Michelle Clark-Heard takes unconventional route to success

WKU’s head coach Michelle Clark-Heard highfives senior guard Alexis Govan (21) during the Hilltopper’s 70-67 win over Charlotte in the second round of the Conference USA tournament Thursday, March 12, 2015, at Bartow Arena in Birmingham, Ala. Govan led the game with 21 points. The Lady Toppers take on either Old Dominion or UTSA The Lady Toppers take on either Old Dominion or UTSA in the semifinal game at 12:30 p.m. Friday March 13, 2015.

Jonah Phillips

The second rung in the ladder seemed easier for her to climb than the first and the third more so than the second and so on. She has done this before. 

Just the season before the former WKU player was climbing a similar ladder in New Orleans, cutting down the net in celebration of her first conference championship with WKU. 

But her journey to the Hill and all the success that has come with it, is not what you would expect from a proven Division I coach. 

“It’s pretty funny. I think my story is a little bit different than most people’s. I didn’t start playing basketball till the ninth grade,” Head Coach Michelle Clark-Heard said. “I give a lot of credit to my high school coach, who basically followed me around every single day at school.”

A Kentucky native, Clark-Heard learned to love basketball under Head Coach Jerry Wilson at Atherton High School in Louisville. Wilson saw potential in the athletic freshman and insisted she tryout. 

“He knew who my friends were and everything because he was trying to convince me to play basketball—because I didn’t play in middle school,” Clark-Heard said. 

Wilson pushed Michelle to at least go and tryout, saying that if she didn’t like it, at least she tried. 

“So I showed up at tryouts and of course he made it seem like I was the best player in the gym, which I wasn’t,” Clark-Heard said. “But I am just very thankful for having someone that really pushed me… From that day forth, he became a really big inspiration in my life.”

Growing up on the east end of Oak Street in downtown Louisville, Clark-Heard lived across the street from Shelby Park, where, after she received a gift from Coach Wilson, she learned the art of determination. 

“The more I was around basketball the more that I loved it, and the more I wanted to be really good. I lived right across the street from a park, which was actually really beneficial to me,” Clark-Heard said. “My coach actually gave me my first red, white and blue basketball— I will never forget that. I remember I stayed in that park every single day just trying to get better.”

While her introduction to basketball was later than that of most of her high school teammates, it didn’t take long for Clark-Heard to establish herself as a top athlete in the state of Kentucky. 

“She was one of the best players in the state of Kentucky… we recruited her from her sophomore year on,” said Paul Sanderford, Clark-Heard’s coach at WKU.  

“A kid her size, with great hands— I don’t know if you have noticed but Michelle has huge hands,” Sanderford said. “One of the first things I noticed was she caught everything— you didn’t have to throw a good pass. You just had to throw it in her general vicinity… If she got her hands on it, it was hers, and no one was taking it away from her.””

By her senior season, Clark-Heard was named the 1986 Kentucky High School State Player of the Year and was being recruited by a handful of the top programs in the nation. 

“There was a ton,” Clark-Heard said of the programs recruiting her. “Pat Summit came to my house— I was recruited heavily by Tennessee. Andy Landers from Georgia, Penn State— I was recruited by a lot of schools, but I only went on two visits.”

Clark-Heard went on recruitment visits to San Diego and WKU, but after her visit to the latter, she said she knew where her new home would be.  

Yet, there was another factor that would jump-start Clark-Heard’s career as a student-athlete and unknowingly, her career far beyond those bounds.

She remembers playing in Diddle Arena with Atherton in the state basketball tournament and being mesmerized by the size and enthusiasm of the crowd.  

She was drawn into the competitive atmosphere that WKU provided, but there was one more thing that WKU provided that no other university did: her very first scholarship offer.     

“Coach Sanderford and the staff offered me a scholarship, and they were the first to offer— I never forgot that,” Clark-Heard said. “I give him just a ton of credit for believing in me, coming out of high school, offering me before anybody saw in me what he saw.”

Sanderford coached Clark-Heard during her time as a student-athlete at WKU. As a four-year letter winner, she contributed to a team that saw four NCAA tournaments, two Sun Belt Conference tournaments (1988, 1989), and totaled 89 wins.  

Upon graduation, Clark-Heard spent eight and a half years between Bowling Green and Louisville working in various parks and recreation departments. After relocating from Bowling Green Parks and Recreation to Louisville, she decided she wanted to get back into basketball.  

Ken Smith, head coach at Dupont Manual High School, was familiar with Clark-Heard from her high school days, coaching against her in her time as an athlete at Atherton.  

After an iconic career on the Hill, Smith was anxious to give Clark-Heard her first crack at coaching. 

She coached as an assistant at Manual for the 1994-1995 season, but remained in close contact with Coach Sanderford. She had bigger plans than high school basketball. 

“She called me a couple of times about coming on as a grad assistant at Nebraska,” Sanderford said, who was at the time completing a move away from his illustrious career at WKU to take the reigns at the University of Nebraska. 

“I thought she was crazy for walking away from a good job, but that is really what she wanted to do, so I hired her as a GA and she went to graduate school at the University of Nebraska,” Sanderford said. “Once she graduated, I had an opening and hired her as an assistant.”

