and unavoidable issues with the team he inherited." Arnold was not the buoyant coach that fans had grown accustomed to with nearly every previous head coach. He was better known as a math whiz and enjoyed working with the X's and O's of the game (Medley, 2012). Two distinct circumstances likely led to Hilltopper Nation's less-than-favorable or indifferent opinion of Coach Arnold. The first circumstance, as stated, was his focus on the numbers in which fans interpreted as a lack of compassion for the players. Then, Arnold inherited a rather audacious point guard in James McNary whom he dismissed from the team. In addition to a negative public opinion and failed recruiting efforts, Arnold left the program with a 71-54 record, one 1st place Sun Belt Conference finish, and made it to the NCAA Round of 32 in 1987. After Arnold and WKU parted ways, Arnold led Australia's Perth Wildcats (National Basketball League) to a championship (1991) and Oklaloosa-Walton Community College to a NJCAA national championship (1995).

__________

Ralph Willard

Following Arnold, WKU Basketball was able to hire a hot commodity in Ralph Willard. Willard had an impressive resume: a resume in which WKU could not pass up. From 1986-87, Willard was with Syracuse as an assistant coach under Jim Boeheim. From there, Willard went to the New York Knicks as an assistant coach under Rick Pitino and helped coach the likes of Patrick Ewing, Mark Jackson, Billy Donovan, Charles Oakley, and Rick Carlisle. When Pitino stepped down and became Kentucky's head coach, Willard followed as an associate head coach. In 1990, Willard was given his first college head coaching job at WKU. Joining Willard was assistant coach Tom Crean - now, the son-in-law of WKU Football's Jack Harbuagh - who would later become the head coach of Marquette and Indiana. Within three years, Willard led WKU to a Top 25 national ranking and an appearance in the NCAA Sweet 16.

The Top 25 squad - which included Darnell Mee, Mark Bell, Chris Robinson, Cypheus Bunton, Darius Hall, and Darrin Horn (that name should sound familiar) - was well-balanced and possessed great depth. During the 1992-93 season, the Hilltoppers went 26-6 and made it to the Sweet 16 before falling to Florida State 81-78 in double overtime. Leading up to the Florida State matchup, the #7 seeded WKU beat #2 seeded Seton Hall in the Round of 32. They were an entertaining group of young men: Mee and Bell leading in points per game, Hall posting dunks, Horn known for 3s, and Bunton putting forth great defense. In many ways, the 1992-93 team was the epitome of WKU Basketball.

As WKU is all-too aware, when a coach is successful, fans speculate that there will be "bigger and better" offers and so the whispers and rumors become increasingly frequent. Hilltopper Nation banded together to, for lack of better words, keep Coach Willard around a little bit longer. In a press conference featuring WKU president Thomas Meredith (and Ralph Willard), Meredith stated: "The community has stepped forward to make sure that the compensation package for the coaching head men's basketball coaching position [sic] at Western Kentucky University is now on a competitive level: one that is competitive in today's marketplace for programs like ours." However, one year later, Coach Willard would depart WKU for the University of Pittsburgh. Although fans were disappointed, Willard left the program in better shape than he found it, leading the Hilltoppers to one 1st place Sun Belt Conference title, one NIT 1st Round appearance, one NCAA Sweet 16 appearance, and one NCAA Round of 64 appearance.

__________

Matt Kilcullen (Ron Brown & Al Seibert)

Following Willard's exit, WKU hired Matt Kilcullen who had recently coached at Notre Dame (assistant) and at Sun Belt rival, Jacksonville University (head coach). Kilcullen did not have the strongest background, but hiring a coach well-acquainted with the Sun Belt was a reasonable strategy. In his first year, with the help of Willard's previous players, Kilcullen went 27-4, won the Sun Belt Conference, and made it the the NCAA Round of 32 after beating Michigan in the 1st round and lost to Kansas in the 2nd round.

