McDonald ‘disappointed’ he couldn’t finish season with young Toppers


Ken McDonald was fired as WKU’s Head Men’s Basketball coach after leading his team to a disappointing 5-11 record so far this season. Assistant Coach Ray Harper will assume duties as interim head coach. McDonald said he was “disappointed” he couldn’t finish the season out with the team.

Cole Claybourn

Ken McDonald spoke publicly late Monday night for the first time since being dismissed as WKU’s head coach on Jan. 6, by releasing a statement thanking several people for his eight total years spent at WKU.

He also spoke in length with Herald following the release of his statement.

McDonald said he felt like he should have been given a chance to finish the season, saying he was “disappointed” to not get a chance to do so.

“I really felt like the team was getting better each time out,” he told the Herald. “We hit some bumps in the road for sure. Over our last four-game stretch, from Louisville on, I thought we had some real good signs.

“The guys were fighting hard. Their attitudes never changed. They came to work every day, so I was very pleased with that.”

The statement came 10 days after McDonald was fired following a 5-11 start to the season.

One person was noticeably absent from McDonald’s statement — Athletics Director Ross Bjork.

He did, however, thank President Gary Ransdell and his wife Julie, former Athletics Director Wood Selig — the AD who hired him in 2008 — and Jimmie Gipson of Houchens Industries.

Associate Athletic Director Todd Stewart on Tuesday said McDonald released the statement on his own without the urging of the Athletic Department. He said McDonald told them he would release a statement at sometime but never gave a timeline as to when he’d do that.

“We don’t have any response other than we addressed that publicly on Jan. 6,” Stewart said. “We’ve moved forward so I certainly understand his desire to put out a statement on his behalf. That was done completely independently.”

Stewart spoke on behalf of Bjork, who was out of town on Tuesday and couldn’t be reached for comment, and said there was no comment on Bjork’s name being omitted from the statement.

McDonald’s dismissal drew criticism from several members of the national media who saw it as a knee jerk reaction to the result of the previous night’s game, in which Louisiana-Lafayette scored the winning basket in the remaining seconds with six players on the court.

Bjork denied the notion that the game’s ending had any bearing on the decision to fire McDonald, and McDonald himself even dismissed that idea.

And even if WKU had pulled out the win that night, McDonald said he wasn’t so sure things would have ended up any differently.

“I think it was coming, and that’s just my opinion,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I was (caught) off guard and I wouldn’t say I was surprised by it. I felt like it was coming for a while.” 

McDonald compiled a 67-49 record in his three and a half seasons as head coach. This year’s recruiting class, which featured seven freshmen and two other newcomers, brought hope to a program and fanbase that had seen steady declines in nearly every aspect over the past two seasons.

Attendance was down, the program had missed making the NCAA Tournament since the 2009 season, and McDonald would be the first to admit that the overall product on the court wasn’t up to par.

McDonald said some of the mistakes were made in recruiting and that caught up with the team last year, which he said was made up of a lot of immaturity, which then led to off-the-court issues.

So Bjork and McDonald “hit the reset button” at a press conference in March, announcing that McDonald would remain the head coach after a 16-16 season had McDonald on thin ice. It was a message to fans that there would be a renewed mindset and focus by all involved — players, coaches, administrators.

But things didn’t go as McDonald or Bjork planned this season, which McDonald said wasn’t made any easier given how young the team was. He acknowledged that what people want to see is immediate production — no matter what — and that simply wasn’t happening.

McDonald didn’t acknowledge any hard feelings between him and Bjork, saying it was a business decision and Bjork did what he felt was right.

“The conversation was basically that the road we were going down wasn’t the right one, according to Ross,” he said. “He had to make a business decision. I obviously understand the business, and it’s a tough business. Those are things that you have to learn from and I wish nothing but the best obviously for the staff and the team going forward.”

McDonald said he didn’t have the opportunity to meet with the players the day he was fired, which he said was “disappointing.”

Since then, he’s made a point to stay back to avoid being a distraction while the players in the middle of a season.

“There will be a time before I leave town where I’ll catch up with them and wish them well and have some closure with those guys,” he said. “I’m always there and they know that.”

In the meantime he’ll continue to watch the team play, just as he’s done ever since he was fired. He said he cares too much about the players not to do that.

“I’ve know some of these kids for four to five years. That doesn’t just change because of a business decision,” he said. “I want them to win and I want them to be successful. I don’t wish any bad things on anybody.” 

In his statement, McDonald said he hopes the freshman class stays intact, saying “in time, this group is going to be special and will make the Hilltopper nation proud.”

He said he hopes to see them winning a lot of games when they’re all upperclassmen, because even though he won’t be on the sidelines with them, he can still take pride knowing he recruited them all to play together.

McDonald is still owed $300,000 as part of a buyout clause in his contract, which was supposed to run through the 2014-2015 season. That can either be paid to him in one lump sum or spread out over time. He said that’s something he still needs to decide on.

A midseason termination is obviously not ideal, McDonald said, but he said he’ll use his time to reconnect with people he knows in the business at different levels, both college and the professional ranks. 

He said he’s had a lot of people reach out to him but right now it’s just trying to find his next destination, which he hopes to figure out somewhat soon so he can be on the sidelines somewhere next season.

“That’s always the plan, and obviously I have to find the right opportunity,” he said. “I’ve got a little bit of time to figure out just what that means. A door has to open for that to happen and I’ll continue to work and make sure I’m ready for that next opportunity.”