Harper adds another title to his legacy

Brad Stephens

Don’t blame George Fant for not knowing how many championships Ray Harper has won.

After all, WKU’s head coach has several titles to his name.

The freshman forward and his coach were taking questions from the media on March 6 after the Toppers won the Sun Belt Conference Tournament Championship and earned an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

A reporter asked Fant about the impact Harper had made on the team since he was promoted to head coach on Jan. 6 when Ken McDonald was fired.

The Toppers, who were 5-11 on Jan. 6, have gone 10-7 under Harper.

“Coach Harper’s a great man,” Fant said. “He’s living out his dream right now. It’s unbelievable.”

Fant kept complimenting Harper then turned and asked him, “How many championships you win?”

Harper laughed and said, “A few.”

Fant turned back to the media with a grin and said, “He won a few championships, and he’s bringing that here to Western.”

Actually, Harper has four national championships to his name in his 13 years as a collegiate head coach.

He won two Division II national titles and had four national runner-up finishes at Kentucky Wesleyan, then won two NAIA Division I championships and went to another title game at Oklahoma City University.

He didn’t win a national championship on March 6. But for a lot of WKU fans, it sure felt like one.

For the first time since 2009, the Toppers are going back to the NCAA Tournament.

Harper’s boss, Athletics Director Ross Bjork, said the newly hired head coach deserved as much praise as anyone for the team’s postseason run.

“What you look for is improvement each step of the way,” Bjork said. “…Coach went 10-7, won six games in a row, he’s undefeated as a permanent head coach.

“It’s a testament to Ray. The guy has a plan — he knows how to work with the kids, to inspire them. These guys had it in them — they just had to get the right person to get it out of them.”

Those results Harper got out of his players started on the practice floor.

One of his first moves when he was promoted to interim head coach on Jan. 6 was to make practices faster and harder.

It took awhile for those results to pay off.

WKU started out 0-3 when Harper took over, as the team tried to get used to faster way of playing the game.

Players kept talking about how, even during weeks where they didn’t play a game, they were running more and working harder than they’d been all year.

The results of that work began to be seen in the last week of the regular season when the Toppers out-lasted Arkansas State and Middle Tennessee State for two big league wins.

Next up was the challenge of winning four games in four days at the Sun Belt Tournament.

But Harper said he didn’t see that kind of intense play focused over a short period of time as anything new for WKU.

“A lot of people talk about the four games in four days,” Harper said on Feb, 28. “But I said this before, if you ask our guys, they’d rather play four games in four days than have four of our tough practices in four days.”

The Toppers proved their coach right by becoming the second team in Sun Belt history to win the title by winning four games in four days, not showing any ill effects of fatigue.

As the team celebrated last week, freshman guard Derrick Gordon called Harper’s up-tempo practices “the turning difference” in WKU’s season.

“Him pushing us so hard, making us win all these games, that’s what we need,” Gordon said. “Mac, he’s a good coach and all, but Harper really took it up a notch.”

Harper’s players have bought into his system, one that’s successes have been proven with national championships at other stops.

Harper can now add last week’s improbable conference title to his accomplishments.

“There were days when I told them, ‘I know you think I’m crazy because of how hard we’re working, but we’re preparing ourselves for an opportunity that’s going to present itself here in a couple of months,’” Harper said after the Sun Belt title game. “Give them credit — they bought into what we were telling them.”