The high did not last long as the Hilltoppers went 13-14 the following season, 12-15 in 1995-96, and 10-19 in 1996-97. Kilcullen flamed out and was fired before the end of the 1997-98 season. Assistant coaches Rob Brown and Al Seibert subsequently stepped in as co head coaches for the last six games of the season and went 3-3.

The cries were loud and clear from Hilltopper Nation: find a coach that can turn around this historic program and find him quickly.

1998-2003

Sun Belt Conference

Head Coach: Dennis Felton

Record: 100-54 (54-20 in conference)

Conference Regular Season Champions: 2001, 2002, 2003

Conference Tournament Champions: 2001, 2002, 2003

NCAA Tournament appearances: 2001, 2002, 2003

Image Source: College Heights Herald

WKU responded to Hilltopper Nation's plea by hiring Dennis Felton. Felton had a strong resume and promising future having been an assistant coach at the likes of Delaware, Tulane, Saint Joseph's, Providence, and Clemson. Felton would bring Archie Miller on staff as an assistant coach.

Image Source: Darron Cummings/AP Photo

__________

A major headline from the 1997-98 season, under Coach Kilcullen, was that a certain retired NBA superstar's son was headed to the Hill after attending Valparaiso and Santa Monica College. Here are some hints as to the NBA legend: played 20 combined seasons for Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers, 6x NBA MVP, 19x NBA All-Star, 15x All-NBA selection, 11x NBA All-Defensive Team, 6 NBA Championships as a player, 2 NBA Championships as an assistant coach, still leads in NBA all-time points, and twice voted for NBA Finals MVP.

The answer: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. His son, also, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (not Jr., or II, but simply Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).

Image Source: Associated Press

Abdul-Jabbar's mission was not necessarily to be his dad, but rather to become an academic All-American (Associated Press, 1997). And he accomplished academic success just that after two seasons on the Hill: one under Killcullen and one under Felton. Hanging in the hallway of WKU's Carol & Denny Wedge Student Athlete Success Center - an academic center for student athlete utilization - is a picture of Abdul-Jabbar with the caption "1999 Arthur Ashe Jr. Award Winner." Abdul-Jabbar - a psychology major - was named the male recipient of the Arthur Ashe Jr. Sports Scholars Award after maintaining a 3.5 cumulative grade-point average. Abdul-Jabbar - a 6'5" forward - went from averaging 1.8 points per game in 8 games (under Killcullen) to 6.7 points per game in 28 games (under Felton). In addition to Abdul-Jabbar's academic accolades, him and his father brought an unintentional attention to the mid-major university residing in Southern Kentucky.

__________

As it is with most coaching changes, everything takes time. The Hilltoppers went 13-16 in 1998-99 and 11-18 in 1999-00. Things drastically changed the following year. As cliché as it may sound, freshmen became sophomores, sophomores became juniors, and juniors became seniors. WKU Men's Basketball had talent, there was never doubt. But given some time, patience, and maturity, the squad made tremendous strides and found their groove in 2000-01. During Felton's third season with WKU, the Hilltoppers went 24-7, defeated Louisville, were regular season and conference champions, and fell to Florida in the first round of the NCAA Tournament: WKU's first NCAA Tournament appearance in six years.

November 15, 2001

It was a Thursday night in Rupp Arena, and WKU and Kentucky were set to face-off in their inaugural game of the 2001-02 season; they called it the "Pizza Hut NABC Classic." Under head coach Tubby Smith, the Wildcats were ranked #4 in the nation in the preseason AP Poll. Felton's Hilltoppers - the mid-major, Sun Belt team, residing 152.8 miles southwest of the SEC's Kentucky - was not ranked.

