Hilltoppers keep Ray Harper as coach

Western Kentucky is keeping Ray Harper as head coach.

Athletic director Ross Bjork announced the move Sunday after Harper was named interim coach following the firing of Ken McDonald. Harper will be introduced to fans at a pep rally at E.A. Diddle Arena on Monday night.

"We have total confidence in his ability to return our program to prominence," Bjork said in a statement. "We put him in a very challenging situation by naming him our interim coach on January 6, but he has performed admirably in these unique circumstances while bringing much-needed energy and excitement to our program."

Harper has a 4-7 record since taking over for McDonald and the Hilltoppers (9-18, 5-9 Sun Belt Conference) are on their way to their first losing season in 12 years. But attendance numbers have risen over the last four home games, a key benchmark Bjork looked at when he decided to let McDonald go.

"He has a comprehensive plan for improvement for every aspect of our basketball program, and he is the right man to lead our historic program into the future. We are confident he will have us back on the path for success in short order," said Bjork, who did not hire a search firm to help him.

The 50-year-old Harper was honored as Division II Coach of the Year at Kentucky Wesleyan four times in nine seasons and won two national championships as well as four runner-up finishes, though his team's 2003 second-place finish was later vacated by the NCAA because of rules violations.

Harper also earned NAIA Coach of the Year honors at Oklahoma City in 2007-08, the second of two straight national championships on that level. Harper joined Western Kentucky the following year as an assistant.

"We are not winning as consistently as I expect us to, but this basketball team has made a lot of progress and grown up a lot which is rewarding," Harper said. "This is a destination job for me, and there is no place in the country I would rather be."

Western Kentucky has reached the round of 16 seven times and played in the 1971 Final Four, though that appearance was vacated by the NCAA over rules violations. The last 11 coaches at the school have made at least one NCAA tournament appearance.

That list included McDonald, who took over following a run to the round of 16 in the 2008 NCAA tournament. Western Kentucky returned to the tournament in 2009 but missed the postseason each of the last two years as attendance dropped with the program in a steady decline that finally prompted a change.

"I am delighted that Ray Harper has accepted our head coaching position," WKU president Gary Ransdell said. "This is the job he wants, and we want him in this job."