Clark-Heard: Lady Topper job is a ‘dream’

New WKU women’s basketball head coach Michelle Clark-Heard hugs senior forward Teranie Thomas, left, and senior forward Keshia Mosley at her introductory press conference in Diddle Arena on Thursday. Clark-Heard played with the Lady Toppers from 1986 to 1990.

Brad Stephens

Michelle Clark-Heard once sat in her living room listening to WKU head coach Paul Sanderford tell her how special it would be to play for the Lady Toppers.

“I never imagined,” Clark-Heard said on Thursday, “I’d be sitting here as the one that was going to be leading the Lady Toppers out on that floor.”

Clark-Heard, a former WKU player and current Louisville assistant, was named on Thursday as the 15th head coach in WKU women’s basketball history.

She was introduced to media and WKU fans at a press conference in Diddle Arena on Thursday afternoon.

“It’s an amazing day for me, one that I have dreamed about,” Clark-Heard said. “Being the head coach here at WKU is something that I have only had the opportunity to dream about and now I’m right here in the middle of it.”

She replaces former teammate Mary Taylor Cowles, who was fired on March 8 after a 9-21 season, the school’s first-ever 20-loss season.

Clark-Heard’s contract will pay an annual base salary of $150,000 over four years. Her contract also includes 10 percent bonuses for an NCAA Tournament berth and an NCAA Sweet 16 appearance.

Clark-Heard’s passion for her alma mater and her experience at other stops set her apart in the interview process, interim athletics director Todd Stewart said.

“When you added all that up, and her natural exuberance and passion of the job and passion for WKU, it was an obvious choice,” Stewart said.

Clark-Heard met with several prominent school employees during the process, including Stewart, president Gary Ransdell, general counsel and chief of staff Deborah Wilkins and head football coach Willie Taggart.

Ransdell said his first meeting with Clark-Heard came on Tuesday, which he said “clearly” went well.

“She convinced me that she’s got the fire and the focus and the talent to be successful here,” Ransdell said.

Clark-Heard said one of her priorities at WKU will be drawing fans back to Diddle Arena.

The Lady Toppers compiled their first-ever losing record in Diddle Arena (6-7) in 2011-2012 while playing in front of an average of 1,153 fans per game, WKU’s lowest home attendance average since the team began keeping detailed records in 1993.

“I know the standing and the clapping and the waving of the towels, and that’s one of the things I am looking to bring back,” Clark-Heard said. “We’ll be wherever we have to get fans in the stands.”

During Clark-Heard’s five years as a Louisville assistant the Cardinals made three Sweet 16 appearances and finished as national runners-up in 2009.

Louisville head coach Jeff Walz, a former WKU assistant, attended Clark-Heard’s introductory press conference on Thursday.

He said he was upset to lose Clark-Heard from his staff, but was excited at the same time for the opportunity she has to be head coach of her alma mater.

“She’ll be successful because she knows how it works, and that you have to put great people around you,” Walz said.

Prior to her time at Louisville, Clark-Heard was head coach at Kentucky State, where she won Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association Coach of the Year honors in 2007.

She also served stints as an assistant at Nebraska (where she coached with Walz under Sanderford) and Cincinnati.

Clark-Heard said she addressed the team’s current players on Thursday and told them to get ready for “fun times ahead.”

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

She’ll have individual meetings with current staff members in the coming days before deciding on her assistants, she said.

Clark-Heard will begin her tenure on the road recruiting, as the spring signing period begins on April 11.

The Lady Toppers have three vacant scholarships available.

Clark-Heard, who was heavily involved in bringing nationally-ranked Top 10 classes to Louisville in 2009, 2010 and 2011, said she’s confident in her ability to sell high school recruits on WKU based on facilities and tradition.

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