COLUMN: Education Day game crucial for Lady Toppers

Zach Greenwell

 Leave it to Paul Sanderford to sell me something.

I’m sure plenty students have never heard of Sanderford, so here’s a history lesson.

Sanderford coached Lady Topper basketball to 365 wins and three Final Four appearances from 1982-97. He is women’s basketball at WKU.

He also knew how to market his program like nobody’s business.

WKU’s latest initiative — inviting more than 5,000 Warren County students to an 11:30 a.m. game this Wednesday — seemed like something Sanderford would have gotten behind, so I turned to him for some perspective.

I’ll admit that I’ve had one beef with this proposed “Education Day” game since it was announced. One issue, mind you, with what promises to be a fantastic opportunity for all involved.

It made me uneasy that the kids, who are coming with their schools, are going to be counted in the attendance. I would imagine some Lady Topper fans will be insulted at a 5,000-plus crowd number when the team otherwise hasn’t drawn 1,500 this season.

That’s when Sanderford sold me. And I didn’t even see it coming.

You see, Sanderford did whatever it took to get crowds to his games.

He had the Lady Toppers out meeting people in the community. He knew the schedules of all local high schools and colleges so he could schedule around them.

He was at the helm when WKU turned people away from a then-larger Diddle Arena for a game against powerhouse Old Dominion. No really — turned people away.

“I played in the minor leagues, so I marketed like they did in minor league baseball,” Sanderford said. “That was my model — giveaways and other things to get them to come.”

Sanderford’s right about the correlations between the sports. The bottom line is that not a lot of people care about women’s basketball these days without being nudged in the right direction.

And right now, Lady Topper fans aren’t even getting enough of a nudge to make it into the building.

“It’s tough,” Sanderford said. “I spent about 15 years of my life trying to sell a product and build a program, so to see the fans not showing up and not supporting the kids bothers me.”

Sanderford seemed to sense that I was going to ask him whether or not it was wrong for WKU to count the students coming Wednesday in the attendance. He gave a chuckle, and with two sentences, he changed my opinion.

“I think anything they can do is great,” he said. “If they’re going to get 5,000 warm bodies into the arena, I’m happy for them.”

“Anything” is the key there. Maybe I hadn’t considered just how desperate the Lady Toppers are and need to be.

Desperation isn’t a dirty word. WKU used to be a force in women’s basketball, and now attendance has dropped to as low as 616. These are desperate times for the program.

And the Lady Toppers’ fan base isn’t getting any younger. That goes for women’s basketball everywhere.

Liking the sport isn’t necessarily the “coolest” thing for a kid to do these days.

But probability says that somewhere in that sea of 5,000 kids hitting each other and not paying attention on Wednesday, a few of them are going to fall in love with basketball for the first time.

“One of my main selling points over the years has been to come see us play one time,” Sanderford said. “Just one time.”

So you know what, WKU? Go ahead and bump those attendance numbers. I’ll let it slide in exchange for you giving so many kids that “one time.”

It’s certainly one way to start turning things around, but it doesn’t mean the real attendance numbers will jump overnight.

But if Paul Sanderford says it’s the right kind of creativity, I’m on board.

And after Wednesday, the Lady Toppers will probably have some new, young fans on board too.