Hilltoppers lose to six men, then fire coach
January, 6, 2012
By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com
Let's dispense with the pleasantries and go straight to the facts.
On Thursday night, the 5-10 Western Kentucky Hilltoppers and 7-8 Louisiana Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns met at the E.A. Diddle Arena in Bowling Green, Ky., home of WKU. For 40 minutes, the two teams played hard. Louisiana Lafayette controlled the lead for most of the evening, but every time the Ragin' Cajuns looked to pull away, Western Kentucky made a play (or two, or three) to keep themselves from falling behind the pace.
With 30 seconds remaining, down by three, Western Kentucky guard Kahlil McDonald made the biggest such play of the night, stealing the ball and pushing it to teammate Derrick Gordon, who banged home a three to tie the game at 70-70. Louisiana Lafayette coach Bob Marlin called timeout.
That's when it happened:
As Ragin' Cajuns guard Elfrid Payton dribbled through the WKU defense on his way to a buzzer-beating game-winner, a sixth Louisiana Lafayette player either entered the frame, or came onto the floor, or maybe both. The important part is that Louisiana Lafayette won the game with six players on the court. That's -- oh, what's the phrase I'm looking for? Oh, right: Against the rules. That's definitely against the rules.
Ironically enough, it didn't really matter. Payton was apparently determined to turn a 6-on-5 advantage into a 1-on-5 attack; I'm not sure he noticed that his other four teammates were on the floor, let alone a fifth. (I know you made the play, but come on, dude. Pass the ball.) Still, Western Kentucky had a legitimate grievance after this one, which they apparently aired to the referees after the game. But WKU had no recourse. ESPN.com's Andy Katz spoke with Mike Wood, the Sun Belt's coordinator of officials, who said the officials can't go back to the monitor and overturn a play because six men are on the floor. It's one of the calls you have to catch live as it happens; there's no way to change it retroactively. The veteran crew of referees is likely to serve a suspension, but that's about it.
In other words: WKU lost a game on a buzzer-beater against six men, and there isn't a single thing they can do about it. Nothing.
So, hey, why not fire the coach? Because, yep, that happened, too.
On Friday, as millions of people were streaming this play on their computer screens, Western Kentucky athletic director Ross Bjork decided now -- now! -- was the appropriate time to release current WKU coach Ken McDonald. Bjork recommended to the university president that McDonald be let go and replaced by interim coach Ray Harper. Bjork explained his decision via a release on the program's website:
“Last spring, I felt Coach McDonald deserved the opportunity to begin positive trends with a new season, and we witnessed some encouraging elements during the summer and fall under his direction. Unfortunately, as this season has progressed, the plan has not worked out. We have a 5-11 record and do not rank in the nation’s top 200 in virtually any statistical category. This is not what the WKU basketball program should represent. While we pride ourselves on having an energetic and exciting atmosphere in Diddle Arena, our attendance levels are reaching historic lows. These disturbing facts are unacceptable, and we can no longer continue on this troubling course. Confidence, respect -- locally and nationally, public support and an overall positive perception of the WKU men’s basketball program is lacking. Our historic program is too strong to be in this position. Simply put, WKU men’s basketball needs a new voice.
“Coach Harper has had proven success as a head coach, and we are excited to see how our team responds under his direction. Let me be clear, we are not giving up on this season. We have 13 conference games remaining, and we still believe this year’s team has much to achieve.”
In other words, McDonald wasn't fired for losing to six men on one of the most boneheaded whistle omissions in the history of college hoops. He was fired because his team isn't very good, and no one's coming to watch it play. This is understandable. Western Kentucky has a proud hoops tradition -- it has six Sweet Sixteen appearances in the program's history (seven if you count 1971's vacated run to the Final Four). The most recent appearance was just three years ago, in 2008, on one of the greatest buzzer-beating 3-pointers of the past 25 years. The Hilltoppers have an excellent gym, a large and vibrant fan base and an expectation of Sun Belt success.
McDonald's current team was 5-10 before Thursday night's debacle. His record was 67-49 in three and a half seasons. Even more dire were the concerns about attendance. Bjork didn't want to wait; he wants to try to salvage this season, to stem the tide of a once-rabid fan base currently spending its time and money on other pursuits. In a vacuum, this firing makes sense. Arguably, it could have happened over the summer.
But this firing didn't come in a vacuum. It came approximately 12 hours -- was it even that long? -- after McDonald lost a game when, if not because, the opposing team had six men on the floor. Let's repeat that one more time, just to hammer it home: Louisiana Lafayette won with six men on the floor. I mean, that's tough enough as it is. You can't wait a few days to let the guy go? A few weeks? Until the offseason? You really have to fire him today? You can't let him down easy?
On Friday morning, Western Kentucky was the team that lost that crazy game to six men. Now, on Friday afternoon, Western Kentucky is the team that fired its coach after he lost a game to six men.
If that's the way we remember this Thursday's inexplicable finish -- if this two-day stretch comes to define Western Kentucky in the coming years -- Hilltoppers brass will have only themselves to blame.