Category archive: Western Kentucky Hilltoppers

Western Kentucky athletic director Ross Bjork walked out of E.A. Diddle Arena on Thursday night miffed about Louisiana-Lafayette's victory over the Hilltoppers. The game-winning basket came while six Ragin' Cajuns players were on the court.

He was adamant that he had to make a coaching change. He called his superiors and informed them that as bizarre as the timing may appear, the Hilltoppers had to make a change and fire coach Ken McDonald.

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Ken McDonald
Don McPeak/US PresswireWestern Kentucky made a midseason coaching change after firing Ken McDonald last week.

Bjork informed McDonald Friday morning, let assistant Ray Harper know he would be the interim coach and told the players about the move.

"There was no good time to do it," Bjork said late Saturday night. "We tried to do it as professional as we could. But you could never have scripted a more bizarre process."

Bjork was adamant that the way the game ended wasn't the deciding factor for dismissing McDonald 16 games into the season.

But he wouldn't answer the question on whether he would have fired McDonald if the Hilltoppers had beaten Lafayette.

"It's hard to say to be honest with you," Bjork said. "But the trend lines weren't good. So if you win the game, what do you do? If we lose the game in regulation? It's hard to say. We've got too much at stake here and too much history. Before we lose it on a long-term basis, we had to do something."

Bjork said there was a completely different vibe in the arena from Thursday's game versus Saturday's loss to Troy.

The attendance for Thursday's game was listed at 2,137 compared to 5,172 on Saturday (of course, a weekend date is usually a better sell).

"We lost the game [against Troy], but there was a different feel," Bjork said. "Without disparaging Ken, the people were relieved about this decision. That's unfortunate. I hate that for Ken's sake as a person."

McDonald didn't respond to a message left by ESPN.com.

Bjork said as a rule he's not in favor of midseason coaching changes. That's the party line -- no matter if it's at Minnesota, Vermont, USC or LSU, which have made similar high-profile moves during the season.

"Our program reached a point of no confidence," Bjork said. "It was the body of work."

Bjork responded to the criticism that he could have dismissed McDonald in the spring, rather than prolong the inevitable. He said his assessment at that time was that he was trying to work with McDonald to change a few things.

"He had to become a better organizer, organize his schedule, organize his travel itinerary, organize the program," Bjork said. "There were academic issues in the fall of 2010 and the spring of 2011 that were unacceptable."

Bjork said he had to delicately handle off-court rumors that weren't true about McDonald.

"There were constant rumors, and they weren't even close to being true," Bjork said. "We talked him through a lot of the stuff. He was going through a divorce, and this is a small town and people say things that aren't true.

"Unfortunately, what [the rumors] did was damage the confidence level of him running the program. We tried to address that. He's divorced. He can have a life and if he wants to have a girlfriend, that's his prerogative. He's not married. If you have a girlfriend, then bring her out in public. There's nothing wrong with that."

Bjork said there were positive signs over the summer. The program was involved with community service projects, which was a good thing.

"But with a fragile environment and you lose some tough games, things start adding on," Bjork said. "The plan wasn't working the way we thought. We had put together a plan, and it didn't work."

Bjork had restructured McDonald's contract. He was initially hired in 2008. His base salary was $250,000 in 2009. Bjork said bonuses bumped up the salary by $100,000 last season. So the $100,000 pay cut was, according to Bjork, more of a reset in his terms.

"We viewed it as starting over," Bjork said.

Now Bjork is waiting to hear from McDonald or a representative on how he wants the $300,000 the school still owes him -- a four-year payment plan or one lump sum. McDonald has 30 days to negotiate an offer.

So now what? Bjork is in a unique situation. USC hired unemployed Tim Floyd and sent him on the road, setting up the program. Vermont hired Maryland assistant Mike Lonergan as the coach-in-waiting for retiring Tom Brennan. Minnesota went with an interim in Jim Molinari before it found Tubby Smith suddenly available. LSU went to an interim coach before Trent Johnson came to the Southeast from his native West Coast.

Western Kentucky has been one of the best jobs at its level because of a passionate fan base and quality facilities. The Hilltoppers should be one of the best jobs, if not the best job, in the Sun Belt, much like Murray State is in the OVC, Butler in the Horizon or Gonzaga in the WCC.

Dennis Felton and Darrin Horn won at Western Kentucky. The question is can Bjork find the next coach to do the same.

