Cowles fired by WKU after 9-21 season

Head Coach Mary Taylor Cowles answers questions after WKU’s loss to MTSU on March 4 in Hot Springs, Ark. WKU lost 65-57.

Brad Stephens

For two decades, Mary Taylor Cowles has been one of the faces of WKU women’s basketball.

The former Kentucky Miss Basketball played for the Lady Toppers from 1987-1991, playing forward for four NCAA Tournament teams.

She came back to WKU as an assistant, then took over as head coach in 2002.

But on Thursday, it was determined her 9-21 season in 2011-2012 would be her last.

Cowles was fired on Thursday, ending a 10-year run as Lady Topper head coach and 21-year run associated with the program.

Athletics Director Ross Bjork said the decision was made because of on-court performance and declining attendance.

“We weren’t performing at the level that we needed to and that we expect and that our facilities and history can support,” Bjork said. “…Our history of attendance and packing the arena … is something that we’ve been lacking, in terms of energy.”

WKU’s 21 losses this season were the most in a single season in school history.

Meanwhile, the Lady Toppers drew an average of 1,153 fans to Diddle Arena for their 13 home games, the team’s lowest attendance average since WKU began keeping detailed records in 1993.

“That was a factor,” Bjork said of declining attendance. “When they run out of the tunnel, they need to be inspired by our crowd. That was difficult — watching that this season.”

Assistant Camryn Whitaker, a former point guard under Cowles, has been tabbed by Bjork as the “point person” for the program while a coaching search takes place.

“We’ll have her deal directly with our players, with our recruits, dealing with running the program,” Bjork said.

Bjork said the team’s other assistants, including former Warren Central High School boys’ basketball coach Tim Riley, will maintain their current duties during the search.

Riley, Whitaker and other assistants spent the weekend in Diddle Arena scouting recruits at the Girls’ Sweet 16 high school basketball state championships.

Cowles declined direct comment to the Herald.

However, she did send a prepared statement to the Bowling Green Daily News in which she thanked the community for “an incredible journey” during her 21 years with the program.

“I am extremely thankful for all the opportunities that WKU and the Lady Topper Basketball program have provided to me,” Cowles said. “Once a HILLTOPPER, ALWAYS a HILLTOPPER!!!”

Cowles went on to list her accomplishments, which included a 199-199 record as head coach, two NCAA Tournament appearances and five WNIT appearances.

All seven of her postseason tournament appearances came in her first eight years as head coach.

In 2010-2011 and 2011-2012, her teams combined to go 24-38, marking the program’s worst two-year stretch since the 1973-1974 and 1974-1975 teams combined to go 7-21.

WKU now begins a search for Cowles’ replacement just weeks after finishing a men’s basketball coaching search.

Whitaker and Riley have both been popular choices among fans for the position.

Whitaker came back to her alma mater in the summer of 2011 after a three-year stint as an assistant at Missouri State. While there, she oversaw the Lady Bears’ recruiting efforts.

Riley is a well-known name locally, as he took Warren Central to eight Boys’ Sweet 16 appearances in 14 years, winning the state championship in 2004. The 2011-2012 season was Riley’s first as a college assistant.

Other candidates with WKU ties include Kentucky associate head coach Kyra Elzy and Louisville assistant Michelle Clark-Heard.

Elzy was a former assistant under Cowles, while Clark-Heard played for the Lady Toppers under WKU Hall of Fame coach Paul Sanderford.

However, Bjork said the search will not be limited to just those with WKU ties.

“You find the best person, and if they happen to have ties, that’s great,” he said. “We’ll capitalize on that. But I think the best coach for our program is out there, and we will search nationally.”