Publish date:

Follow The Leader Low-key coach Ray Harper guided Kentucky Wesleyan to another Division II title

Long after the players had danced, the fans had celebrated and
the nets had been cut down, the coach was still working.
Kentucky Wesleyan's Ray Harper pulled Lorico Duncan, his senior
All-America point guard, aside for a private conversation last
Saturday in Bakersfield, Calif., following the Panthers' 72-63
win over Washburn in the Division II national championship game.

Rap music blared in the locker room, so Harper pulled his star
close and told him to stay in touch. The coach wanted to be sure
that Duncan and the rest of his players knew how much they mean
to him. "I know I'm going to miss him," Duncan said. "I've been
around a lot of good coaches, but he's the best. He understands
me and everyone else here."

This is how Harper works his magic: He cares, and his players
know it. That has been the cornerstone of one of the greatest
programs in Division II basketball history. All told, the school
has won eight titles, and the Panthers, 31-3 this season, have
played in the last four national championship games under Harper,
winning two. During his five-year tenure Harper is 148-19, and
under him the Panthers are the first men's team at any NCAA level
to have four consecutive 30-win seasons.

Still, Harper's success remains something of a secret in a state
that worships basketball. Division I neighbors Kentucky and
Louisville are steeped in tradition, and Harper doesn't generate
much publicity with his low-key personality. Even with his second
title in hand, he downplayed the accomplishment.

"Ray never tells anyone about his success," says Shannon, his
wife of 11 years. "He might say something to me like, 'Can you
believe what we've just done?' But he would never say that

"Anytime you succeed, it feels good," Harper says. "I'm as
competitive as anybody you'll meet, and I don't like losing.
Fortunately, I haven't had to experience much of it."

Harper, 39, has had an unassuming attitude toward basketball
since he joined the Wesleyan staff as an assistant under Wayne
Chapman in 1986. Before that, the native of Bremen, Ky., had been
a star guard who was in your face on defense and pushed the ball
on offense. He played for Abe Lemons at Texas before transferring
and becoming an All-America at Kentucky Wesleyan in 1984-85.
Harper's teams compete the same way he did, and when the games
end, nobody questions their heart.

"One thing that Coach Lemons taught me was that there are a lot
of ways to be a successful coach," says Harper. "He could do it
with humor and wit or he could be serious. He was real relaxed.
When I was there, we didn't even have a conditioning program. But
he taught me to be myself. I'm not demonstrative, but I know how
to talk to guys."

Like Lemons, Harper is a players' coach. He has one rule: Don't
embarrass your family or your school. He let the players set
curfew while in Bakersfield, and when Tampa guard Peter Howard
cursed one of the Panthers late in Wesleyan's 85-84 overtime
semifinal win, Harper called the opposing player over to the
sideline, informing him that such chatter wasn't necessary.

Against Washburn, the Panthers took control from the beginning.
The Ichabods' two best inside players, All-America center Ewan
Auguste and forward Eric Carter, each picked up three fouls
within the first 14 minutes, and Washburn trailed 48-32 at
halftime. All day, Wesleyan center Marshall Sanders (13 points,
seven rebounds) had his way in the paint, while senior guard Gino
Bartolone (15 points) shot 5 for 8 from three-point range.

Washburn didn't fade, however. The Ichabods rallied in the second
half behind the shooting of senior guard Randolph Williams (19
points), cutting the deficit to 63-60 with 4:44 to go. But then
Duncan (13 points, 11 rebounds) found Bartolone alone for a
three-pointer that ignited a 9-0 run. "When he hit that shot, it
took the air out of us," said Ichabods coach Bob Chipman, whose
team shot only 32.9%. Washburn didn't score again until six
seconds remained.

When asked how his team could have held Washburn to one field
goal for nearly five minutes to end the game, Harper said he
told his players to shut out Washburn. But he didn't expect his
team to take him literally. Harper should have known that when
he has something to say, his players always listen.


Sanders had 13 points as Wesleyan won its second crown under Harper.