Let's talk about the #3 [preseason Coaches Poll] Wildcats. Tubby Smith's squad is absolutely loaded...This Kentucky team is very deep. -Jeff Piecoro, Fox Sports

There did not seem to be much doubt from the Fox Sports commentators: believing Kentucky was too good to lose, especially as the Wildcats' had a couple of McDonald's All-Americans. Not long after the opening tip off, Kentucky's Marvin Stone went for the jump shot and dropped the first 2 points of the game. Immediately commentator Steve Wolf stated:

Well, anybody that tries to [sic]...even sometimes in the nation...they all think they can play here. This is a great place. This is a very big game for in-state teams like Western Kentucky. -Steve Wolf, Fox Sports

As if WKU's David Boyden (and future assistant coach) knew that his team was being marginalized on national television, Boyden cut-off the commentating and responded to Stone's first points of the game with a 3 pointer. In the first 3 minutes and 19 seconds of the game, WKU was up 9-8, all of the Hilltoppers' points coming from 3's, and 6-9 points from Boyden. Despite a 2-3 zone, the Wildcats could not contain WKU. Even with pressure and press down the court, WKU's Todor Pandov found Chris Marcus. Marcus faked the shot, and went for the dunk. With 15:20 left in the first half, WKU was ahead 13-11. It was a back-n-forth affair, and the last 3 minutes and 28 seconds of the game did not see a single point. However, WKU entered the half leading 32-30. One of the Wildcats' keys to the game was to put pressure on Marcus. Although Kentucky successfully did so (to an extent), and WKU was not able to feed the post quite to their liking, the Hilltoppers still found a way to compensate. Felton played 11 players in the first half citing the depth and talent of the Hilltoppers: even including the small 6'0" guard, Patrick Sparks. He then added, "We are obviously far from a 'one-man' team."

The second half was a different story. Kentucky was only able to put up 22 points in the entire second half. WKU had no problem exploiting the growing number of issues with the Wildcats squad. Kentucky shot 34% from the field, went 2-18 in 3-point range, was 12-24 in free throws, and turned the ball over 20 times. The Hilltoppers' won 64-52; Boyden scored 15 points and Marcus posted 13 points and 10 rebounds.

We weren't nervous. We showed that it doesn't matter what type of players you have or if you're ranked. We worked as a team and showed how talented we really are." -Dennis Felton

Image Source: WKUSports.com

Following that game, the Hilltoppers were ranked #21, while the Wildcats dropped six spots to #10. That game set the tone for the rest of the season as WKU had an 18-game winning streak which included a post-regular season conference tournament and championship. For the second-straight season, Felton led WKU Basketball to the NCAA Tournament before they fell to Stanford in the Round of 64. WKU ended their season #19 in the nation.

Felton, without question, turned the program around. He had a knack of bringing out the best in every single player, and their accolades speak volumes:

  • Chris Marcus - Sun Belt Newcomer of the Year, Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year, Sun Belt Tournament MVP, NCAA Division I rebounding leader, Sun Belt Conference Men's Basketball Player of the Year, 2x Associated Press Honorable Mention All-American, school record for career blocks (214), scored 1,113 points.
  • David Boyden - Started 123 games, scored 1,167 points, All-Sun Belt Conference, All SBC Tournament Team
  • Patrick Sparks - 155 career 3-point field goals, 312 assists, All-Sun Belt Conference, All SBC Tournament Team

WKU was back on the map, and fans could not have been more thrilled.

2002-03 was a successful season and put another notch in Felton's belt. The Hilltoppers opened the season as #19 (#20 in preseason polls). Although they would drop from the rankings for the remainder of the season, WKU would go 24-9, 12-2 in conference, defeated Middle Tennessee in the Sun Belt Conference Championship, and made it to the NCAA Tournament for the third-straight season before falling to Illinois in the Round of 64: 65-60. However, it was also a season of "what-ifs" as standout Marcus only played in 4 games due to injury (and 15 games the year prior, also due to injury). What if Marcus was healthy?

It comes at no shock that programs started to notice Felton's success and consistency. During Felton's tenure, WKU was viewed as more than just a mid-major program with a stroke of luck; they were a threat to any team, and Kentucky can attest. So on May 14, 2003, it was announced that Coach Felton had accepted an offer from the University of Georgia.

