Michelle Clark-Heard leads her alma mater back to the top

WKU’s head coach Michelle Clark-Heard speaks to the Lady Toppers during a timeout in the final minutes of their 61-60 victory over Arkansas State in the championship game of the Sun Belt Tournament Saturday, March 15, 2014, at Lakefront Arena in New Orleans, La. The Lady Toppers secured a place in the NCAA tournament with their win. (Mike Clark/HERALD)

Elliott Pratt

WKU coach Michelle Clark-Heard and Athletics Director Todd Stewart share a unique bond.

Stewart was announced as the interim athletic director on March 22, 2012, and replaced former director Ross Bjork.

That same day, Stewart and President Gary Ransdell introduced Clark-Heard as the WKU Lady Topper basketball program’s 15th head coach.

On that day, Clark-Heard said she knew WKU had all the pieces to make a championship team.

“Getting back to the top is going to be taking what I have here and the recruits I add to them,” she said at her introductory press conference almost two years ago. “The focus is right now. It’s not for a year later, two years down the road. It’s now.

“Western Kentucky has it all,” Clark-Heard continued. “We have all the things we need for us to be at the top, and those are the things I’ll sell.”

Just a week shy of the two-year anniversary of that very statement, Clark-Heard sold it.

Behind Clark-Heard’s leadership, the Lady Toppers will be dancing in the NCAA Tournament this weekend after capturing their first Sun Belt Conference championship with a 61-60 win over top-ranked Arkansas State, the team’s first conference championship since 2008.

Clark-Heard inherited a WKU team with no senior leadership that finished 9-21 the year before and in one year produced a 22-11 record.

That accomplishment earned her the Sun Belt Coach of the Year award as the Lady Toppers were the first team in Sun Belt history to win 20 games in a season following a year in which they won less than 10.

Stewart was one of the first to talk to Clark-Heard on the court in Lakefront Arena in New Orleans once the championship was WKU’s to claim.

“I told her how proud I was of her and how I appreciate all that she stands for with her leadership and the way she represents our program,” Stewart said. “She kept thanking me for the opportunity to be the head coach.

“We have always joked back and forth about that bond and we talked that the day of the championship was March 15, just one week shy of the two-year anniversary of that,” he said. “Two years is a short time to really turn a program around and that’s what she’s done.”

Clark-Heard knew a thing or two about winning before she returned to the Hill. The Louisville native was an assistant at her hometown school for five years with coach Jeff Walz. She assisted in leading the Cardinals to three Sweet 16 appearances and finished as the National Runner-Up in 2009 to UConn.

Even as a player at WKU, Clark-Heard was a part of four NCAA Tournament teams and two Sun Belt Conference championships in 1988 and 1989.

Her coach during that time, Paul Sanderford, knew Clark-Heard had the capability of leading a basketball team, but that didn’t come without hesitations.

“I think the big thing is coach Heard has always been a basketball junky,” Sanderford said. “She’s such a people person. I had my doubts at times if she could be tough enough to be a coach. She’s proven that she can be. She doesn’t cross the lines. She’s all about getting it done and she’s still a people person and cares about the kids. She’s a very genuine person and I think they all see that.”

A jersey hangs from Diddle Arena, honoring Sanderford who coached for 15 years, registered 365 wins, 12 NCAA Tournaments, three Final Four trips and finished as the National Runners-Up to Stanford in 1992.

The records and banners speak for themselves in saying that WKU Lady Topper basketball has a rich history of winning, something Sanderford knows firsthand is not easy to come by.

Sanderford was doing radio color commentary for the Sun Belt title game last weekend and told Clark-Heard how proud he was of what she’s brought back to women’s basketball at WKU. He also knows the job isn’t done yet.

“I was excited for Michelle and her staff and the kids because I know how much work goes into that,” Sanderford said. “You have to be lucky and you have to be good to win a championship, it takes a little bit of both, and it takes a lot of hard work. I was excited for the fans that had been there and were faithful during some tough times, but had hung in there.

“She’s happy today and she’ll say that she’s super proud, but she’s not satisfied,” he said. “That’s what great coaches all have in common. They’re never satisfied.”

Doing her job “the right way” is what makes her the best person for the job, according to Stewart.

“It validates that she’s a great coach,” Stewart said. “She didn’t even utilize her full allotment of scholarships her first year because she wanted there to be class balance. She just had a plan from day one and she stuck to that play, she hasn’t wavered.”

President Gary Ransdell and Stewart bought into Clark-Heard’s selling pitch when they hired her. Nearly two years later, a conference championship and an NCAA Tournament bid for the first time in six years is exactly what they were looking for.

“At the end of the day, this is my alma mater. This is home for me,” Clark-Heard said. “To have the opportunity to be able to have this chance to get us back to the big dance was pretty awesome.”