Coach Ken McDonald

Coach Ken McDonald Interview – (4/22/08)

HH: What makes WKU a “Dream Job” for you? What was it about your time here before that made such an impression on you?mcdonald
The TRADITION. I was kind of educated about WKU Basketball when we played against WKU when I was an assistant at Clemson. I was never one to study the record books and all that over my career but my head coach at the time, Rick Barnes, while we were getting ready to go to the shootaround before playing WKU, told me, “You have no idea the tradition we’re about to walk into.” And I said, “No, honestly I don’t.” He said, “This is one of the winningest basketball programs in the country, EVER.” So we went in, this was over ten years ago, and there was some stuff on the walls….the banners, the records and so on, and I was blown away. I mean I was blown away…..and that started a respect for what’s going on at WKU, the illustrious tradition of WKU. And then coming in later as an assistant under Coach Felton, you really learn the passion side in terms of the fans and the administration. And then when you envision an ideal situation in which to coach you say, Okay, I want passionate fans, great tradition and you want an athletic director and a president that you feel like you’re on one team working towards one goal. And for that all to be together in one job, I just don’t think it happens very often. And coming from Texas WKU was really one of the only ones that I would consider.

HH: Since you left the Hill in 2003 how do you feel you’ve grown as a coach and a recruiter?
What you learn is, every day and every year you get better. I’ve had an opportunity to play for Rick Barnes at one phase in his career and work for him in another phase… work for Dennis Felton, when he was a first-time head coach, and it was of great value in seeing how he did it. And then getting back with Rick Barnes when he was at a different point in his career at a different situation at Texas. So, there are several different things to learn each day and each year. Coach Barnes and Dennis….their approach is different in a lot of ways but the blueprint and the foundation is pretty similar. So, you take from each situation, you form your own identity, and you kind of move forward, but the biggest thing I learned is you just have to keep evolving, you have to keep growing. You can never feel like you’re there. Rick has a saying, “Proud peacock today, feather duster tomorrow.” And I think it’s true. You just have to keep moving forward

HH: The facilities at WKU were just starting to be renovated when you left in 2003, what are your thoughts on the improvements there and how do you think the facilities compare nationally?
KM: Well, they’re incredible. I would put our facilities up against anybody’s and I’ve seen a lot. And I’m coming from a place (Texas) where there is pretty much no budget, so I’ve seen the best. The commitment is so apparent when you come to WKU just by walking into the facilities. It’s pretty incredible to be able to coach here. If we just get kids on campus we feel like we’re going to have an incredible shot because the facilities do blow you away and nationally I would argue they are in the top ten percent. And we have to continue to grow and I know the administration is committed so we’re going to constantly move forward in that regard. I would argue that the facilities at WKU would be in the top tier of the Big 12 and that’s saying a lot.

HH: Have you spoken with Coach Felton since you got the job at WKU and did he give you any advice?
KM: We spoke over the phone a couple of times and he congratulated me and he was very excited for me. He was very proud. Dennis is a terriffic guy and he was absolutely just a great person to work for….great vision, a hard worker. I learned a lot from him. He had some little pieces of advice but at the same time he feels like, along with Rick (Barnes), that they’ve helped get me ready for this opportunity so he wasn’t overbearing with advice. He just basically wanted to congratulate me and lend a hand if I had any questions I wanted to ask. Which I really respect, as he wasn’t just calling trying to tell me what to do.

HH: Do you think we might see some more games with Georgia after our series with them ends this season and maybe also with Texas sometime down the road?
KM: (Laughing) That depends on recruiting to be honest. I was talking to Rick when this process was going on and he jokingly said he would do a 1 for 9 series. But we’re going to try and really work on the schedule and try and take it to another level. Scheduling is really hard, make no bones about it but that doesn’t mean we’re not going to try. You just have to make it a quality game for people to want to play and sometimes you have to get creative with that, as to where you play or sometimes a 2 for 1 situation. I’m telling you, as a player, I hated playing in games not fun to play in, so I don’t want to make it like that for the players. But at the same time I don’t want to put us in a position where our players might end up lacking confidence, I want them to have some success too. So, there’s a fine balance there. You’ve got to play some home games, you’ve got to play some away games and you’ve got to play tough opponents and then somehow you have to bring it all together with the schedule and the dates and that’s hard somtimes.