2003-2008

Sun Belt Conference

Head Coaches: Darrin Horn

Record: 111-48; 57-21 in conference

Conference Regular Season Champions: 2006, 2008

Conference Tournament Champions: 2008

NCAA Tournament Appearances: 2008

NCAA Round of 32: 2008

NCAA Round of 16: 2008

Image Source: GamecocksOnline.com

In this feature, you may have noted the significant achievements of Kentucky-raised men that either played and/or coached for WKU: E.A. Diddle, John Oldham, Clem Haskins, Jim McDaniels, Jim Richards...

When Darrin Horn was hired to lead the Hilltoppers and sustain their unabating success, the WKU Basketball alumnus and previous assistant coach had a unique opportunity to follow in the footsteps of [specifically] John Oldham and Clem Haskins. The headlines, of course, would read along the lines of "WKU hires ex player as head coach." The news would garner attention; additionally, the pressure and expectations were high. Not only would fans look to compare Horn to his predecessor, but to Oldham and Haskins, as well.

Although 15-13 is not a losing record, Horn and the Hilltoppers' 2003-04 season felt drastically different from the previous three seasons. Fans were divided between "Give the man a chance" or "He must go." A College Heights Herald Opinion headline from April 15, 2004 stated: "Out of Bounds: Horn had his chance, now he has to go." Hilltopper Nation had grown accustomed to winning (and winning big) and demanded the best. However, Athletic Director Wood Selig and President Gary Ransdell saw something propitious in Horn. Their discernment - in addition to Horn's natural coaching ability - would yield a new era of WKU Basketball: an era that all of Hilltopper Nation reminisces upon, appreciates, and perhaps reminds many of the Coach Oldham days.

Often, a coach's first year is not indicative of future success or performance. Even some of the best coaches - no matter the sport - struggled during their first one or two seasons with a new program. Jim Calhoun went 9-19 in his first season with the University of Connecticut; in his second season, Calhoun led the Huskies to a 20-14 record and NIT Championship. Rick Pitino went 14-14 in his first seasons with the University of Kentucky; in his second season, Pitino led the Wildcats to a 22-6 record. Sean Miller went 16-15 with the University of Arizona; in his second season, Miller led the Wildcats to a 30-8 record and NCAA Tournament Elite 8 appearance. Keeping with the trajectory of this consideration, during the 2004-05 season, Horn led the Hilltoppers to an overall record of 22-9 and reached the NIT 2nd Round with some help from his first recruiting class: Courtney Lee ("C Lee"), Ty Rogers, and transfer Elgrace Wilborn.

Tragedy struck on Mother's Day in 2005. Junior guard Danny Rumph died from a heart condition that led to sudden cardiac arrest during a pick-up game in Mallery Recreation Center in Philadelphia, PA. During the 2004-05 season, Rumph appeared in all 31 games and had 29 starts. He had been awarded twice with the John Oldham Most Improved Player at the team's postseason banquets in 2004 and 2005. Today, Danny is celebrated through the Daniel E. Rumph II Foundation, the Danny Rumph Classic [basketball], the Rumph Golf Classic, an Annual Award Dinner, and Annual Fish Fry: all of which bring awareness to Sudden Cardiac Arrest and provide screenings for Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy.

The Shot

Leading up to WKU Basketball's 2007-08 campaign, the Hilltoppers were 82-41 under Coach Horn. They had achieved two 2nd place finishes in the Sun Belt's East Division, one 1st place finish in the East, one Sun Belt Conference Championship runner-up, one Sun Belt Conference Championship, one NIT 1st round appearance, and one NIT second round appearance. The team was reliable, consistent, and mature; however, something was missing. There was still an untapped potential, and it was just a matter of time before Horn's squad clicked on all cylinders.

On March 21, 2008, the #12 seeded Hilltoppers were set to face the #5 seeded Drake Bulldogs in the NCAA Tournament. Drake was riding on a 21-game winning streak. The game is a blur to even the most dedicated fans. It was a back-n-forth affair which featured Drake overcoming a 16 point deficit in the final 8 minutes of regulation and led 99-98 after the Bulldogs' two free throws with 5.7 seconds to play in overtime. For it was the events in the final 5.7 seconds of the game that is forever embedded in not only Hilltopper Nation's mind, but all spectators' minds, as well.

