McDonald still young, still learning

Jonathan Lintner

Not much translates between WKU’s football and basketball programs given opposite recent history of both, but they have at least one similar component: a young head coach.

Willie Taggart, 34, is the youngest coach in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Ken McDonald, 40, is entering just his third season as a head coach.

As criticism mounted last season through McDonald’s 21-13 second season, it seemed like some forgot that he walked into WKU as a rookie and not a veteran.

Taggart said just this week that he’s learning every game how to lead the Toppers. It’s important to remember the same applies to McDonald even after he took WKU to the NCAA tournament in his first season.

But close scrutiny was put on McDonald for what he said before last season started — essentially that the Toppers were a bunch that could earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.

It’s an experience McDonald learned from. He admitted at the team’s media day last week that expectations were too high entering last season.

“In retrospect, we weren’t mature enough to handle all of it last year,” McDonald said. “That’s just the truth. It’s unfortunate, but that’s how it was.”

In retrospect, McDonald had every right to make lofty predictions with A.J. Slaughter, Jeremy Evans and Anthony Sally all entering as seniors, with Sergio Kerusch and Steffphon Pettigrew as juniors, with the potential of a large freshman class entering.

McDonald certainly wasn’t alone in thinking last season might be the Toppers’ breakthrough in the tournament. But the words of a head coach are remembered most, and that’s probably why most coaches rip their teams down rather than build them up in front of the media.

Fortunately, McDonald isn’t a coach-speak kind of guy. But he has dialed it back this preseason.

Now you hear that the Toppers “very well could be” a team that loses a handful of games early. A team that, despite being again voted as the Sun Belt Conference East Division favorite, “is obviously coaches or media trying to put some type of athlete or team there that hasn’t gotten there yet.”

It’s a team with a lot of “ifs,” as McDonald put it.

This fall, the Toppers didn’t hype themselves up or raise expectations. They instead went through “boot camp,” a 6 a.m. back-to-basics approach to the 2010-2011 season. Sacrifices on the court were rewarded with purple hearts, and at the end, the Toppers were given dog tags to remember what those practices meant.

Behind the scenes, McDonald accrued six commitments from high school players in the 2011 recruiting class — easily his best class yet at WKU.

These are times that McDonald could easily hype if he chose to, and a year ago, he might have.

But McDonald’s learned a lot since then.