Timothy Cash, Sports Editor
Believe it or not, Jacksonville State University was once in the upper echelon of the basketball world. The men that played in Pete Mathews coliseum were constantly in postseason discussions during the 1980s. However, since that time, the men in “The Pete” have fallen on hard times.
This season is different. It is much-needed breath of fresh air for the Gamecocks. New coach Ray Harper has brought a proven track record to “The Pete”, and a new winning mentality that had all but dissipated from the locker room.
The Gamecocks were predicted to finish last in the OVC this season, but their nine OVC wins punched a fourth-seed placement into this year’s OVC tournament; a place the Gamecocks have not been since 2012. After upsetting regular-season champion Belmont and UT Martin, the Gamecocks returned to Jacksonville with a ticket to the NCAA’s big dance, the March Madness that is the Division-I basketball tournament.
Harper has redesigned the men’s basketball program from the ground up.
He wanted to make an atmosphere where the current players would want to stay and get the community to buy in to his mission. To do that he knew that they would have to start winning.
“We really have some kids that have bought in to what we’re doing,” Harper said.
“To get this program to where it needs to be. I want to make sure we do the right things on and off the court, get the guys to graduate and win championships.”
Getting the community back in the stands was a high priority for Harper when he first came to Jax State. He organized events were the fans could shoot around with the team before football games. He set up a basketball goal in front of the main entrance of Burgess-Snow Field so that they could be easily found.
“We just want to make sure we had the opportunity to make sure the community knows we wanted to interact with them and just have a good time,” Harper said. “I think we have some good kids, and we wanted the community to come watch them and see that they work hard.”
Harper said the shoot arounds were successful, and he wants to continue holding them and build off of their success with the community.
Senior basketball players Greg Tucker and Erik Durham are excited by the turn around the Gamecocks have made, and are happy they get to finish their college career on a high note.
“Man, it’s a new atmosphere here,” Durham said. “It’s a completely different school, really. It’s enjoyable now that we’re winning. We’re just all happy.”
Tucker is glad that this year the team is winning close games that they would have lost in past seasons.
“I feel like we’re having a great season,” Tucker said. We’ve turned everything around and everyone has bought in. Last year we were struggling some and losing some close games.
Durham loves the fight and drive that Harper challenges his team with.
“He brings a fight,” Durham said. “Everyday he just wants us to get better, even after a win, we’re right back in here trying to get better. He won’t let us let up at all; he’s pushing us the whole way.”
Tucker, who transferred from Mineral Area College in Missouri, loves the winning feeling that the team is experiencing.
“It’s a fun, winning environment,” Tucker said. “When you get a coach that gives you confidence, you can go out there and play the way that [you like to] play it gets everyone excited, and they all want to come and play as hard as they can.”
Jacksonville State athletic director Greg Seitz noted that every time that there is a change in the coaching staff it could be a difficult transition on the athletes involved.
“Anytime that you have change,” Seitz said. “There is a period of adjustment, not only for the coaching staff, but also for the student-athletes involved.”
After meeting with Harper and hearing him out, both Durham and Tucker were immediately bought in.
“Early on we had a lot of conversations and communicated a lot, Tucker said. “He would tell me what he expected from me and from the team from a leadership standpoint. We went through the ups and downs and just figured it out.”
Durham, who transferred in form Lamar State Junior College in Texas, said he chose to come to JSU for the bigger atmosphere the school offered. He also noted the higher attendance the “The Pete” has had this season.
“It’s really exciting [to see fans in Pete Mathews],” Durham said. “They have been really packing it out. Last year we didn’t get too many [fans], but this is a really good way to go out.”
Tucker knows that the successes the Gamecocks are now experiencing is only half of the battle to reach the goals Harper has set out for them. He also knows that if his teammates keep playing with the same intensity they have played with all season, they will make a run at a championship.
“We’re not finished yet; we have bigger goals,” Tucker said.
Seitz said that he has truly been pleased with the way the team has accepted Harper.
“I can tell you that we have some great student-athletes here at Jacksonville State,” Seitz said. “I was so impressed with how our basketball players embraced Coach Harper from the first time he met with the team, and really bought into the program.”
Durham admitted that before he met Harper he had thought of transferring to a different program. When he heard JSU was going to hire Harper, he looked up all of his accomplishments and success, and decided Harper was a coach he could buy into.
“I did not know what I wanted to do,” Durham said. “I didn’t know if I wanted to stay here, or go play somewhere else. When I heard that they were bringing in coach Harper, I was like okay. I read about him, and I was ready to play for him right away and get to know him.”
Durham is glad that he stayed. It is the best season that he has had as a Gamecock.
“I’d say this coaching staff has turned this program around and really made it better. We’re getting fans now. This is my senior year, and this is my best year here [at JSU].”
When Jacksonville State set out to look for a new head coach, the athletic department was ecstatic to find Harper was one of the more than 180 applicants to apply for the head coaching position.
“I was very excited that Coach Harper had interest in becoming the next coach at Jacksonville State University,” Seitz said. “He has been successful everywhere he has coached.”
During the interview process, Seitz made sure that whomever he hired would represent Jacksonville State in a positive light.
“I wanted to make sure to hire the best person possible to lead the Gamecock basketball program,” Seitz said. This is really a very special place and we have such a storied history and tradition with our Athletic programs, and especially with our men’s basketball program.”