HH: I know back when you were here with Felton you guys recruited internationally on occasion….will that be a priority with your staff now?
KM: Absolutely. I think the international market is great. One-third of the players in the NBA draft are international players and there’s a reason for that. The skill level and talent….and they play basketball year around and their club teams stay together and are well-coached year round. So I’m excited to get that going. I thought Filip Videnov and Todor Pandov really did good stuff on the Hill. I’m definitely one that loves international recruiting and our staff will take advantage of that.

HH: Will you look for a certain type of player as far as size or skills that may be somewhat different than what Coach Horn recruited?
KM: I don’t think so. I want winners….I want guys that will compete….I want guys that really embrace winning….and there’s no question, championship effort is going to be what we talk about daily. Because if we take care of that in terms of preparation……and off the court in how we handle our academic responsibilities… we take care of our practices each day… we do in the weight room…..all of those things, if we have championship effort we’re going to be exactly where we want to be night in and night out. So, it’s not so much the player, it’s the character. You want to recruit talent but I want guys that are serious about winning and serious about being student-athletes.

HH: Can you give us a brief rundown of your three assistants and what they bring to the mix?
KM: Sure. I couldn’t be happier with the staff I hired. Ray Harper brings a wealth of experience. He’s an incredible coach.harper He’s been a mentor and a coach longer than my basketball career and he simply wins everywhere he goes. And he hasn’t had a job with the resources that we have here, not even close, and look what he’s done. He’s pretty amazing, a pretty amazing coach and a pretty amazing record, but he’s also a great guy and a great mentor for these players. So, I’m really excited about his experience. He’ll help me on the bench obviously with his experience and in recruiting he’s a hard-working assistant. I got to know Ray a little bit when I was at WKU. We haven’t kept in touch a ton but I’ve watched him from a distance and have obviously been amazed. I really didn’t realize that he played at Texas until I got to Texas as a coach and a couple of times we practiced at his facility in Oklahoma City so we spent some time talking a little Xs and Os. He’s an impressive coach. I don’t have that much ego that I’m concerned about another coach helping me coach because I’m going to make my share of mistakes so I would rather have guys around me that know what they’re doing so if they do have a suggestion it’s a good one (Laughs). Lawrence Brenneman I got to know when I was an assistant at WKU. The first tournament I went brennemanto I sat down and ended up sitting near Lawrence. He was a junior college at the time and then he went on to be the associate head coach at Binghamton University in upstate New York. And like Ray, I’ve seen him with resources not nearly what WKU has but still have very good success. He’s a hard-working guy…..junior college coaches, they have to replace their whole team almost every year. So you have to be able to recruit well to do that. He was part of a team at Binghamton that went to the top tier of the league in a very short amount of time and he was a big part of that. He’s a terriffic recruiter, and once again, an older coach that’s been around. He’s a teacher, he’s a mentor and I’m very excited to have him aboard. David Boyden exemplifies exactly what I want from a recruiting standpoint, what our team shouldboyden stand for, and he’s ties in all the tradition and the championship effort and attitude that I want with the team. From the time we recruited David I knew he was a star, I knew he was a classy guy, I knew he was a hard worker. He just has all the things that you want in a guy that’s representing the university. He’s a rising star, there’s no question that he’s going to be an incredible asset to the team, he’s going to be an incredible mentor to the players because he’s a guy that you can point to in the locker room and say, “This guy’s been there. This guy’s done that.” He came when we were in the vision-phase. I mean he didn’t have a locker room to walk into that we could point to. He just had to go on what we were selling him and he bought into it and he came and did nothing but win his whole career. So, it’s exciting for me to have him back on the Hill and I think he’s going to be a Star.