Bjork said he will try to proceed in the right way. If a head coach wants to talk to him, he will be open to the idea. He said it would be easier to talk to assistants during the season. He said he's not ruling out making an announcement before the season ends but doesn't want to disrupt the current season.

He is hoping to take Minnesota AD Joel Maturi's approach to check to see if a coach who wasn't previously projected to make a change wants to move.

"Let's assess and organize and maybe there will be some interest and you can unofficially engage and then engage with the person once [the season is done]," Bjork said. "There are lots of ways to do it. We have time to find out who is best out there. We have the best job in the league, one of the best jobs in the country.

"Gonzaga and Xavier and Butler have taken off that mid-major label. That's what we want to do. We have the ability to be a big-time program."

Marshall and Western Kentucky say they did their due diligence before hiring former Miami assistants Jorge Fernandez and Jake Morton, respectively.

Both schools' head coaches -- Marshall's Tom Herrion and Western Kentucky's Ken McDonald -- said they went through the proper protocol, as did their compliance offices. That means an email or phone call to the NCAA enforcement to see if there are any violations, even if they are secondary, on the record of the individual.

But what is not given up is whether there is an ongoing investigation.

"We've never received information like that," said Marshall's Derek Gwinn, the school's associate director of athletics for compliance. "It's always been that they won't comment on ongoing investigations."

Bob Williams, the NCAA's vice president of communications, confirmed as much.

"What we do is tell schools who have secondary or major violations," Williams said. "If there is an investigation ongoing, they won't say the individual is under investigation because of the confidentiality clause."

The NCAA has said it's been investigating Miami for five months, while Yahoo! Sports spent 11 months on its investigation. The allegations broke by Yahoo! on Fernandez were that Miami booster Nevin Shapiro witnessed him having impermissible contact with Miami football players in 2008 and entertaining then-AAU-coach Moe Hicks (now on the St. John's staff).

The allegations against Morton were more serious. Shapiro alleges that Morton was aware a family member of then-recruit and current senior DeQuan Jones wanted $10,000 for a commitment to Miami and that Shapiro agreed to front the money. The allegation is Morton met Shapiro to pick up the cash and Morton returned the money after Shapiro went to prison.

Former Miami head coach Frank Haith didn't take Morton and Fernandez with him to Missouri.

So far, according to Marshall and Western Kentucky, neither Morton nor Fernandez has spoken to NCAA investigators. That sort of leaves them in limbo, but Herrion and McDonald are sticking with their new assistants and have been told by each that the two men didn't do anything wrong. Both coaches say the cases have to run their course before any judgment can be reached. Both coaches will remain on staff and continue to recruit.

Meanwhile, Haith isn't allowed to comment on the case as he waits to be interviewed by the NCAA for his alleged role in knowing about a payment for Jones. Haith is being kept in limbo as well since the NCAA investigation will likely last into 2012 since it also involves football. That means Haith will have a shadow over him for quite some time, forcing Missouri to decide if it is going to stick with him or cut him a negotiated settlement (which would likely be in the millions) before any investigation is complete. Haith has publicly professed his innocence in a statement but can't speak anymore on the subject, making it harder for him to defend himself.

The former assistants are in a similar situation, but with a much dimmer spotlight on them. Yet, like Haith, both are at new institutions, and that makes it more difficult since neither has built up any equity at his new job.

More news and notes from around the country:

• Herrion said Marshall has signed up to play at Syracuse this season for a $100,000 guarantee. The Thundering Herd, which fancy themselves contenders with Memphis for the Conference USA title, will play two other notable Big East teams -- at Cincinnati (a return game in 2012-13 will be in Charleston, W. Va.) and the annual rivalry game against West Virginia in Charleston. MAAC favorite Iona is going to Huntington, as is MAC contender Akron. Marshall is also playing an in-season home-and-home against a Belmont team that won 30 games last season and returns nearly everyone. Games against Ohio, UNC Wilmington and High Point are also on the schedule as Marshall looks for one more game.

• The NCAA is expected to resolve outgoing UConn athletic director Jeff Hathaway's situation as incoming chair of the men's basketball tournament committee in weeks, not months, according to a NCAA spokesperson. The Big East would like to see Hathaway in the same role and trust his due diligence on the committee, even if he's not employed at a member institution. He will, after all, be technically paid by one during his year as chair since UConn reached a settlement with Hathaway.

