After back-to-back Sun Belt Conference Tournament championships and NCAA Tournament appearances in his first two seasons at the helm of the WKU men’s basketball program, Ray Harper enters his third season as Hilltopper head coach in 2013-14.
Under Harper, the Hilltoppers are 8-0 in Sun Belt Conference Tournament action, resulting in two championships and automatic berths to the NCAA Tournament, and WKU is 14-3 in games played on or after February 21.
After a season plagued with injuries to multiple key players in December and January, the Hilltoppers began to hit their stride in mid-February and finished the regular season winning three of their last four games, with the only loss coming to conference champion Middle Tennessee.
Seeded sixth in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament in Hot Springs, Ark., WKU won four games in four days for the second-straight season to win the tournament championship, becoming the first team in NCAA history to achieve the feat in back-to-back seasons. From there, the Hilltoppers advanced to the NCAA Tournament, where they put a scare into top-seeded Kansas before dropping a hard-fought, seven-point decision in Kansas City, Mo.
WKU finished the 2012-13 season with a 20-16 record, giving the program its 41st 20-win season. Harper helped George Fant and T.J. Price to All-Sun Belt Conference recognition in 2012-13, and Price was named the Sun Belt Conference Tournament Most Outstanding Player, giving WKU the most outstanding player in each of the last two tournaments.
After taking the helm of the team midway through the 2011-12 season Harper began to put his stamp on the program, and the team responded in a big way. The Hilltoppers went 11-8 after he took over and 7-1 after he was named full-time head coach, which came after starting the season with a 5-11 record.
In winning seven of its last eight games, WKU won a game against conference rival Arkansas State on a buzzer beater, defeated conference champion Middle Tennessee two days later in front of a sell-out crowd at E.A. Diddle Arena and then stormed through the Sun Belt Conference Tournament in Hot Springs, Ark., capturing four wins in four days to earn its eighth tournament title and head to the NCAA Tournament for the 22nd time.
Seeded seventh in the conference tournament, WKU defeated FIU, second-seeded UALR, third-seeded Denver and number five North Texas to become the lowest seed to win the conference tournament in 35 years of Sun Belt Conference postseason competition.
WKU was seeded 16th in the NCAA Tournament and traveled to Dayton to play Mississippi Valley State in the first round on March 13, where it earned a thrilling 59-58 win after erasing a 16-point deficit with 4:51 to play, which set an NCAA Tournament record for the largest comeback with under 5:00 remaining. The Hilltoppers then headed to Louisville, where they took on tournament top-seeded and number-one Kentucky and saw their season end with an 81-66 loss.
By defeating Mississippi Valley State, WKU won games in three-straight NCAA Tournaments (2008, 2009, 2012) and became one of just 23 teams in the nation with at least one win in three of the five tournaments from 2008-12.
In all, WKU finished the season with a 16-19 record, and freshman guard Derrick Gordon was named to the All-Sun Belt Conference Third Team. His 412 points scored were the third-most by a freshman in WKU history, and fellow rookies George Fant (321) and T.J. Price (270) cemented their places on the list in seventh and ninth, respectively, thanks in part to Harper’s coaching efforts.
Harper was named WKU’s 14th full-time head coach in its illustrious men’s basketball history on February 19, 2012, after leading the Hilltoppers on an interim basis since January 6.
Harper’s stellar head coaching resume includes four national championships in 12 seasons at Kentucky Wesleyan College and Oklahoma City University, five national runner-up finishes, eight conference titles, five national coach-of-the-year honors and a remarkable .844 winning percentage after winning 342 of 405 games at his two stops before WKU.
In his nine years at Kentucky Wesleyan in Owensboro, Ky., Harper laid claim to seven NCAA coaching records, surpassing Division I record-holders in all instances, including becoming the fastest to 200 wins (224 games), holding the most consecutive 30-win seasons (6) and compiling the most wins in each of the first four-through-eight seasons of his career.
With NCAA Division II title game appearances each season from 1998-2003, the Bremen, Ky., native became the first NCAA head coach since John Wooden to appear in six-straight NCAA National Championship games.
The NCAA requires a minimum of 10 seasons at the Division II level to officially qualify for its list of head coaching records, but Harper’s nine-year record of 247-46 at Kentucky Wesleyan would give him the best winning percentage in Division II history at .843, topping Walter Harris, who led Philadelphia University to a 240-56 record (.811) in 13 seasons spanning the mid-1950s and 1960s.