HH: Do you have any personal thoughts or ideas on how to get Diddle Arena filled up on a regular basis, aside from winning of course?
KM: I think it’s really important for the community and our basketball program to feel like everyone is in it together and that’s the biggest thing I want to create. I think when there’s like an ownership and there’s a feeling that you’re a part of the team, I think we’ll have the numbers. I know we’re going to put a product on the floor that makes people proud and that makes the fans and the university proud, but you have to be involved in the community and they have to know diddleyou, so you have to reach out and touch them and let them have a sense that they can get to know you. I want to do that not only myself but also my staff and my team. So, we’re going to have a lot of fun as we get acquainted here and get to know everybody. I’m a “people person” and so is my staff and I feel like our players are just really friendly, good guys. So, we’re going to have a lot of fun in the community and we’re going to be approachable. To me, that’s a big part of getting the arena sold out. Obviously we have to put a product on the floor that we can relate to, that people enjoy and that people want to come back and see. We’re going to make Diddle a hard ticket….sellouts are important, so if we can get some momentum going and get the fans embracing what we do on the court I think it’s going to snowball.

HH: Do you have any early thoughts on the returning players?
KM: They’ve been so receptive, I’m very proud of them. The only thing that I asked of them when I was here the first couple of days is, “Just give us a chance. We won’t let you down.” I told them I was putting together what my thoughts were for the team in terms of how we were going to play. I talked a little bit about expectations, how I’m going to expect a lot out of them. But the biggest thing is I just want them to get to know us as a staff and form their own opinions. So, they’ve done that, they’ve been incredible and very, very upbeat. They’ve worked hard, we’ve been in the gym some together kind of feeling each another out and I’m excited with the effort. There’s been a lot of guys putting extra time in on their games. I’m huge with player development, that’s going to be the biggest thing on my mind, day to day are you getting better and could you add a little bit to your game that you didn’t have yesterday because if you get better individually you get better as a team and I think they’re going to understand that and feel that. This program will always be about the players, it always should be. So, they’ve been great, I’ve been really excited with their response. We’ve got some great guys from A-Z, they’re all good guys.

HH: What’s it going to take make the head coaching job at WKU something more than a four of five year stint for a young coach like yourself?
KM: My opinion is you have to do it over a long haul, you can’t have the speedbumps along the way, you have to be consistent with it and you have to keep going forward. You look at Gonzaga, I think they’ve been to 9 straight NCAA Tournaments. If you build the program and you constantly grow, you’re going to do that. And I have no doubt, because of my relationship with Wood and Gary, that IF an opportunity comes forward for me to consider I have no doubt that Dr. Ransdell and Dr. Selig are going to do their part to keep things going. As long as it keeps growing then everything is going to be great and I’ve got to do my part there too. Rick Barnes had a great piece of advice for me one time….he said to never take a job that you’re not prepared for that to be your home for the rest of your life. So that was a criteria and that limits places but it didn’t limit WKU. It’s going to be a great run, I can’t imagine a better team in terms of the administration, the fans, the facilities, the town…..I’m just so excited to be here it’s hard to think in terms of five years from now.

HH: Do you have any closing statements for all the Hilltopper fans out there?
KM: I think the biggest thing to know is that NOBODY, and I mean this, NOBODY will put greater expectations on our team than our staff and our players. So, we’re always going to work towards our ultimate goal and that’s to represent the university with class and to win, basically those two things. There will never come a time where the expectations will be greater than what we put on ourselves. And I think if everybody understands that that kind of helps because everyone wants to do the right thing and everyone wants to win. We’re always going to do things in a class manner but we’re also going to put a premium on putting a team on the floor that can win every game we step on the floor. There’s a lot of things that go into championship effort and we hope to put them all together and roll with this thing and grow with this program.