• Williams said you can expect a number of the actions discussed at the presidential retreat to be enacted at either the next board of presidents meeting in October or in January at the NCAA convention. Williams said the new cut score for the APR (930) will likely be adopted and that teams will start missing the NCAA tournament if they don't average at least that number over a four-year period. Williams said it wouldn't affect the 2012 tournament since the schools need time to adjust to the new score. It'll kick in for the 2013 tourney at the earliest, but likely later.

• The Big East hopes to finish its conference schedule sometime around Labor Day. And that means Connecticut will know who its opponents will be for the first three Big East games that coach Jim Calhoun will have to miss due to an NCAA-imposed suspension. The Big East traditionally is the last conference to publish its league schedule as it works with a number of NBA and NHL arenas on scheduling dates.

• The MAC's decision to advance the top two teams to the semifinals of its league tournament was a much-needed change. The MAC had to do something to protect the best teams and give them the best chance to advance to the NCAA tournament then win a game. This is the same move that a number of leagues, notably the WCC, have made recently.

• Texas A&M to the SEC makes sense with the conference getting into the Houston market and dipping into a state that certainly loves its football. Leaving Texas and its natural rivalries would be a sacrifice worth taking for the more lucrative payday and passion within the Southeastern Conference. But figuring out the SEC's 14th fit -- if it comes to that -- is a bit trickier. If the SEC schools were to block out schools from their own states, that eliminates Florida State, Georgia Tech, Louisville and Clemson.

Virginia Tech would seem a natural, but the Hokies like their competitive position in the ACC and there are also the political ramifications to "breaking up" with rival Virginia. If there is one school that's a dark horse, it's West Virginia. The Mountaineers certainly could hang in both major sports (football and men's basketball) and compete at a high level. The SEC offers a lot more stability than the Big East in football and WVU's passion for its sports teams is akin to the SEC.

The problem of course is that the media market is small and doesn't deliver much to the SEC in terms of number of households. West Virginia can dip into the Pittsburgh area and that wouldn't hurt. The school would also likely have the least resistance politically of any of the other candidates. From a hoops standpoint, adding Bob Huggins to the mix and renewing an old rivalry with his old pal John Calipari would be entertaining for all.

The 1985 Final Four banner that Memphis earned is down for the summer.

The plan, as is the case every year, is to put it back up at FedExForum in the fall.

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Ohio State Final Four Banner
AP Photo/Terry GilliamOhio State was forced to vacate its 1999 Final Four run.

Memphis officials say the NCAA's ruling against the Tigers in 1985, in which then-Memphis State was accused of several NCAA violations, never forbade the school from hanging the Final Four banner it earned that season. But last week's ruling that required the Tigers to vacate their 2008 Final Four appearance and wins from that season is much more specific.

If the Tigers lose the appeal they vow to file, all references on stationery and signage relating to the event will have to be removed. The record books will have to be aligned to reflect that the Tigers' 38 wins, including five in the NCAA tournament, are no longer valid.

For the NCAA's part, it can't redo its cover for the 2009 Men's Final Four Records Book. That edition features former Memphis coach John Calipari and former Tigers players Derrick Rose -- who was found to be ineligible -- and Chris Douglas-Roberts among the nine photos. And you can visit the NCAA's site and buy for the low, low price of $24.99 a DVD of your favorite Memphis 2008 tournament game. You know, one of those that never happened.

Since the 1980s, in an effort to put more teeth into its enforcement, the NCAA has tried to enforce its signage ban for the guilty schools -- to varying degrees of effect.

UMass officials say the Final Four banner and trophy recognizing its 1996 NCAA tournament team, coached by Calipari, are on display at the Mullens Center. UMass proudly hangs its Final Four banner and treats the event as if it happened -- and in reality it did, although not according to the NCAA, which forced the school to vacate its wins from that season.

Two Big Ten schools that had Final Fours vacated have taken more drastic approaches to the rule.

Michigan's 1992 and '93 Final Four banners were taken down at Crisler Arena and are now in storage at the school's Bentley Historical Library, according to Michigan officials. The records from the Fab Five teams have been removed from the Michigan record books, although the Michigan sports information staff continues to keep two record books -- one with the totals from those two seasons and one without.

