The Walkthrough: How WKU athletics stand one year after Harper’s departure

Evan Heichelbech is the College Heights Herald Editor-in-Chief for Fall 2018 and Spring 2019.

Evan Heichelbech

On March 17, 2016, Ray Harper resigned after four years as head basketball coach at WKU. One week prior, Michelle Clark-Heard and the Lady Toppers were upset by Marshall in the Conference USA tournament, ending any big postseason hopes after yet another successful regular season campaign. Also, Jeff Brohm was preparing for his third year as the Hilltoppers head coach, leading his team into spring practice with a quarterback competition that lingered on all the way until opening weekend six months later in September.

Fast forward a little more than one calendar year from Harper’s resignation, and the landscape of Hilltopper athletics is quite different. Three of WKU’s biggest programs are entering crucial points in their respective cycles of development.

With no disrespect to WKU volleyball coach Travis Hudson and his highly successful program, in roughly 365 days Clark-Heard went from being a relatively new face of success on the Hill to the longest tenured of the most watched athletic teams at  WKU.

If the Lady Toppers aren’t getting enough attention, they should be. Clark-Heard has won 20 games in each of the five seasons she’s been at the helm, most recently leading WKU to 27 wins before Kendall Noble and company fell to Ohio State in the first round of the Women’s NCAA Tournament last Friday. With redshirt seniors Noble and Micah Jones departing after giving Clark-Heard and Hilltopper fans five years of lasting memories and wins, Clark-Heard faces a new challenge in the upcoming season.

Clark-Heard has players returning that are more than capable of winning another C-USA championship. Winning won’t be an issue. The challenge Clark-Heard faces heading into the fall is not only sustaining the success she has had, but also taking the next step and winning one or more games in the Big Dance.

While getting to the Big Dance hasn’t necessarily been the issue for Clark-Heard, a winner of three conference tournaments in five seasons, it has been for the men’s basketball program. After two consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament in 2012 and 2013, the program has tailed off in recent years.

The names Rick Stansbury and Mike Sanford likely didn’t mean anything to Hilltopper fans a year ago. But in late March, they hold a lot of significance within the WKU athletic program.

Stansbury’s first year as head coach was mostly a forgettable one, but the expectations for next season’s team continue to mount. Stansbury added a second in-state talent earlier this week, as Scott High School guard Jake Ohmer joined Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball winner Tavieon Hollingsworth in the Hilltoppers’ 2017 class.

If Stansbury’s name floating around in speculative reports about Power-5 head coaching vacancies even after he had a losing season at a mid-major school wasn’t enough to prove that he has national intrigue tied to his name, think of it this way: It’s been a while since fans could excitedly imagine two or three or four different starting lineup combinations between seven or eight players before the next season even started. Stansbury can recruit high-caliber athletes to Bowling Green, and he’s proven since the day he accepted the job that he’s not afraid to brand WKU as a national contender.

The third “premier” sport on the Hill is entering an interesting phase of its rapid progression. Rookie head football coach Mike Sanford has embraced his task of continuing to elevate the standard of success that Brohm established in three short years. The enthusiasm to succeed that Sanford has worn on his sleeve since he was announced as head coach was most recently evidenced on Tuesday when he spoke with the media for a half hour about spring practice. Not a season opener. Not a bowl game. Thirty minutes of talking about spring practice.

With these three programs climbing up and down different tiers of progression, I’d say Todd Stewart has three leaders that are more than ready and capable to keep WKU sports on the rise.

Reporter Evan Heichelbech can be reached at 502-415-1817 and [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @evanheich.