Bjork: WKU players were ‘suffering’ in environment under McDonald

Freshman guard Derrick Gordon watches Friday’s press conference where Athletics Director Ross Bjork announced that Head Coach Ken McDonald was fired and would be replaced in the interim by Assistant Coach Ray Harper. They were given the news of Head Coach Ken McDonald’s dismissal earlier in the morning on Friday, Jan. 6. Before the conference ended the team was dismissed to begin preparing for practice.

Cole Claybourn

The state of WKU’s men’s basketball program had simply gotten so bad that a change needed to be made.

That’s why Athletics Director Ross Bjork said he ultimately made the choice Friday to fire Ken McDonald as the Toppers’ head coach. McDonald will be replaced in the interim by Assistant Coach Ray Harper.

The decision comes amidst a 5-11 season that was supposed to be filled with renewed hope and effort within the basketball program.

Instead, attendance has steadily declined under McDonald’s watch for a team which missed the NCAA Tournament the past two seasons after making it the previous two.

Bjork sat at the podium in the Diddle Arena media room in front of large crowd filled with media, fans and WKU players and coaches, as well as several other coaches from different sports.

The decision comes less than a full season after Bjork pledged his dedication to McDonald as the head coach in a press conference last March on the same podium, retaining him with a $100,000 pay cut amid rumors the coach would be fired.

Bjork and President Gary Ransdell met with players Friday morning to inform them of the news and said it was the players who they were thinking of most when making the decision.

“They were suffering in this environment and we had to do something to get them out of it,” Bjork said. “That was the decision we made. I told them, and they know this because we recruited them on this premise, they signed up for a great program. Those banners that hang, the championships that we represent, the crowds that we can deliver — that’s what they signed up, and it’s our job to provide that for them.

“They’re the No. 1 priority. That’s the bottom line.”

Bjork said the decision was made following last night’s game against Louisiana-Lafayette, a game in which WKU lost after ULL had six players on the floor on the game-winning play.

Bjork and Ransdell met with McDonald around 8:15 a.m. Friday to inform him of the decision, which Bjork said was based on the overall body of work during McDonald’s tenure.

McDonald ammassed a 67-49 record in his three and a half seasons as head coach, winning the Sun Belt Conference Tournament in the 2008-2009 season. The Toppers advanced to the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament that year.

In McDonald’s first 47 games of his career as head coach, WKU went 34-13. In his final 69 games, however, he was 33-36.

WKU’s 12 home losses in the past year and a half were as many as the last six and a half seasons combined.

Attendance also steadily dwindled. In the 2007-2008 season — former Head Coach Darrin Horn’s final year on the Hill — WKU averaged 5,564 fans per game. That number decreased ever single year under McDonald, all the way down to an average of 3,095 through nine home games this season — the lowest per-game attendance in the 49-year history of Diddle Arena.

The announced attendance at Thursday’s game was 2,137, but Bjork said it was more like 1,800 fans. Tickets were on sale for the game for $1 at local convenient stores but only 136 of those tickets were scanned at the doors.

WKU also ranked near the bottom of nearly every statistical category nationally and held a Ratings Percentage Index of 255, the lowest its been by more than 50 spots dating back to the 1998-1999 season.

Bjork said he genuinely believed that when he decided to retain McDonald in the spring that McDonald was capable of restoring the rich tradition of WKU basketball with the help of what was arguably WKU’s best-ever recruiting class.

But that all changed in 15 games.

“The season progressed, and I believe our patterns and ills of the past caught up to us,” Bjork said. “The confidence level of our program started to diminish. The statistics of our performance and our fan support — well-documented. I’m not going to get into all those. But those facts are unacceptable for this program at WKU.

“We can’t continue down that course. There was no way we could do it.”

McDonald wasn’t made available for comment but told WBKO that he plans to release a statement in the coming days.

All Bjork could say was that McDonald took the news “tough.”

McDonald will accept a $300,000 buyout, as per a clause in his reworked contract, which was extended last spring to run through the 2014-2015 season.

Bjork and McDonald acknowledged during last spring’s press conference that there were off the court problems with McDonald but that those had improved. Still, Bjork said that stigma was in the back of fans’ minds.

So now, the young, struggling team is now turned over to Harper, who’s been an assistant coach under McDonald since the 2008-2009 season.

Harper, a Bremen High School (Ky.) alum who said he always wanted to play for WKU but was never good enough, won two Division-II National Championships coaching Kentucky Wesleyan College and two NAIA National Championships at Oklahoma City.

Harper said he couldn’t be more thrilled to have a chance to coach a Division I team, particularly WKU, and even got emotional as he said it.

“To be at WKU is an honor,” he said. “There’s a lot of guys in this business that bounce from this job to that job always looking for that bigger, better (job). To me, this was always a dream job.”

Harper, who seemingly was the favored candidate by fans to replace McDonald, gained some approval from the fans right away when he dismissed the players in attendance at the press conference and told them to “go to work” since the team had practice Friday afternoon.

That drew some laughter and few claps from the fans in attendance.

But fans have already shown excitement now that the change has been made.

Bjork said there has already been a “buzz” in the ticket office.

“We’ve already had people calling to request tickets for tomorrow’s game and the rest of the season,” he said. “I think we’re going to see our players and fans respond in a positive way. We are not giving up on this season. There’s a lot to accomplish this year and beyond for this entire team.”

Harper brushed off the notion that his interim stint would essentially be an audition for the permanent head coaching job, saying his focus was solely on Saturday’s game against Troy.

Bjork said because of WKU’s rich basketball tradition, the opening should be a very attractive one to coaches looking a head coaching job. Because of that, it will be a national search which he said would begin immediately.

But Bjork also said that Harper would get “full consideration” for the job.

Meanwhile, the team will move forward with Harper as head coach with a goal at winning the Sun Belt championship in mind

He said he owed a lot of gratitude to McDonald for giving him an opportunity to come to WKU as an assistant coach. But that doesn’t mean he’ll model his approach after him, and the team’s style of play could look different.

“Any time there’s a change, there’s going to be some change,” he said. “No two people are alike, no two coaches are alike. Only thing I’ve ever asked of every team I’ve been associated with is compete, play hard and let the chips fall where they may.

“The bottom line is we’re going to work extremely hard.”