In 42 seasons as the coach at Western Kentucky, E. A. Diddle’s teams claimed 32 conference diddlechampionships; played in 11 postseason tournaments; won 20+ games eighteen different times, (including one stretch of ten years in a row); became the first team from the South to participate in the Olympic Trials; and they won an amazing 759 games! When he stepped down in 1964 Diddle had won more games than any coach in NCAA history and today he still ranks in the top ten on the all-time list. At the time of his death in 1970 over 100 of Diddle’s former players were coaching in the high school, college, or professional ranks, an incredible example of the influence that he had on his beloved players. Presently, at the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. visitors can view a display honoring Mr. Diddle, which includes one of the coach’s legendary Red Towels, which he developed into a Western tradition. Diddle was one of the first proponents of the fast-break style of basketball and the tremendous success of his early teams helped to popularize and spread this style of play all across the country. Many years later he stated, “We play the fast break because it makes people come to our gymnasium, they like to see scoring. We give them what they like. I see it as entertainment.” Even in warmup drills Diddle’s boys would entertain the crowd. The coach would often have several basketballs painted red and white, the school’s colors, for use during the pregame warmups. Diddle also encouraged his players to dunk the ball at every opportunity….something that wasn’t widely accepted among the country’s more straight-laced coaches in those days. Most people who knew the coach will tell you that his greatest strength was undoubtedly his amazing ability to motivate his players to perform well beyond their own expectations. Dero Downing, a former Diddle player who later became the second of the coach’s boys to become president of Western, once told of a scolding that he received from the coach, “What makes you think you’re such a good basketball player? I found you up there at Horse Cave, just milking a little Jersey cow, and you’re not much better now than you were then, and all you know is what I’ve taught you.” Recalling tdiddlehe incident, Downing stated, “Then, when you felt the lowest, like you weren’t worth killing, he’d pat you on the rear – and you felt like you could beat the world.” Diddle’s other great attribute was his ability to spot unpolished talent and then develop that player into an integral part of the team. Coach described it in this manner, “There is nothing that gives me more of a thrill than taking some country kid who is flat-footed, walks like he is following a plow, doesn’t know much about basketball, except that the ball is round, and making something out of him.” Diddle was a master recruiter, perhaps as fine as college basketball has ever seen. Despite Western’s small size, when compared to the larger state universities around the country, Diddle had the ability to cast a spell over a player and his family and convince them in all honesty that Western was the only place for them. And very few players, if any, ever regretted their choice of schools. Another feature that the coach always looked for in potential players was big hands and big feet. “I look for tall boys, up over 6-3, with big hands and big feet. If they haven’t got big feet, they’ll fall down,” he would always say. “I want the nervous kind, the kind with temperament and brains, like a race horse.” As unorthodox as it all may sound it’s kind of hard to argue with the results. However, perhaps the most important thing that he looked for in a player can be carried over to the modern game, and into any sport for that matter. Here is how the coach put it, “A pretty good athlete who is a competitor will beat a talented boy who has a faint heart everytime. The thing I always looked for first in a boy was his fire. We can develop his talents, but only God can give him his fire.” Edgar Allen Diddle was born on a small farm near Gradyville in Adair Co., Ky. on March 12, 1895. Growing up as one ofdiddle five boys Diddle developed into a fine athlete and played all sports at nearby Columbia High School. In 1915 Diddle entered Centre College at Danville, Ky. where he continued to play basketball and football, even earning the nickname of “Mule,” for his great physical strength on the football field. In 1918 he joined a naval aviation program and spent most of the year in Europe. Returning to Centre the following year he finished up his career there in 1920 and by the following winter had landed his first head coaching job at Monticello High School where he took his first team all the way to the state finals. The next year saw Diddle assume the head coaching position at Greenville High School. In his second year there his 1922 team posted a 26-2 record and participated in the regional tournament at Bowling Green after a flood, or fate, prevented the team from traveling to their scheduled site of Owensboro. Once in Bowling Green Diddle so impressed everyone with his coaching ability that Western officials extended an offer to him to become the athletics director and head coach of all sports at Western. He eventually accepted, and on Sept. 7, 1922, for the salary of $150 per mo., $100 less than he was offered to stay at Greenville, E. A. Diddle began his legendary career with Western Kentucky. Diddle was initially in charge of coaching football, baseball, and girls’s basketball in addition to his men’s basketball position, and early on success didn’t come easy as Diddle gradually built the program up into the powerhouse it would eventually become. On February 9, 1931, Western played its first game in their new gymnasium, dubbed the “new red barn”. Officiadiddlelly