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Photo courtesy of WKU Athletic Media Relations
RayHarperMarchWestern Kentucky University basketball coach Ray Harper
In the circles of big-time college basketball, Ray Harper may not yet be a household name. But you’d better believe the second-year coach at Western Kentucky University knows what he’s doing. Look no further than his 14-year record of 353 wins and 71 losses—that calculates to a win rate of 83 percent, a feat unmatched by fellow Kentucky coaches John Calipari (76 percent) and Rick Pitino (73 percent).
The 51-year-old Harper might not be described as a slick, bells-and-whistles coach, and his away-from-the-court “aw shucks” demeanor can be somewhat disarming. But when it comes to coaching, he can slick it up with the best of them. Harper’s nine years as head coach at Kentucky Wesleyan College and three at Oklahoma City University produced seven NCAA coaching records, including the fastest to reach 200 wins (Harper did it in only 224 games); six consecutive 30-win seasons; six straight appearances in the Division II National Championship game, which resulted in two wins for Kentucky Wesleyan; and seven times named Division II National Coach of the Year. At NAIA Oklahoma City, Harper’s teams earned two championships and one runner-up finish in three seasons.
Harper came to the Bowling Green school in 2009 as assistant coach to Ken McDonald. About midway through the 2012 season, as the Hilltoppers struggled with a 5-11 record, McDonald was fired, and Harper was asked to step in and lead the flailing team.
The turnaround was immediate. Winning seven out of eight games, including four wins in four days to claim the Sun Belt Tournament title, the Hilltoppers advanced to the NCAA tournament.
A first-round, come-from-behind win over Mississippi Valley State set the stage for Western, a 16 seed, to play top-ranked Kentucky in Louisville. On their way to a national title, the Wildcats defeated the Hilltoppers, 81-66.
Growing up in the small community of Bremen in Muhlenberg County, Harper was a first team all-state performer in 1980, and the 3,033 points he scored in his high school career was a figure more than two times the town’s population.
Harper’s signing a national letter of intent with the University of Texas would prevent his friends and family from seeing him play on a regular basis, and though his dad, Lilburn Harper, got to Austin on occasion, the youngster missed Kentucky. Those who knew him were not surprised when Harper left Texas. The truth is, he never wanted to leave Kentucky in the first place.
“I really wanted to go to Western out of high school,” Harper recalled. “Coach [Clem] Haskins had recruited me all season. He was an assistant then to Gene Keady. But when Coach Keady came to see me play, I had been hurt and was not at full speed. I think he thought I was a little slow, so Western backed off.”
The Western door closed, but another one opened.
“Denvil Barriger was a high school coach around the area, and he was friends with Texas Coach Abe Lemons and told him about me,” said Harper.
Going from Bremen to cosmopolitan Austin, Texas, required a bit of an adjustment, but Harper quickly made his presence felt on the basketball court.
Once deemed too slow for Western, he started 28 games for the Longhorns and was named the 1981 Southwest Conference Rookie of the Year, scoring an average of 10 points and four assists a game.
The following season, Texas improved to 16-11, but in spite of Lemons’ success, he was fired at the end of the season. When Harper returned for his junior year, things weren’t the same. “A new coach was there; other players were leaving … I just wasn’t comfortable, so I decided to go back closer to home,” he said. “Mike Pollio had recruited me at Kentucky Wesleyan, so that’s where I transferred to.”
Harper played two years for Kentucky Wesleyan, reaching the national championship game and earning All-American recognition. He then was named a graduate assistant to Pollio at Virginia Commonwealth. The next year, Harper was back at Wesleyan as assistant coach to Wayne Chapman, whom he followed as head coach a few years later.
“I had several chances to leave Wesleyan over the years and make more money,” he said. “But I was where I was because I wanted to be. And to me, that is important.”
However, following the 2004-05 season, Harper left Kentucky Wesleyan to become head coach at Olkahoma City, where he stayed until the end of the 2007-08 NAIA Championship season.
In 2009, when the door once again opened for Harper, he and his wife, Shannon, walked through it. Harper left the program at Oklahoma City to return to Kentucky. After 29 years, he had finally landed where he wanted to be all along—Western Kentucky University.
“There is so much tradition here. All of those great teams and coaches before me,” Harper said. “Just look around Diddle Arena [named for the school’s most famous coach, E.A. Diddle]. As coaches and our players, we have a responsibility to keep it going.”
Jim Richards, a former Hilltopper coach who frequents basketball practices, thinks Harper is much more than a good coach. “He’s just a well-grounded student of the game,” Richards said. “And he teaches. You can just watch him at practice, sometimes having to get back to basic fundamentals. But that’s why his teams are so solid.”
In coaching lingo, what Richards described is referred to as “coaching up,” but that’s what a lot of the successful mid-major schools have to do. And Ray Harper is good at it.
Harper’s no-frills personality plays well to Western alumni and fans. He’s easy to like. And it is common to see him high-fiving the band and student section after a game. “I feel like they are part of the program,” he said. “I want them to know me not only as a coach but as a person, too.”
When Ray was born, it didn’t take his dad long to do what many Kentucky fathers do with their sons. “I have two older sisters, and everyone said my dad put a ball in my hands while I was still in my crib,” he said with a laugh. “He wanted a ball player.”
The Harper family did, indeed, get a ball player, but along with it they also got one heck of a coach.
The Harper Profile
Full Name: Lilburn Ray Harper Jr.
Born: October 11, 1961
High School: Bremen, Muhlenberg County
College: University of Texas, 1981-82; Kentucky Wesleyan, 1983-85
Vacation: “What’s that? My wife and I took the first one we’ve had in years after the season last year.”
Favorite Food: “Anything fast food”
Wife: Shannon, 23 years
Hobbies: “Don’t really have any ... never played golf.”
Something he wanted to do but didn’t: Play college baseball
Coaching Philosophy: “No one can be selfish. I can’t and won’t coach them if they are. You must play defense and play hard. Playing hard won’t guarantee winning, but not playing hard guarantees losing.”