Tyrone Brazelton - who had scored a career-high 33 points - raced across mid-court and passed it to Ty Rogers, whose 3 point buzzer-beater from the wing (26 feet to be exact) gave the Hilltoppers their first NCAA Tournament victory in 13 years. Without a hitch, Rogers threw up his arms with both index fingers' indicating a "#1" as he flew about the court like an airplane: the image would become synonymous with the game and WKU's run in the 2008 NCAA Tournament. The play became otherwise known as "The Shot." Rogers - an Eddyville, KY native - would be awarded an ESPY for "Best Finish."

Image Source: Brian Cassella/St. Petersburg Times/ZUMA Press

After defeating Drake, WKU would advance and play #13 seeded San Diego in the Round of 32. San Diego had just upset #4 seeded UConn. Again, the Hilltoppers would blow a lead, but would bounce back and defeat the Toreros 72-63. This time, it was C Lee who came in the clutch with 29 points, four 3 pointers, 7-8 in free throws, 7 rebounds, 1 assist, and 3 steals. Next up, #1 seeded UCLA.

Image Source: Louisville Courier-Journal

Imagine the likes of C Lee, Rogers, Brazelton, A.J. Slaughter, Jeremy Evans, and Orlando Mendez-Valdez up against Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, and Darren Collison: going toe-to-toe with heavyweights and future NBA stars. In hindsight, it was WKU's best squad from the past 9 years vs. UCLA's best squad from the past 9 years. Since then, neither team has advanced further than they did in the 2008 NCAA Tournament. WKU ultimately fell to UCLA 88-78, but not without a fight. Late in the game, WKU got within 4 points of a sloppy Bruins squad. Without Love's career-high 29 points, the game might have seen a different outcome. Despite the disappointment of the loss, Tyrone Brazelton scored 31 points - 25 in the second half - and C Lee added 18 points. Darrin Horn and Hilltopper Nation were proud.

Horn's tenure was not just marked by an inspiring NCAA Tournament run, he also recruited some of the finest players WKU Basketball has ever seen including All-Americans Mike Wells, Anthony Winchester, and Orlando Mendez-Valdez. One player was, of course, C Lee. During his first season on the Hill, C Lee set a school record for freshman scoring with 461 points in 31 games. He was named First Team All-Sun Belt Conference for three consecutive seasons. As a senior, he was named the Sun Belt's Player of the Year. Remarkably, after 18 points against UCLA, C Lee would tie Hilltopper-legend Jim McDaniels for 1st as WKU's all-time leading scorer. He started 128 games, played nearly 4,000 minutes, made 82% of free throws, made 245 3-point shows, had 281 assists, 242 steals, and 78 blocked shots. Three months later, C Lee was selected by the Orlando Magic in the 1st round, 22nd pick of the NBA Draft. Today, C Lee is the starting shooting guard for the New York Knicks. WKU retired C Lee's jersey on January 15, 2015. He tearfully and humbly walked onto John Oldham Court, greeted Athletic Director Todd Stewart and President Gary Ransdell, and was surrounded by family, friends, and the man that gave him a chance: Coach Horn.

After leading a program to the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16 at the young age of 35, the inevitable became reality as the University of South Carolina made an offer Horn could not refuse. The Gamecocks hired Horn on April 1, 2008. A punch to the gut, nonetheless, but Horn left the program in incredible shape. To many adoring fans, Horn is forever a Hilltopper.

2008-2016

Sun Belt Conference, Conference USA

Head Coach: Ken McDonald (2008-2012); Ray Harper (2012-2016)

Record: Ken McDonald (67-48; 36-19 in conference); Ray Harper (90-63; 42-34 in conference).