seating 4,500 spectators the new building became a magical place for Western basketball and a place that to this day inspires fond memories from everyone who was fortunate enough to attend games there. Luckily, it was built right before Diddle and his teams began their march to national prominence. For ten years, from the 1933-34 season to the 1942-43 season, Western’s teams posted at least 20 wins per season including becoming the first NCAA school ever to record a 30-win season in 1937-38. They also won or shared the KIAC or SIAA conference championship every year in between. During the 32 years that the Red Barn housed Western basketball it was a regular sell-out, but the coach never turned anyone away whenever possible. He would always instruct the doormen not to let anyone stand outside in the cold if they could possibly be crammed into the gym. Diddle would say, “Anybody who comes 100 miles to see us play is our guest and we’ll get him into that gym if we have to use a shoehorn to get him in, and he doesn’t have to have a ticket either.” Still, it wasn’t until 1941-42 that Western finally made a splash nationally. At that time the NIT was the major tournament rather than the NCAA, and it was considered an honor to be invited to Madison Square Garden to participate. Kelly Thompson, one of Diddle’s former boys, who was then the school’s publicity man and who would later became president of Western, convinced Ned Irish, the official in charge of the NIT, to invite Western’s great ’41-’42 team to the Garden. Once there, both the New York media and the public fell in love with Coach Diddle and his exciting team. They especially loved his antics on the sidelines, watching him wave and throw his red towel throughout the game. Unfortunately, the Toppers fell short of the championship. Despite defeating CCNY in the first game 49-46 and then Creighton 49-36 in the second round, Western lost a 12 point halftime lead to West Virginia in the title game and fell two points shy of the national championship, 47-45. However, Diddle and the Hilltoppers became such crowd favorites that they were to be invited back many times in the future. diddleDiddle’s teams continued their tremendous success over the next two decades as they continued to dominate their conferences and participate in the NIT. However, fate always seemed to intervene and prevent the Toppers from obtaining the elusive national championship that Coach Diddle longed for. And unfortunately the hectic pace began to take its toll on the coach’s health. In 1952 he suffered a severe heart attack and was sidelined for most of the ’52-53 season. Luckily, Diddle’s long-time assistant Ted Hornback, was there to pick up the slack. Hornback, whose brilliant tactical mind meshed wonderfully with Diddle’s fire and motivational skills, was probably as fine an x’s and o’s coach as there was in college basketball at the time, and much of Western’s athletic success can be attributed to his brilliant coaching. At one time he even accepted the head coaching job at Vanderbilt but after a short stint in Nashville he felt compelled to return to the “Hill” and Coach Diddle. As the 1950’s turned into the 1960’s it was becoming obvious that the master was wearing down as his health continued to worsen. However, before his eventual retirement after the ’63-64 season, Diddle set the table for the future greatness of Hilltopper basketball as Western became the first Kentucky school, and one of the first in the South, to recruit and sign black athletes for their basketball program. And what a job the coach did. The great class of ’63 included future first-team All-American Clem Haskins from nearby Campbellsville; Dwight Smith from Princeton, Ky., who many feel was perhaps the greatest guard ever to play college ball in the state of Kentucky; and Mike Redd, from Louisville, who was actually the first black player to ever sign with Western. Unfortunately, Redd, who many considered a smaller Oscar Robertson, never played at Western as his life took other paths. The retirement of Mr. Diddle in 1964 set the stage for a new era of basketball at Western but the Diddle indiddlefluence was still as prevalent as ever. Longtime assistant Ted Hornback became the athletics director and all three of the new coaches were former Diddle boys: John Oldham, Gene Rhodes, and Wallace “Buck” Sydnor. That’s not even taking into account former player Kelly Thompson, who was then the president of Western, and who at one time many years earlier had decided to drop out of school before Diddle led him to a downtown bank and acquired a $25 loan for him, enabling Thompson to remain at Western. Just a few years later Thompson would step down from the president’s post only to be replaced by another of Diddle’s former boys, Dero Downing. Retirement never stopped the old coach from cheering on his beloved Toppers however. In 1963 Western’s new gymnasium was completed and it was rightfully named E. A. Diddle Arena. And was he ever proud of that gym! Naturally, the coach became a fixture at the arena and he could usually be found out in front of the stands leading cheers with his Red Towel flying. During a heated game against Dayton in 1968 Diddle decided to climb on top of a press table and lead cheers in front of the student section. However, a Dayton sportswriter, who obviously didn’t know who he was speaking to, told Diddle that he couldn’t climb on top of the table. To which Diddle snapped, “What do you mean I can’t get on top of this table? This is my damn gym!” It was indeed his gym….his team….his school….and his town. On January 2, 1970, Western’s finest son and Kentucky’s greatest coach passed away. In a game based on numbers Diddle was one of the greatest ever… the game of life he was a true champion. Diddle Audio Clips