Back in the 1980s, Ray Harper was the proverbial "quarterback on the floor" for Kentucky Wesleyan at point guard. Wayne Chapman was an assistant on Mike Pollio's KWC staff.
Chapman did not have Harper then pegged as a future NCAA Tournament head coach.
"I don't know that I ever assumed anybody was a future coach unless it was something a kid just talked about all the time. And Ray wasn't like that," Chapman said Monday. "But he was a point guard and he had unbelievable vision of the game. ... He knew when to keep his teammates involved and when he needed to make a play. He just had an unbelievable knowledge for basketball."
Tuesday night, a much older Harper, 50, will put his "unbelievable knowledge for basketball" on display in college hoops' biggest event. An NCAA Tournament crowd expected to include President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron in the University of Dayton Arena will see the new Western Kentucky University head coach lead the Hilltoppers against Mississippi Valley State (coached by ex-Kentucky point guard Sean Woods).
The winner will face No. 1 overall seed Kentucky Thursday in Louisville's KFC Yum Center.
For Chapman, a two-time NCAA Division II championship-winning head coach at Kentucky Wesleyan and the father of former UK and NBA star Rex Chapman, the ascension of Harper into the WKU head coaching position is "my favorite subject right now," he says.
When Chapman led Wesleyan to the 1987 and '90 NCAA Division II national titles, Harper was his assistant. "The best assistant coach I ever had," Chapman said. "A quick learner. Absorbed things like a sponge."
By the time Harper got his own chance to run the storied Wesleyan program, he made the Panthers into a perennial participant in national title games. The onetime Bremen High School (Muhlenberg County) star led Wesleyan to two Division II titles and four national runner-up finishes (though one second-place was vacated due to NCAA violations that centered primarily on problems in how Wesleyan was certifying transfer students for athletic eligibility).
After Harper left Wesleyan, he took the head coaching job at NAIA power Oklahoma City. In three years, Harper won two NAIA national crowns and finished second once.
"There's a big difference in a 'basketball coach' and a 'championship-winning basketball coach,'" Chapman said. "Not every coach is capable of winning a championship. Most aren't. Ray is a championship-winning coach. He has that special knack to get kids to believe what he's teaching is extraordinary and get them to buy in totally to what he wants to do."
Even in the long, eventful history of college basketball in Kentucky, it seems unlikely that many coaches have ever had a season quite like the one Harper has had in 2012. He began the year in his fourth season as an assistant on the staff of embattled WKU head man Ken McDonald.
After the Hilltoppers started the season 5-11, the Western brass pulled the plug on McDonald and named Harper interim head coach. Fan reaction to the move was reflected at the Diddle Arena turnstiles, where average attendance after Harper became head man rose from 3,094 a game to 5,340.
On Feb. 19, Western announced that Harper would be its permanent head coach.
The on-the-floor returns were not as immediate. A WKU roster heavily dependent on freshmen lost its first three games and four of its first five under Harper.
"The thing with Ray, he understands if you are going to give players the freedom to shoot, you have to give them the freedom to miss," said Chapman, a standout player at WKU in the 1960s. "To me, that's a big change that the (Western players) needed. And I think you can see the difference now."
Now, Western has won six games in a row, including four straight in the Sun Belt Tournament to earn the school's 22nd NCAA bid — even with a 15-18 overall record.
Whatever happens this week for the Hilltoppers, with promising freshmen such as wing player Derrick Gordon, forward George Fant, three-point marksman T.J. Price and ex-Clark County standout Vinny Zollo on the WKU roster and only one senior (Kahlil McDonald), Harper seems to be sitting pretty moving forward.
"Ray Harper is a proven head coach and the kind of coach Western should have been hiring all along rather than always trying for the young, up-and-coming assistant," Chapman says. "If they'd hired Ray a long time ago, I don't think you'd have seen the kinds of ups and downs they've had in their program."