Western Kentucky basketball fans hated it when he left, but they understood.
Well, he’ll be back Saturday.
Dennis Felton, Hilltopper coach from 1998-2003, will make an appearance at Saturday’s game against Arkansas State as part of WKU’s celebration of 50 seasons at E.A. Diddle Arena.
Though he’s been gone a decade, Felton has stayed connected with the program he led to three consecutive Sun Belt Conference Tournament championships and NCAA bids. He counts current coach Ray Harper as a close friend, and assistant coach David Boyden played for WKU in four of Felton’s five seasons. Felton’s oldest son, Jazz, now 18, participated at least once in a Diddle Arena promotion, in which he had to gather pizza boxes scattered across the court and stack them taller than his height. Jazz will be a student at WKU in the fall and work with the basketball team.
Felton’s predecessor at WKU, Matt Kilcullen, won 27 games and the Sun Belt Tournament championship in his first season. Kilcullen never won more than half that many games in his next three years on the Hill.
“We came in there, and the program was probably in as big a hole as it had ever been,” said Felton, now director of pro player personnel for the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs. “A few years later, we were collecting championships.”
That’s the short version.
True, in each of Felton’s last three years with Western Kentucky before taking the head coaching job at Georgia, the Hilltoppers won the conference’s East Division in the regular season, the Sun Belt Tournament and advanced to the NCAA tournament. But there were other highlights along the way.
Felton says he has a “very poor memory.”
Yeah? Try asking him about some of his landmark wins at the helm of the Hilltoppers. See how well he remembers winning his last Sun Belt Tournament, and in Diddle Arena, no less. He describes it like it was last week.
In the 2000-01 season, the Hilltoppers beat Louisville 68-65 in Freedom Hall.
“We didn’t play well in the first half,” Felton said. “We were frustrated. We felt like we were squandering an opportunity by not showing up.
“That win kind of really got the run going.”
They opened the next season with a win at then-No. 4 Kentucky, 64-52.
“All summer, we referred to that game as America’s wake-up call to the Hilltoppers,” Felton said. “We went in there expecting to win, and we knew that it would be a momentous win.
“When we were able to win that game, all of a sudden, we went from kind of being on the map regionally to being on the map nationally.”
Of course, there were lows and it took time.
Felton’s first recruit Derek Robinson, now an assistant boys’ basketball coach at Bourbon County High School, had to be convinced to come to Bowling Green as he was being pursued by schools including Mississippi State and the University of Miami.
“They were recruiting me, but they weren’t as persistent as coach Felton was,” Robinson said. “He was always coming to the school, figuring out what I need grade-wise to advance, and he just kept in touch with me every day.”
Robinson was already reluctant because of WKU’s recent history at the time, and it took awhile to get better. The Hilltoppers were 24-34 in his first two years.
“When you start that hard streak and you end up playing and you’re learning every day in practice, it’s tough practicing and you’re still getting beat and you’re still losing games,” he said, “but at the same time, you’re trying to buy into the system and work hard.
“Eventually after my second year, we started getting better,” he said. “We started winning games. Guys started buying into the system. It was more so of a learning process of what you have to do to be on a national level to compete in your conference tournament and the NCAA tournament, so it was a big change from my two years there.”
Robinson plans to be back in Diddle Arena on Saturday. Nate Williams is also expected to be on hand at the site where they won their last conference tournament championship under Felton.
“My last memory, and it’s a really lasting one, was looking at that wall of students behind the basket furthest from our bench,” he said. “I mean it was just a massive wall of students. When we went to that basket to cut down the nets, that was really something special, because I remembered at that moment what it was like when we got there five years before, and we were lucky if we had 1,000 fans in the stands at the beginning. To see that place literally packed to the rafters and going berserk for another championship – that’s one of my biggest lasting memories from WKU.”
And that was the end.
After that season, Felton took the head coaching job at Georgia, where he went 75-80 in five full seasons, including winning the Southeastern Conference tournament championship in 2008 in bizarre fashion after a tornado hit the Georgia Dome during play. The Bulldogs’ quarterfinal game against Kentucky was rescheduled from March 14 to the morning of March 15. After an overtime win over the Wildcats, Georgia beat Mississippi State that evening and Arkansas the next day for the title before losing to Xavier in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
The next season, Georgia fired Felton before the end of the season with the Bulldogs’ record 9-11 and 0-5 in the Southeastern Conference.
But he has no regrets, he said. Not about coming to WKU, living in Bowling Green, leaving for Georgia or the job he did there.
The lowest moments, Felton recalls, happened after he left – the deaths of former players Danny Rumph, of cardiac arrest after a pickup game at home in Philadelphia, and Nathan Eisert, by suicide on WKU’s campus.
“I was gone, but losing Danny and losing Nathan, those were really, really sad events that are just part of life,” he said. “But as far as basketball and coaching experience and living in Bowling Green, it was all a blast.”
Felton doesn’t know if he’ll coach again. “You never say never,” he said. “I’m enjoying what I’m doing.”
But he is certain that Harper is the right leader to get the Hilltoppers back to regularly contending for conference championships and more. They met while Harper was at Kentucky Wesleyan and Felton was at WKU, and worked together as assistants with the United States 19-and-under team at the World Championships in Greece.
“I’m extremely confident in what he’s doing and getting things turned around and putting Western Kentucky back on top,” Felton said. “His players take a loving to him, and he’s just a passionate leader. He’s just the best.”
This weekend, Felton’s not coaching, though. He’ll be another one of the fans visiting some old friends.
“One of the reasons why I was so excited about coming to Western Kentucky was because I was well aware of the tradition, not only the tradition of winning, but the tradition of support, how big a deal Western Kentucky basketball was in Bowling Green.”
— Malcolm C. Knox is sports editor at the Daily News. He can be reached at 783-3271 or firstname.lastname@example.org.