After capturing his second-straight NAIA Division I national title at Oklahoma City in 2007-08, Harper accepted a job as an assistant coach at WKU. As a part of head coach Ken McDonald’s staff, Harper was instrumental in WKU’s two 20-win seasons in 2008-09 and 2009-10, its 2009 Sun Belt Conference Regular Season and Tournament Championships and run to the second round of the 2009 NCAA Tournament.
Harper was in the middle of his fourth season as an assistant coach at WKU when he was asked to take over the program 16 games into the 2011-12 campaign. The Hilltoppers were 5-11 at that point, and in Harper’s 11 games as interim head coach the team rebounded and won four games, lost four others by six points or fewer and climbed from last place in the Sun Belt Conference East Division to as high as third in just five games in late January and early February.
With a 75-66 win over South Alabama on February 4, 2012, Harper earned his 250th career victory as an NCAA head coach in just his 300th career game.
Hilltopper Nation responded extremely well after Harper took over on an interim basis. In the nine home games prior to Harper being named head coach WKU was averaging just over 3,000 fans per game at E.A. Diddle Arena, but in four home games under Harper crowds swelled to an average of 5,105 fans per contest.
He helped guide Oklahoma City to a 95-17 mark the three seasons prior to joining the WKU staff, with the Stars claiming two-straight NAIA Division I National Championships. Oklahoma City ended the 2007-08 campaign at 31-7, capturing the national title. The previous year, the Stars were 35-2 and won the national championship. In his first year leading the program, Oklahoma City posted a 29-8 mark and were runners-up in the NAIA Division I Tournament.
In his three years at the helm at Oklahoma City, Harper had six individuals earn NAIA Division I All-American recognition, highlighted by Ollie Bailey, who was selected as the National Player of the Year in 2007-08. In addition, 10 student-athletes were honored on the All-Sooner Athletic Conference Team and six made the NAIA Division I All-Tournament squad. Kameron Gray was named the tournament’s most valuable player in both 2007 and 2008.
Harper’s results at Kentucky Wesleyan were just as impressive, as he compiled a 247-46 record and an .843 winning percentage, and he led the Panthers to the 1999 and 2001 NCAA Division II National Championships. Kentucky Wesleyan won 30 or more games in six-straight seasons from 1998-2003, an NCAA all-division record, and claimed five Great Lakes Valley Conference regular season and tournament titles in his time with the program. The Panthers were 35-1 on their way to winning the program’s first national title in 1999, while the 2001 squad posted a 31-3 finish.
Harper guided Kentucky Wesleyan to a 31-3 record for three-straight years from 2000-02, including winning 90 percent of the Panthers’ league games over that span for a 54-6 mark. Harper’s 1997-98 squad, which posted a 30-3 ledger, advanced to the national title game. Kentucky Wesleyan’s amazing six-year run from 1998 to 2003 included two NCAA Division II titles (1999, 2001) and four runner-up finishes (1998, 2000, 2002 and 2003).
Harper was named the NCAA Division II National Coach of the Year four-straight years from 1999-2002, while earning the honor at the NAIA Division I level once with Oklahoma City following the 2008 title run. He was selected conference coach of the year on seven occasions, as well as the region coach of the year twice.
Through seven seasons, he had more victories than any coach at the NCAA Division I and II levels (210). Harper reached 200 wins in 224 games, which was faster than NCAA Division I record holder and Hall of Famer Clair Bee, who won 200 in 231 games.
On February 17, 2008, Harper’s number 12 jersey was permanently retired at Kentucky Wesleyan, and the floor at Jones Gymnasium was named “Ray Harper Court.”
He has also coached on the international level, having led USA Basketball men’s junior team to a 7-1 record and a fifth-place finish at the 2003 FIBA World Championships in Greece.
Harper was an assistant coach at Kentucky Wesleyan for 10 years, including six as its associate head coach, prior to taking over the program. As an assistant, Harper aided the Panthers to a 235-66 record while they won the 1987 and 1990 NCAA Division II National Titles, also reaching the tournament two other times.
In fact, Kentucky Wesleyan won more than 20 contests in each of his first nine years on the staff, beginning with a 28-5 mark in 1986-87. The Panthers followed that performance with a 23-7 finish the following season and then went 24-7 in 1988-89, before posting a 31-2 record en route to the 1990 national title. Kentucky Wesleyan finished 22-8 the next year and was 23-8 in 1991-92 on the way to reaching the NCAA Division II Elite Eight. After recording a 21-6 mark in 1992-93 the school won 23 contests in each of the next two years, including going 16-2 in the conference in 1994-95.
In addition to finishing in the top 20 in the final polls in each of his first six seasons with the school, the Panthers won no fewer than 12 games in the Great Lakes Valley Conference in his time as an assistant.