Clark-Heard’s coaching career progressed as follows: one year as an assistant at Dupont Manual High School under Ken Smith, four years (GA/assistant) at Nebraska, three years as an assistant at Cincinnati, two years at Kentucky State (her first head coaching job, Division II), five years as an assistant at UofL, and current head coach at WKU (three seasons and counting). 

The bounce from program to program allowed Clark-Heard to observe many different coaching styles and really come to terms with the style of coach she aspired to be. 

“I didn’t know if I wanted to be a head coach at first, but once I got the Division II head coaching job, of course I loved it,” Clark-Heard said. “I loved the part of seeing and knowing that the players were always wondering how they were doing, and wondering what we were going to do the next day— I really liked that part, and I didn’t really realize that until I got to Kentucky State.”

Not only did she gain her first head-coaching experience at Kentucky State, but also the confidence, vision and basketball IQ required to be a successful coach in Division I. 

“I really got going there (Kentucky State), but I think what really helped polish me and made me the coach I am today was (my time at) Louisville,” Clark-Heard said. “I knew I had laid down the foundation of what kind of coach I wanted to be at Kentucky State, but it put solidification on it while I was at Louisville… coaching with Jeff (Walz), I think he is one of the greatest minds in the game right now. ”

As her career as a coach comes seemingly full circle with a return to WKU, her decision made in 1986 to come to Western weighs more and more on her mind. 

“I think about it a ton— not just for the fact that now I pull up everyday to coach basketball,” Clark-Heard explained. “Now, I want to give back to these players like coach Sanderford did for me.”

But once she packed up shop at Louisville and took the helm at WKU, Clark-Heard and her staff certainly had their work cut out for them. 

She inherited a program that had endured a grueling 10-21 season the year before. 

“(The coaching staff’s) first initial plan was to get the girls to understand that we were there to make them better. That was the first step— to build relationships,” Clark-Heard said. “I think it worked unbelievably… The first 12 games of that first season really solidified who we were going to be.” 

From the outside it appears that her plan has worked. 

After taking the reigns of a staggering program with a losing record, she has posted 76 wins in three seasons— the most in a coaches first three seasons in WKU history (men’s or women’s)— and nabbed two conference tournament championships, one in the Sun Belt and the other in Conference USA. 

Her most recent accolade involves representing the United States at the Pan-American games, where she was named an assistant coach. The honor came as a big surprise to the reigning C-USA Women’s Basketball Coach of the Year. 

“I came in one day to the office with a voicemail from the woman who looks over it,” Clark-Heard said. “At first I actually thought she might have been calling to talk to me about one of our players trying out for the team.” 

In the upcoming weeks, Clark-Heard will shift her focus to the U.S. national team.

From May 13 -17, trials will be held in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where athletes will be evaluated and ultimately, a team will be chosen— a process that Clark-Heard said is decided on by the same committee that named her an assistant coach. 

After a brief break, she will travel back to Colorado on July 4 and practice for under a week before heading to Toronto and Ontario, Canada for the games. 

Whether it be her 30-plus win campaign this past season, or her introduction to coaching on the international level, Clark-Heard is certainly a large and growing presence in women’s basketball— a presence that was sensed by Paul Sanderford before anyone else caught onto it. 

“She is just a great person,” Sanderford said. “A great teammate and a great person, and I think that is one of the things that has made her a very successful coach— she understands what it takes to be a great teammate. The biggest thing is that she put the players in a situation where they are comfortable and maximize their potential.”

Though, her ability to unite student-athletes is not the only perennial skill Clark-Heard has obtained through her career, according to Sanderford. 

Her ability to thrive in a competitive environment is something Sanderford believes is paramount to what she has done at WKU in just three seasons. 

“The expectations at WKU are tremendous— I know the expectations. I was part of a program that went to 15 NCAA tournaments and three final fours, and it just never seems to be enough, unless you win a National Championship,” Sanderford said. 

“You have to relish in that, and I think Michelle does. That’s a big part of her personality— that she likes those expectations,” he said.

Clark-Heard and Sanderford’s relationships extend beyond that of a coach and their athletes and even further than that of a coach and their assistant (their relationship in Nebraska).  

With Clark-Heard’s father passing away roughly 15 years ago, Sanderford walked Clark-Heard down the isle almost 12 years ago when she married her husband Luther. 

That is the level of connection that Sanderford and Clark-Heard have, and Clark-Heard said she thinks all the time about how thankful she is for someone like Paul in her life. 

“We have always been super close,” Clark-Heard said. “I am just so grateful for him seeing in me— not only as a player but as a coach— and giving me an opportunity. He has coached a thousand players,and could have chose anyone, but he chose me.”

Clark-Heard recalls one of her proudest memories involving Sanderford, referencing her second season at the helm at WKU. 

“When he was at the Sun Belt Championships doing the radio, that was one of my biggest highlights,” Clark-Heard said. “I know how much he has done for this program, and it was just awesome to have him see us win a championship that fast.”

For Michelle Clark-Heard, the conference championships and NCAA appearances are exciting and well earned, but they are all just pieces to her puzzle as a coach.

“For all my players, I feel like I had a part in their growing up and in their maturity… I am just so proud of Michelle and her accomplishments— I take a lot of pride in that,” Sanderford said. “I think her strongest asset is her ability to connect with the players, which is huge for any coach.”