Conference Regular Season Champions: 2009

Conference Tournament Champions: 2009, 2012, 2013

NCAA Tournament Appearances: 2009, 2012, 2013

NCAA Tournament Round of 32: 2009

Image Source: USA Today Sports Images

Ken McDonald

WKU Basketball's philosophy seems to be "keep it in the family" and/or "keep it in Kentucky." Nearly every coach has fallen in at least one of the following categories:

  • born in Kentucky
  • played a college sport in Kentucky
  • previously coached in Kentucky (high school or college other than WKU)
  • played at WKU
  • assistant coach at WKU

Ken McDonald fell into the "assistant coach at WKU" category as he had been with the university during the entirety of Felton's tenure. After WKU, McDonald followed Felton to Georgia then to Texas under Rick Barnes. Personal judgments aside, McDonald's sentiments of the program's potential - stated during his press conference - ring true, today:

"I really believe that this program has no ceiling. During the interview process I told them I think it would be a big mistake if you put a ceiling on this program because as much as we did when I was here, as much success recently as Western has had, I don't think it has to stop." -Ken McDonald

McDonald verbalized what many impassioned fans felt regarding the state of WKU Basketball. Athletic Director Wood Selig had no issue gambling on another young coach (McDonald was 38) after witnessing the success and attention Horn brought to WKU. McDonald had high expectations, lofty goals, and preached an up-tempo style of playing.

The 2008-09 team was led by junior forward Jeremy Evans, senior guard Orlando Mendez-Valdez, junior guard A.J. Slaughter, and sophomore forward Steffphon Pettigrew: all of which had returned since playing under Horn. Certainly, their return helped McDonald transition into his new role. In his first year as head coach, the Hilltoppers went 25-8, were Sun Belt Regular Season Champions, Sun Belt Tournament Champions, and made it, yet again, to the NCAA Tournament. The team would advance to the Round of 32 after defeating the Illinois Illini before falling to Gonzaga after the Zags put up a buzzer-beater that resulted in a 83-81 heartbreaking Hilltopper loss.

After the 2008-09 season, the Hilltoppers went on gradual decline year after year.

  • 2009-10: 21-13, 12-6 in conference
  • 2010-11: 16-19, 8-8 in conference
  • 2011-12: 5-11, 1-2 in conference

On January 6, 2012, Athletic Director Ross Bjork and WKU released McDonald from his contract citing poor attendance and a grave 5-11 start: one day after a bizarre 72-70 overtime loss to Louisiana-Lafayette where the Ragin' Cajuns had, in fact, an illeagal 6 men on the court. In a press conference following the firing of McDonald, Bjork stated: "They [the players] were suffering in this environment and we had to do something to get them out of it."

Ray Harper

Upon McDonald's mid-season release, Bjork named assistant coach Ray Harper as interim head coach. Harper fell into the categories of "born in Kentucky," "played a college sport in Kentucky," "previously coached in Kentucky," and was an "assistant coach at WKU." The Greenville, KY native had played at Texas and Kentucky Wesleyan before coaching at his alma mater (Kentucky Wesleyan) and then Oklahoma City University. His accomplishments include 2x NCAA Men's Division II Tournament Champions (Kentucky Wesleyan 1999, 2001), 2x NAIA Men's Division I Tournament Champions (Oklahoma City 2007, 2008), and 7x Division II National Coach of the Year.

Image Source: AP Photo

Harper had a daunting task ahead of him in rebuilding a broken and battered Hilltopper team. The first game under Harper came just one day after McDonald's release and two days after a frustrating overtime loss. The road was not easy as from January 7th - February 25th, the Hilltoppers went 6-7 (11-18 in the regular season). However, hope and a positive outlook slowly started to fill Diddle Arena on February 19th when news broke that Harper was hired as the next head coach.

The Sun Belt Conference Tournament would begin on March 3rd; while fans just wanted to get through the season without too much suffering, Harper and the Hilltoppers had another idea.

4 Wins in 4 Days

After a treacherous couple of months, the Hilltoppers found a glimmer of hope on March 3, 2012. In the first round of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament, WKU defeated Florida International (8-21) 67-63. One day later, their next matchup was against Arkansas-Little Rock who would likely be more of a contender as the Hilltoppers were 12-18 and the Trojans were 15-16. Arkansas Little-Rock had earned a bye from the first round as a #2 seed; however, the Hilltoppers found a way to defeat the Trojans 68-63. WKU had already achieved, what felt like, the impossible given the season's circumstances. Some fans were reluctant to become too excited, while others felt like they were witnessing something special.

