I sat down with Western Kentucky athletic director Ross Bjork this afternoon for a one-on-one interview about all things WKU athletics – from football, to men’s basketball, to facilities, to attendance – the whole shot.
I’ll have a story in Sunday’s Daily News featuring the entire interview.
For now, though, I’ll share a snippet of the conversation we had about his decision to retain Hilltopper men’s coach Ken McDonald, how difficult it was, how McDonald has been in the two months since the decision and what Bjork expects from McDonald next season on the basketball court
Q: How difficult was the entire evaluation process?
A: “For me personally, it was my biggest test since I’ve been here. Evaluating the program, making decisions, commenting to the media in January – I felt we had to say something at that time, we were 0-4 in conference, 5-11 and people wondered what was going to happen and others (had the sentiment) of ‘get rid of him now.’
“For me, it was the biggest test that I’ve gone through as the athletic director. But where it hit me was in Hot Springs (at the Sun Belt Tournament). I had (WKU media relations) put together a list of every (men’s basketball coach) since coach Diddle and basically look at their record, look at how they started and how they ended – and whether or not they got fired or moved on.
“To me, (firing him) just wasn’t the right thing to do. It had only been three years, I wanted to give this staff more time. It may not have been the most popular decision, but in the end, do we want to be known as a program that’s running off coaches every three to five years? Should that be our definition? It wasn’t popular from a win-loss standpoint – we were .500 and that’s not acceptable. … Murray Arnold went to the tournament his first year, then had a decline. Ralph Willard started slow, got hot, left. Matt Kilcullen comes in – great first year, decline, then fired. Dennis Felton comes in at rock bottom, gets it to a high level, moves on. Darrin Horn struggles at first, gets it to a high level and moves on. Ken’s hot the first year, the second year Sergio gets hurt and who knows, and then the third year we’re flat. Consistency was the name of the game when we did the total evaluation. … We didn’t compare Ken McDonald and John Oldham as coaches, like some thought, we compared them in terms of facts. Ken McDonald has won 62 games which is the second highest after three years of anyone in our history. It doesn’t mean he’s John Oldham – it means his record spoke for itself. That hasn’t happened a lot.
“It was my call, all the way. I made the recommendation to (President Gary Ransdell) Thursday after the Sun Belt Tournament and said I think we should keep him and why.”
Q: How serious were the chances that McDonald wouldn’t return?
A: “Any time you do an evaluation you have to look at both sides. We had a list of negatives and a list of positives. And we looked at it in a way that we had positives we could build upon. And the negative things had better be fixable – and if we fix them, that list goes away. If Ken and the staff are committed, which we believe they are, then we can fix those things. That’s what you do. It’s like when you’re choosing a college – you look at the pros and cons, and we asked if the negatives were fixable and coachable and asked if Ken could learn from the things that have happened. Some of those things were already starting to be fixed (with recruiting).”
“(If you decide to let him go), then you sit down with a prospective coach and tell him ‘hey, we’re committed to basketball here.’ And then he might ask ‘are you sure, you just got rid of a guy that won 62 games in three years, are you sure you’re committed?’ You weigh all of that, and you weigh the recruiting angle. I had good dialogue with Derrick Gordon and George Fant throughout the entire process. Not once did they ever say ‘if Ken McDonald’s not the coach, then I’m not coming.’ I told them that our pledge was that they signed up for a great program – regardless of who the coach is, you deserve a great program and it’s our obligation to provide that to them. They bought into that, believed that, and they’re happy that our staff stayed in tact.”
Q: How has McDonald been behind closed doors since the reset decision two months ago?
A: “Ken’s got a renewed sense of urgency and energy. He’s more organized, he has a better plan of attack. We had to go through the spring semester with Brandon Peters (and his academic status). But we talked about what the plan was. Instead of just reacting to scenarios, we had a plan in place. Signing T.J. Price knowing that Brandon was on the verge of not being eligible was one step.
“He’s been more focused, he’s been more visible around the athletic department and around town – and he has a renewed sense of energy. Now it’s about delivering.
“He’s got to be more organized and I think he’s doing that – in terms of office hours, scheduling and all of that. One of the things that I found when I talked with (Steffphon Pettigrew) was a frustration from the organizational side. He believed Ken was a good coach, believed he was a big-time basketball knowledge person, but the organizational structure was a concern – and those things can be fixed, with the right attitude. … And I think what he’s learned to do now is to count on his staff more. Count on (assistants) Ray (Harper), count on Lawrence (Brenneman), count on your people. That’s what you do as a manager, count on people to deliver. I think it took Ken some time to figure that out – I think the early success that first year caught him, and led to a thought of ‘hey, this might not be as hard as we think it is, let’s keep doing what we’re doing.’ And then we got caught – and now we have to refocus. I told the staff – recruiting, academics and basketball – those are the three things that if you focus on them, it shouldn’t be that hard.”
Q: What are Bjork’s expectations for next season, and how is McDonald judged
A: “To me, the analysis points will be the organizational components, the academic components, are we playing hard, do we have a plan of attack and then obviously wins and losses. If you do all of those things, wins and losses take care of themselves. Our fans want us to play hard and together and have good kids they can relate to – they want to see guys taking pride in wearing that uniform. That’s’ the same thing I expect. Our schedule is still challenging. Is it as challenging as last year? You could debate that.
“I expect us to have a good year, even though we’re young. … They have to come together over the summer and start bonding and meshing with the older players.
“The expectations are to be back at the top of the league – like we have been, and where we belong.”