Critics quiet after Harper’s success

Head Coach Ray Harper shouts instructions to the Toppers at the Sun Belt tournament against FIU on Saturday, March 3, in Hot Springs, Ark. Senior guard Kahlil McDonald scored 19 points to help WKU win 67-63.

Cole Claybourn

When WKU made the decisions to fire Ken McDonald mid-season and then subsequently hire Ray Harper as the full-time coach, the moves were met with a fair bit of criticism from some national writers.

After Harper got off to a 4-7 start as interim head coach, some wondered why Athletics Director Ross Bjork and President Gary Ransdell named Harper permanent head coach on Feb. 19 instead of waiting until after the season to tab McDonald’s full-time replacement.

Those who followed the program closely understood the decision, and Bjork and Ransdell both said they conducted a national search and simply found Harper the best candidate.

But none of that matters now. Harper guided WKU to a 6-0 record after being named the permanent head coach, then led his team to its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2009 — an improbable run in and of itself.

Now many critics of WKU’s decision are biting their tongue.

“I don’t know how you can think anything but the fact that it turned out to be a great move, and I was wrong,” said Yahoo! Sports columnist Pat Forde, who was one of the more vocal critics of the move.

After WKU won the Sun Belt Conference Tournament last Tuesday, Forde took to Twitter to relay the same message.

He told the Herald on Saturday that even after the fact, he’s still not a fan of mid-season firings and hirings, especially when the hire is made for a first-time Division I head coach with a losing record at the time.

But Forde said Bjork “knew who he was dealing with” when he made the decision to hire Harper full-time.

“Give credit to (Bjork) and the administration, but also give credit to the players for immediately buying in,” Forde said. “They rewarded the trust that the administration had in Ray Harper.”

Other writers, namely Jeff Goodman of and Andy Katz of, were equally as critical. Goodman, who couldn’t be reached for comment for this story, wrote a blog post shortly after Harper was named head coach and called the move “surprising.”

He cited the same reasons that had Forde skeptical — a losing record, little experience and an apparent fast interview process by WKU.

Goodman hasn’t sent out anything publicly rescinding his criticism, but columnist Eric Crawford of the Louisville Courier-Journal said anyone who criticized the move ought to rethink their stance.

“Well, I don’t think there’s much to say but that Harper is doing some things that resonate with these young players,” Crawford said. “If you were a critic of this move, I suspect you’ve moved away from that stance at this point.”

John Clay, a columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader, said oftentimes people outside the program don’t always know what’s best for the players and the program.

Some thought WKU ought to give a look at names such as Florida assistant coach John Pelphrey, a former head coach at Arkansas and South Alabama, and Tim Fuller, an assistant coach at Missouri and popular assistant coach while at Louisville.

But under Harper, fan support skyrocketed, and attendance reached its highest levels of the season. Most fans seemed to be understanding of Harper’s 4-7 start due to the amount of young talent on the team.

Clay said WKU did well by realizing that and hinted that the administration made the right move.

“Fans, and the media, fall prey to big names,” he said. “There are many coaches out there like a Ray Harper who never get their shot at this level because they don’t have the name recognition or background as other coaches. It’s great to see him taking advantage of that.”

Forde, Crawford and Clay all agreed that WKU’s turnaround this season was unlike any they’d seen in their years covering sports. Each of them also said WKU has the potential to become a dominant mid-major league team like Gonzaga, Xavier or Butler.

But Harper’s success was no surprise to Jim Pickens of the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer, who covered Harper during his entire nine-year tenure as head coach at Kentucky Wesleyan College.

Pickens would know as well as anyone the kind of coach Harper is. He said there’s no ceiling for Harper at WKU.

“He will expect and demand that this program go deep into the NCAA Tournament every year, beginning with his first full season at the helm in 2012-2013,” he said. “Realistic success? He’ll take the Hilltoppers to the Final Four before he’s done. The man has coached in nine national championships at the collegiate level. It’s in his DNA. It’s the only mode of operation he knows. Sounds incredible, right?

“Well, just look at the last month of this season. Incredible and Ray Harper go hand-in-hand. Personally speaking, I believe Western Kentucky has the best college basketball coach in America.”