Although a #3 seed and one seed lower than Arkansas Little-Rock, the Denver Pioneers were 22-8 heading into the conference semifinals. It was a close game, but George Fant's - the nephew of WKU-great Jim McDaniels and current Seattle Seahawk offensive tackle- 19 points, Kahlil McDonald's 14 points, and Derrick Gordon's 7 points and 6 rebounds led WKU to a 67-63 victory against Denver. WKU led 65-63 when Denver missed a 3-point attempt and rebounded, but Gordon swatted the shot, and McDonald got the rebound, then made the final two free throws to put away the game.

WKU was set to face the #5 seeded North Texas in the championship game: leaving fans shocked. If WKU lost, they still would have advanced further than imaginable. If WKU won, Harper had done the unthinkable.

The Mean Green led by as many as 13 points in the second half. Just as the Hilltoppers had done throughout the season and tournament, they rallied. As the came closer and closer to an end, WKU took the lead for good at 70-68 after Kahlil McDonald made a 3-pointer. Teeng Akol would score 23 points, and George Fant scored 17 to lead the Hilltoppers to a 74-70 win over North Texas. The win secured the team's first NCAA tournament berth since 2009.

"This season has been unbelievable. A coaching change...Everyone was down on us before we got out here, saying we weren't old enough, mature enough, we couldn't guard some of the people we obviously guarded here. It speaks for itself." -George Fant

Image Source: College Heights Herald

Heading into the 16 vs 16 seed matchup against Mississippi Valley State, WKU was the only team with a losing record in the NCAA Tournament. There was a sense of déjà vu as the game came down to the wire and the Hilltoppers' rallied from a 16-point deficit over the last 5 minutes of the game. In front of a presidential audience of President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron, T.J. Price was able to put up a 3-point shot with 33 seconds left in the game. The Hilltoppers won 59-58, and found themselves facing the #1 seeded Kentucky Wildcats in the Round of 64. WKU would put up a fight, but would lose 81-66; Kentucky would go on to win the NCAA Championship.

2012 and the hiring of Harper mark another turning point in WKU Basketball. In 2012-13, the Hilltoppers would unexpectedly make a 20-16 run which included another Sun Belt Conference Championship and appeared, again, in the NCAA Round of 64: falling to the #1 seeded Kansas 64-57 (but definitely gave the Jayhawks a run for their money). After 2012, WKU never had a losing season under Harper. Although the team would not see another conference championship or NCAA Tournament appearance, WKU had three straight 20+ win seasons.

Upon the suspension of 3 basketball players, Coach Harper would resign from his position on March 17, 2016. 20 days later, Harper was subsequently hired at Jacksonville State, where he took the 2016-17 team to the program's first NCAA appearance. Despite the frustrations surrounding the 2015-16 campaign, Harper's legacy at WKU laid within his ability to restore a defeated and quickly fading program. He coached and/or recruited some of the Hilltoppers' recent stars: Jamal Crook, George Fant, Kahlil McDonald, T.J. Price, Nigel Snipes, Brandon Harris, Aleksej Rostov, Trency Jackson, Justin Johnson, Ben Lawson...just to name a few.

2016-Present

Conference USA

Head Coach: Rick Stansbury

Record: 15-17 (9-9 in conference)

Image Source: WKUSports.com

As it is with every coaching search, rumors and speculation rant rampant. Darrin Horn, Dennis Felton, Kurtis Townsend, John Pelphrey, Kenny Payne, and Rick Stansbury received significant buzz surrounding their names. Whether names were mentioned by fans simply describing who they wished would coach or by media with reliable sources, one notion was clear...fans and the media, alike, saw a need for WKU to hire a man with connections to either WKU or the state of Kentucky. Every one of the names mentioned above fit into at least one of the two criteria.