When Ohio State went to the 2006 Final Four, there was no mention of its 1999 Final Four appearance in any of the school's promotional literature. The 1999 Final Four banner hung in the main bowl of Value City Arena for the 1999-2000 season before it was moved to the Buckeyes' practice facility for the 2000-01 season. The banner was taken down after a graphics project incorporated the Buckeyes' overall success, rather than just banners. The banner was donated to a charity after the 2001 season.

According to Ohio State, all references to the 1999 Final Four team as well as the records from 1999 to 2002 -- the seasons for which the Buckeyes were penalized for using an ineligible player -- were removed from the school's media guides.

UCLA had an easy solution when it came to dealing with its vacated 1980 Final Four team: ignore it. Why? The Bruins hang only championship banners at Pauley Pavilion. UCLA officials say they have never been forced to change the record books.

Other Final Four teams that have had their appearances vacated were Minnesota (1997), Saint Joseph's (1961), Villanova (1971) and Western Kentucky (1971).

What would have happened to the national title had Kansas' Mario Chalmers missed the game-tying 3-pointer that sent the game into overtime, and Memphis had won? The banner still wouldn't be in Lawrence.

According to the NCAA, if Memphis had won the game and the committee on infractions forced the school to vacate the title, there would have been no official champion for 2008. The records book would have listed Memphis' defeating Kansas with an asterisk noting that the Tigers' participation in the 2008 championship was later vacated by the COI. There would be no acknowledgment that Kansas had won the title.

The precedent for this occurred in men's lacrosse in 1990, when Syracuse won the national title but later had to vacate it because it used an ineligible player. Syracuse says it has 11 national championships, but the NCAA recognizes only 10. The runner-up in 1990 -- Loyola of Maryland -- was not given the title.

• Conference USA isn't making any statements on the decision to vacate Memphis' Final Four appearance until the Tigers' appeal is heard. This is a tough spot for C-USA commissioner Britton Banowsky. He is on the committee on infractions but had to recuse himself from the entire Memphis case.

• More than 28,000 people responded to our poll within last week's Daily Word on who should lead the list for the 2010 national player of the year race. The top vote-getter was Kentucky junior forward Patrick Patterson, who certainly could make a run at the award. In second place was his new teammate, incoming freshman guard John Wall.

Kansas' duo of forward Cole Aldrich and guard Sherron Collins were third and fourth, respectively, with Notre Dame senior forward Luke Harangody rounding out the top five.

Michigan State junior guard Kalin Lucas was a close sixth. What does this tell us? That the race is wide-open, and Kentucky and Kansas fans might be the most passionate in voting for their respective players. It's unlikely that KU and UK would have four of the five All-Americans, but they do have four legitimate candidates. The possibility exists for the second straight season that the player of the year could be the top pick in the NBA draft (Wall).

• There was one glaring omission on the Wooden Award list and on my ballot. His name is James Anderson of Oklahoma State.

Mike Noteware, Oklahoma State's sports information director, provided plenty of stats to back up criticism of Anderson's omission, which should be viewed as a poor oversight.

Anderson ranked in the top five in four different statistical categories in the Big 12. He is the third-leading returning scorer behind Iowa State's Craig Brackins and Kansas' Collins, and only he and Aldrich ranked in the top five in field goal percentage last season. Among Big 12 returnees, Anderson ranked fourth in scoring, fifth in field goal percentage, fifth in 3-point percentage, fifth in free throw percentage and 15th in rebounding.

Anderson also was on the World University Games squad that won the bronze medal in Serbia. He outscored Brackins, Mississippi State's Jarvis Varnado, Ohio State's Evan Turner and Clemson's Trevor Booker. Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford expressed his dismay with Anderson's absence from the list. All points are valid, and going forward, Anderson will be included on the Wooden watch list.

• The combination of NBA voters' likely not being enamored with Rick Pitino's or John Calipari's time in the league, as well as the events of the past two weeks, likely means that neither will get into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. This is merely a prediction. Past entrants are hardly without a transgression, but the criteria might get tougher in the years to come for all these types of museums. The scrutiny placed on potential entrants is higher than it has ever been because the 24-hour news cycle constantly churns out information.

• Before clearing Renardo Sidney to play at Mississippi State, the NCAA is asking for the financial records of his family in its attempt to prove how it was able to afford lodging in the Fairfax High district in Los Angeles. But does the NCAA do this in different cases? Did it ask for Reggie Rose's financial records to see how Derrick's older brother would pay for the flights and lodging on Memphis' trips? Just curious as to whether the NCAA is consistent in this manner.