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December 24, 2008

Mac the Shooter, the Brain Surgeon and the Coach

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On a stage in front of the whole camp, he was on fire.

During one of Providence College's basketball camps, Ken McDonald was working as a counselor. Friars assistant coach Larry Shyatt asked McDonald to help him in a shooting demonstration.

McDonald, who was playing during the season at the Community College of Rhode Island, had little trouble with the demonstration.

Through Shyatt, Rick Barnes, then the head coach at Providence, became aware of the kid from North Providence, just a few miles from campus.

"I had a luncheon meeting that I had to go to and when I came back, Larry was so excited," Barnes said. "He said, 'We better sign this kid, Ken McDonald. I just put him through a one-hour shooting demonstration. I'm telling you, Coach, he didn't miss a shot.'"

McDonald's shot had garnered a lot of attention at the junior college level, where CCRI made two appearances in the junior college championships. He'd earned first-team all-America honors and set the school scoring record and single-game, season and career three-point shooting records.

McDonald chose Providence over offers from Northeastern and Boston College, but nearly cost the Friars NCAA sanctions. Because of his involvement in the camp, before he was recruited by Providence, he was paid by the university. He would have to repay all that he made as a camp counselor before he could join.

"Come to find out, after they recruit me and sign me, I've got my camp shirt on, when one of the local stations is interviewing me," McDonald said. "Then, they had the self-report, saying they weren't supposed to hire him. My mother had to pay the money back. That was not a fun time. My mom, $300 coming out of the pockets, when you have six kids, had to pay that back. I think Larry Shyatt had to go by the house and pick up the money from my mom. I had already spent the money."

But McDonald was now a part of the program he'd idolized as a kid. In two years at Providence, he wasn't the star, but he was a solid contributor. In 50 games, he hit 66 three-pointers and shot 92 percent from the free throw line.

"I actually was smart enough at a pretty early age to realize I wasn't a great athlete," McDonald said. "I was a pretty good athlete, but I wasn't a great athlete. I didn't have great quickness, so I really felt like I could separate myself by getting my release of my shot quicker. I had a really quick release. I could get it off in no time. That was my thing, with good accuracy. I knew how to play a little bit, I could move without the ball and then, if I did have any daylight at all, I could knock down shots. Coach Barnes saw that as a value to his team."

After his college career, McDonald still had the desire to play, so he took his game overseas, to Ireland. There, he had the unique opportunity to play and coach.

"It equates to probably half the team could play Division II basketball," McDonald said. "We'd have about three players on our team that could be Division I players. Each team that you played was pretty similar to that. Each team, you had an American on the team, so that was kinda the focal point of the team. You had some pretty good ball players, but after the sixth or seventh guy, it really dropped down. You'd have Joe, the meat delivery guy, playing. Those were the guys that were the bruisers."

McDonald was, 'Mac the Brain Surgeon.' Though it wasn't the most talented league the 'Brain Surgeon' learned the skill of coaching while getting two perspectives at the same time. In his first time away from home, he became the leader and top player. He learned how to communicate with the players as a coach.

Barnes kept tabs on his pupil. When Barnes was hired at Clemson, he hired McDonald as a graduate assistant and assistant coach.

"We wanted somebody that knew our program," Barnes said. "We felt like we were rebuilding there and we wanted people that could help us put in place, the infrastructure that we believed in. He knew that and he was still young. He was just coming off being a player and it's been really fun to watch him evolve now and grow, from where he started."

McDonald grew as an assistant coach under Barnes, his mentor. At Clemson, from 1994-98, McDonald helped coach a team that advanced to the 1997 Sweet 16. At the same time, assistant coach Dennis Felton, who also was an assistant coach under Barnes at Providence, was having his name thrown in as possible coach at different vacancies.

In 1998, WKU, who was coming off a 10-19 season and downtrodden three seasons for the once proud program, hired Felton. The new coach immediately pegged McDonald to join his staff.

"When you become a head coach, your staff is the most important decision you make," Felton said. "It has a long-lasting impact. I believe in surrounding myself with really, really good, talented people and people that are full of integrity and have leadership instincts. I wanted a young guy that would really be a bulldog about going out and full of fire and energy and passion and working hard at the chase that's involved in recruiting. That was one of the positions that I wanted to fill with that kind of person and that's what I saw in Ken."