At Kentucky Wesleyan, Harper coached two National Players of the Year, seven All-Americans and nine individuals who earned NABC Great Lakes All-Region honors. Eleven of Harper’s players were selected for All-Great Lakes Valley Conference honors, including five who were named the league’s player of the year. In postseason play, seven Panthers were voted to the NCAA Division II All-Tournament squad with three selected most outstanding player, while nine earned All-Great Lakes Valley Conference Tournament accolades, including four Most Outstanding Player honorees. Off the court, six student-athletes earned academic honors from the conference.
Harper got his start in the coaching profession as a graduate assistant at Virginia Commonwealth during the 1985-86 season.
A 1985 graduate of Kentucky Wesleyan, Harper was a two-year starter for the Panthers after transferring from Texas. He became the school’s first All-American as a senior, and he also earned most outstanding player in the regional as well as all-region and all-conference accolades. The 1981 Southwest Conference Rookie of the Year at Texas after averaging 9.8 points and 3.9 assists per outing, Harper finished his college career with 1,187 points and 605 assists at the two schools.
In April of 2010, Harper was named to Kentucky Wesleyan’s All-Century Team. One of 30 members selected to the All-Century team, Harper coached 12 of the players, including six of the top 13 vote-getters.
Harper scored 3,033 points during his high school playing career, earning all-state honors as a senior and District Player of the Year acclaim twice. He earned his Master’s degree from WKU in 1995.
Harper and his wife, Shannon, reside in Bowling Green, Ky.
The Harper File
Born: October 11, 1961, Bremen, Ky. (pron: BREE-min)
High School: Bremen, Bremen, Ky., 1980
High School Athletics: Basketball, guard, four letters (first-team all-state, two-time district player of the year)
College: Texas, 1981-82, Kentucky Wesleyan, 1983-85 (Bachelor of Science)
College Athletics: Basketball, guard, two letters at Texas (1981-82), two letters at Kentucky Wesleyan (1984-85)
(1981 Southwest Conference Rookie of the Year, 1985 third-team All-American, 1985 all-conference)
VCU, graduate assistant, 1986
Kentucky Wesleyan, assistant coach, 1987-90
Kentucky Wesleyan, associate head coach, 1991-96
Kentucky Wesleyan, head coach, 1997-2005 (1999, 2001 NCAA Division II National Championships)
Oklahoma City, head coach, 2006-08 (2007, 2008 NAIA Division I National Championships)
WKU, assistant coach, 2009-12
WKU, interim head coach, 2012
WKU, head coach, 2012-present
WKU President Dr. Gary Ransdell
"I am delighted that Ray Harper has accepted our head coaching position. This is the job he wants, and we want him in this job. He has demonstrated that he can recruit and lead young men with high character and good talent. I look forward to sharing a long and successful future with Coach Harper."
WKU then-Director of Athletics Ross Bjork
“We are extremely proud and excited to name Ray Harper as our new head men’s basketball coach. Ray is a proven winner as a head coach with four national championships and a career .832 winning percentage, and we have total confidence is his ability to return our program to prominence. He is well respected by his peers in the coaching profession and his long standing ties throughout the Commonwealth of Kentucky will greatly benefit our program. 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. 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.
“I want to thank everyone who provided input and counsel during our search process - especially our former WKU basketball players and those closest to our program. All of those discussions validated our great program and will provide a spark for Coach Harper and the program.
“We urge the Hilltopper Nation to come to Diddle Arena this Monday at 6:00 PM and be a part of Coach Harper’s introduction as head coach. The pep rally for Ray Harper and our team will provide great momentum heading into the conference tournament, and we need everyone’s help by selling out our final two home games and setting the stage to bring the magic back to Diddle Arena for a long time to come!”
WKU Head Men's Basketball Coach Ray Harper
“I want to thank President Ransdell and Ross Bjork for the confidence they have shown in me and for making my dream of becoming WKU’s head basketball coach come true. I also want to thank our players and coaching staff for their dedication and focus since I assumed the interim head coaching position slightly over six weeks ago. 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. This is a destination job for me, and there is no place in the country I would rather be. It is an honor to walk into the doors of Diddle Arena each and every day. We have the best fans in the nation, and we will give them the type of program and winning results they deserve. I cannot thank them enough for their support and ask them to help us finish the season strong by selling out Diddle Arena for these last two home games this week and making the trip to Hot Springs for the upcoming conference tournament. This is not my team - this is our team - and we can achieve anything when we have great support and come together as one. Go Tops!”