On March 28, 2016 - 11 days after Harper's departure - WKU announced the hire of Campbellsville Basketball alumnus, ex-Mississippi State head coach, and Wolf Creek, KY native, Rick Stansbury. He is, also, the great-nephew of the late Ed Stansbury: a WKU football, basketball, and baseball alumnus and WKU athletics administrator. In Diddle Arena, Edgar's name is displayed upon a sign that reads: "Edgar Stansbury Upper Concourse."

“With his family’s name etched eternally in the Diddle Arena concourse, it seems only fitting that Rick's return to the commonwealth will now have him manning the sidelines of our hallowed arena.” -Todd Stewart, Athletic Director

Stansbury had tremendous success at Mississippi State. He compiled a 293-165 overall record, 11 postseason appearances, 6 NCAA Tournament appearances, once SEC regular season champions, and twice SEC tournament champions. He retired in 2012 after 14 seasons as head coach, however, returned to basketball in 2014 with the Texas A&M Aggies as an assistant coach under Billy Kennedy. With Stansbury's help, the Aggies coaching staff signed a consensus top-10 recruiting class.

Hannah Page/WKU Rivals

Stansbury had the tough task of forming a team that was dealing with turnover and riddled with injury. He had (and still has) a no-nonsense attitude. In a June press conference, Stansbury even addressed the student fanbase, stating:

"My first couple of weeks here I walked around this campus, I saw way too many kids wearing Kentucky or Louisville shirts. That needs to change. They want to wear that shirt they need to transfer." -Rick Stansbury

Regardless of the losing season with its fair share of highs and lows, Hilltopper Nation was gladly able to resist delivering any criticism as the passionate and exuberant coach had made good on a promise to go after only the best recruits. By November 9, 2016, WKU Basketball received 3 commits: Taveion Hollingsworth (Kentucky Mr. Basketball, 3 star guard), Josh Anderson (4 star guard, #53 player in the nation), and Mitchell Robinson (5 star center, #8 player in the nation).** And just like that, WKU had a top-10 recruiting class.

**as of Wednesday, April 12, WKU has signed JUCO guard and Kentucky native Jordan Brangers. Jake Ohmer will be signing Wednesday, April 19th at 3pm at Scott High School.

While the rest of Conference USA and the nation were exceptionally baffled, Hilltopper Nation is grateful for Stansbury's relentless pursuit of only the best and excited for the future of WKU Basketball. With the program's rich tradition and history, it should not be too astonishing that Stansbury - a convincing and frank coach - was able to recruit such talent. Another grand-slam hire by athletic director Todd Stewart...

Justin Johnson (Image Source: American Sports Network)

Heading into the 2017-18 season, fans have much to look forward to with the return of star forward Justin Johnson (also WKU Football tight end), guard Tobias Howard, forward Jabari McGhee, guard Damari Parris, as well as the debut of transfer guard Lamonte Beardenand the new recruits.

Hannah Page/WKU Rivals

WKU Basketball is more than just a statistic; however, those statistics assuredly make an argument in defense of WKU being one of the most historic programs in the nation: #17 in the nation in all time victories, #9 in the nation in winning percentage #3 in the nation in regular-season conference titles, and 7th in the nation in 20-win seasons. WKU Basketball has 22 NCAA Tournament appearances, which puts the program at #41 in the nation, #1 in CUSA, and in the top 12% in that statistical category: having more appearances than teams like Memphis, Gonzaga, Iowa State, Florida, Oregon, Vanderbilt, Wichita State, and so on.

Image Source: Twitter.com/WKUBasketball

There are many stories and adjectives that describe the tradition and legacy that is “WKU Basketball:” none of which will fully encapsulate the century-worth of history. There are simply not enough words to convey the impact WKU Basketball – coaches, players, staff, and so on – has had on the university, community, state, and nation. So whether you are attending a basketball game or waving the Red Towel, know that you are in the presence of legends...know that this story has only just begun.

Hannah Page/WKU Rivals

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.