WKU's new coach back for second helping

Ken McDonald was riding to Diddle Arena with his boss, Rick Barnes, when he got a history lesson.

McDonald was in his first coaching job as an assistant to Barnes at Clemson, and the Tigers were playing Western Kentucky on Dec. 30, 1997.

"Coach was grilling me and asking if I knew the tradition of WKU basketball," McDonald said. "Obviously, I didn't know. I had no idea Western was one of the winningest programs in college basketball.

"Coach started going through their media guide, and I learned a lot. It was pretty impressive, and he went on and on. When I walked in I was swept away. That was the first taste I had of the program."

In the almost mystical evolution of a college coach, McDonald was back in Bowling Green in the fall of 1998 as an assistant for new Hilltoppers coach Dennis Felton, another aide during Barnes' tenure at Clemson.

McDonald followed Felton to Georgia for a year, then rejoined Barnes at Texas for four seasons.

Saturday night at Hofheinz Pavilion in Houston, McDonald will make his head coaching debut when the Hilltoppers visit the Cougars.

"It's almost like he's grown up before our eyes," Barnes said in a statement when McDonald was hired by Western last April.

"The thing that I'm most excited about for Ken is that after he spent the five years as an assistant at Western Kentucky, he has always referred to the head coaching position at WKU as a dream job."

McDonald, 38, is living the dream now.

"The history and tradition of the program was so impressive to be part of," McDonald said about his first stop in Bowling Green. "I was here with Dennis when he had some great teams."

Their paths parted when McDonald went to Texas. As time passed, like any young assistant, he began to look at opportunities to become a head coach.

"Opportunities are going to come as you get older," he said. "The questions are, 'Am I ready?' and 'Is this something I'd be interested in?'

"No question with my passion and affinity for Western, this job was really on my mind. I didn't know if or when it would open up."

Soon after taking Western to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament, Darrin Horn accepted the coaching job at South Carolina.

McDonald knew WKU President Gary Ransdell and Athletic Director Wood Selig from his previous years in Bowling Green.

"Situations can go different ways," McDonald said. "Maybe you don't know the AD and president and don't have that relationship. I'd kept in touch with them."

McDonald continued recruiting for Texas while preparing for his interview with Western. The interview went well, and he was hired.

Looking back at his first exposure to Western through Rick Barnes, McDonald said, "It's so ironic. You wonder sometimes if there was some meaning to that."