Mark Story

Mark Story: WKU's 'reset' with McDonald will be worth watching

Western Kentucky head basketball coach Ken McDonald speaks in Portland, Ore., Friday, March 20, 2009, the day after they beat Illinois 76-72 in the first round of the men's NCAA college basketball tournament. Western Kentucky will play Gonzaga in Saturday's second round.  (AP Photo/Don Ryan)
Western Kentucky head basketball coach Ken McDonald speaks in Portland, Ore., Friday, March 20, 2009, the day after they beat Illinois 76-72 in the first round of the men's NCAA college basketball tournament. Western Kentucky will play Gonzaga in Saturday's second round. (AP Photo/Don Ryan) AP

The most intriguing men's college basketball decision made in the commonwealth so far in 2011 was made at Western Kentucky University.

After a winter filled with losing, roster attrition and Billy Gillispie-style rumors about the coach's personal life, the firing squad was lined up for Hilltoppers head man Ken McDonald.

Yet in a move that surprised many, the WKU administration gave the embattled third-year coach a stay of execution.

"It probably wasn't the popular move in a lot of quarters," Western Athletics Director Ross Bjork said Tuesday. "But we did a real thorough analysis — we looked at this thing long and hard — and I really believe it is the best thing."

At the school where Ed Diddle (with his red towel) became a coaching legend, where Clem Haskins and Jim McDaniels were transcendent stars and where the team made the NCAA tourney round of 16 as recently as 2008, men's hoops standards are sky high.

After watching McDonald's win totals decline from 25 to 21 to 16 in three years, after a winter in which two WKU players were dismissed for violations of team rules and another wound up academically ineligible, many Western backers concluded the coach was not up to the job.

The critics noted that the best players under McDonald — Orlando Mendez-Valdez, A.J. Slaughter, Jeremy Evans, Steffphon Pettigrew — have tended to be holdovers recruited by former head man Darrin Horn.

Then there were the rumors. One held that McDonald, who went through a divorce since becoming coach in 2008, was actually living in Nashville to avoid harsh scrutiny of his personal life in Bowling Green.

"Our fans were disappointed, there's no question," Bjork said. "We were disappointed, too. And so was Ken. Things weren't going like people expect for Western Kentucky basketball. There were issues that had to be addressed."

One big reason, Bjork said, that he and WKU President Gary Ransdell decided against a coaching change was an analysis of Western's modern basketball history.

Since Haskins left his alma mater as head man in 1986 after serving six seasons, no coach has stayed at WKU for more than five seasons.

"I just didn't think it was in our interest to have another coaching change after only three years," Bjork said. "Part of our problem in the long view, we've just had so much coaching turnover."

So going against the impatient modern college sports zeitgeist, Western decided to give McDonald a second chance to get things right.

"We're calling it a reset," Bjork said.

McDonald agreed to take a pay cut of $100,000 a year to $250,000 as part of a new four-year deal. The coach also appeared with Bjork at a news conference announcing his retention and apologized for "personal and professional mistakes."

Last winter's rumor that the WKU coach had moved to Nashville drew a chuckle from Bjork. "He was dating a lady there," the Western AD said. "That explained that one."

What likely saved McDonald is an incoming recruiting class that is being hyped as one of the best in WKU history.

It includes two members of the Rivals 150, Derrick Gordon, a four-star shooting guard out of New Jersey, and forward George Fant, a hometown product from Warren Central.

"There's no question, (the incoming recruiting class) was a consideration," Bjork said. "None of them indicated to me that they wouldn't come to WKU if Ken McDonald wasn't our coach, but it was something that figured in our analysis, that we had a class we wanted to keep together."

McDonald will need what is now a seven-man recruiting class to be every bit as good as advertised. WKU does not return a single double-digit scorer from last season's 16-16 team.

The decision to retain McDonald is the most controversial move Bjork, 38, has made since leaving a position in the UCLA athletics department to replace Wood Selig as WKU AD in 2010.

There's something refreshing about an administrator going to bat for a coach he didn't hire and a school giving a head man a second shot.

Whether Western fans see it that way, well ... .

Bjork, McDonald and other WKU sports figures are presently on a caravan that will give Hilltoppers backers a chance to provide feedback face-to-face. The tour comes to Central Kentucky on Saturday.

Said Bjork: "I think the Hilltopper fans want what I want. A team that plays hard, plays together, plays with chemistry and is built around four-year players that you can get to know and feel good about pulling for. And that's what Ken wants, too."

The WKU men's hoops "reset" is nothing if not intriguing.

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