McDonald was no stranger to the Toppers, one of the winningest programs of all time. Clemson played at Diddle Arena during the 1997-98 season and McDonald had been informed by Barnes of the history of WKU.

"We came into the arena to play the night before, to shoot around and coach Barnes was grilling me about how I didn't know all the history we were about to play," McDonald said. "We were playing at Western. I said, 'No, I don't.' He started to go through the whole history on the bus, got off the bus and walked into the arena and I was shocked. On top of it, I was really intrigued by the arena and the facilities. All that stuff really opened my eyes to, hey, there's some other really great programs out there."

Felton and his staff set to work to restore the tradition of the Toppers. McDonald was a big part of that in his recruiting. He helped WKU land the No. 30 ranked recruiting class in 1999. He also helped bring in such names as Chris Marcus, Mike Wells and Anthony Winchester. All three would go on to be conference players of the year and all-Americans at some point in their college careers.

"As an assistant coach, it was different," McDonald said. "Then, when you get to actually work there, you start to realize how much you rally have to sell. You have so much to sell, it's great. You just have to get kids on campus and continue to work it. When we were there, Dennis was incredible, in the sense of we had a vision. That facility was nice, in terms of history and an arena, but all the amenities and all the practice part, all that stuff wasn't even in the planning stage yet."

It was rough during those planning stages. Felton and his staff spent the 2002-03 season in a trailer in the Diddle Arena parking lot, while the arena was being added on to and renovated. The experience created a close bond among the players and coaches.

"It was cold in the winter," Felton said. "The trailer had holes in the floor and all that sort of thing. You brought your space heaters and kept your coat on when you were in there. We already had great camaraderie and very much a family-like feel to our program. It started with our staff. When I think about it now, it's really kinda funny. We were literally on top of each other in that little trailer. Whenever somebody used the bathroom, everybody in the trailer knew it. The bathroom was within two steps of everybody's office door and I kinda find it funny now to think what close confines we were in that little place. I guess it probably wouldn't have worked if we weren't so close and didn't enjoy each other so much."

On the court, the winning was restored. WKU claimed three straight conference titles from 2001-03. When Felton took the job as head coach, he again sought the accompaniment of McDonald.

"There was nothing to consider," Felton said. "Ken had everything to do with us building a dominant program at Western Kentucky. We took over a program that was very much struggling and left it as a program that was literally, collecting championships and dominating the league. When I left Western Kentucky to take on a new challenge here at Georgia, it was natural that I wanted Ken to come with me and help me do it all over again in a very challenging situation at Georgia."

After one season at Georgia, McDonald rejoined his mentor, Barnes at Texas. During McDonald's stint as an assistant, from 2004-08, the Longhorns went 106-35 and twice made the Elite Eight field.

His strong recruiting prowess showed again, as Texas had three players earn all-America honors, in Kevin Durant, D.J. Augustin and Daniel Gibson.

McDonald's stock rose, but there was one spot he had always wanted, the place where in a cramped, run-down trailer, he had seen a program on the rise.

Following a Sweet 16 run this spring, former coach Darrin Horn jumped to South Carolina, leaving a coaching vacancy. There were many rumors of who the replacement would be, Bobby Knight being the biggest. But, in the end, the void was filled by a coach who helped put the program where it is today.

McDonald was hired on this spring, taking on his 'dream job.'

"There is no question, the job that Kenny now has, is the job he's always wanted," Barnes said. "From his time at Western Kentucky, he fell in love with it, obviously has great respect for Gary Ransdell and Wood Selig and it's a dream come true for him."

McDonald had a lot to replace, losing WKU's top three scorers and over 60 percent of last season's scoring. The new head man set to work.

"It's not like we have to change the style that we play or we're used to playing," junior guard A.J. Slaughter said. "We still get up and down. Defense is the same, just get up and pressure people, try to turn them over. It's basically what we played last year, just a different coaching staff and different terminology. I feel like Coach is more patient. Knowing what the team has this year, he's more patient and he's willing to work with guys individually, getting guys, just knowing what guys need to improve on and make the team as a whole, better, just getting everybody to that level."

The level is getting there. On the young season, McDonald's group got off to a slow start but rebounded to pull off one of the biggest wins in school history, over then-No.3 Louisville.

McDonald isn't there yet, but he's steering his program in the right direction.

He had the fire as a player. Now, as a coach, he's again, on fire.

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