The athletic director consulted with several different people he trusted to help him narrow down the results. He also knew that the students deserved a good basketball team that would mimic the golden age of Gamecock basketball.
“I just wanted to find the right person to get our basketball program,” Seitz said. “[Get] back on track with the success that Coach Bill Jones and Coach Tom Roberson was able to establish with all of those great teams over the last 40 years.”
Harper aced the interview process. After Harper made the finial cut, Seitz handed him over to President John Beehler and members of the Board of Trusties. They gave Seitz the final approval to hire Harper.
“Coach Harper was very impressive in the interview process,” Seitz said. “I thought he was the perfect fit for Jacksonville State University.”
In the 1980s and early-90s, Jacksonville State was perennial powerhouse in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division-II, making the postseason tournament eight times in 12 years, reaching the Final Four twice and being crowned the national champions in 1985.
What happened? Generations of students have passed through the halls of the college in the foothills in the 32 years since Jax State was king of the basketball world.
Jacksonville State made the decision to jump to Division-I in 1993, and coach Jones left after the 1997-98 season after achieving a winning record of 73 wins and only 57 losses while in Division-I. Before this season, there have been three coaches hired to bring back success to “The Pete”. All three were fired with losing records, and only managed three winning seasons out of 18.
Before coming to Jacksonville State, Harper led two schools to eight national championship title games as head coach, winning four of them.
After serving on the coaching staff on the coaching staff at Kentucky Wesleyan for nine years, his Alma Mater offered him his first head coaching job in 1996. He led the Panthers to five national championship appearances, winning it all in 1999 and 2001.
During his tenure at Kentucky Wesleyan, Harper was given several opportunities to coach in Division-I, but decided to stay with the Panthers. By 2005 he had enough, and made the decision to move. Kentucky Wesleyan was going through changes, and he felt the school no longer cared about their men’s basketball program.
“[There was a] new president and a new sets of goals,” Harper said. “I felt like there was no emphasis on men’s basketball. I played there, but I didn’t want to be a part of it.”
He was offered a job at Oklahoma City University. He was hesitant to go to OCU, but he knew familiar faces there. Abe Lemons, the coach who recruited Harper at Texas, had spent two different stints as the head coach of the Stars.
“I actually turned down the Oklahoma City job three days before they called me back,” Harper said. “The arena is named after [Lemons] and his wife still lived there. After speaking with her and the college president I knew it was a place I would have an interest in. It was three great years.”
In his three years as head coach of Oklahoma City University, Harper led his team to three straight National Association of Intercollegiate Athletic Division-I title games, winning back-to-back national championships in 2007 and 2008.
After the 2008 season, Harper decided it was time to move back closer to home in Kentucky.
“I had the opportunity to take another Division-I head coaching job or go back as an assistant at Western Kentucky,” Harper said. “At the time I just felt like I wanted to go back closer to home.”
In his final season with OCU, Western Kentucky made an appearance in the NCAA’s basketball tournament, managing to get to the Sweet 16. Harper believed the Hill Toppers had a chance to continue making the NCAA tournament.
“I felt like we had a chance,” Harper said. “We were going to try and keep the thing rolling. I spent some good years there.”
Harper was promoted to head coach of Western Kentucky in 2011. In his five seasons leading the Hill Toppers, Harper never had a losing season. He compiled a record of 89 wins and 64 loses.
Harper began his coaching in 1986 as a graduate assistant at Virginia Commonwealth University. While at VCU, Harper was given all of the jobs the other coaches did not want to handle.
“I was they guy that did all of the dirty work and little stuff,” Harper said.”
All of the small and odd jobs paid off for Harper, as Kentucky Wesleyan offered him a full time assistant coaching position in 1987.
Before he decided to take the graduate assistants job at VCU, he had to make the decision that if he wanted to go into coaching or play basketball professionally in Europe. Once he sat down and thought on the decision, the answer was easy.
“I was offered a job at VCU,” Harper said. “It was either that or go play overseas. I wasn’t an international kind of guy.”
The son of a coach, Harper grew up in a world filled with sports. He credits that with developing his winning mentality.
“[It is] all I’ve done since I was two years old,” Harper said. “We spent a lot of time in the gym. He said ‘If you want to be a player you’ve got to put in the work’. We’d practice from 8-5, go grab a bite to eat, and head back [to the gym] until 10. Sometimes we’d wake up and get there at 6 before school.”
All of those late nights and early mornings played off, helping Harper have a very successful playing career. In high school he was named to the first-team all state while playing at Bremen High School in Kentucky. He was also named district player of the year twice.
“I had some good teammates, Harper said. “We were one game away from the state tournament my junior year. [Bremen] had never been to the state tournament, but we were defeated by the eventual state champion.”
All of that success helped harper sign a scholarship at the University of Texas. In his sophomore season, Harper helped the Longhorns start off to a great season with their sights set on a national championship. However, injuries plagued Texas down the stretch.
“[We] were 14-0 and ranked fifth in the county,” Harper said. “And then [finished] 16-11, and lost six games by 2 points or less in overtime. They made a coaching change and seven of us ended up leaving. It took a while for Texas basketball to recover.”
During his junior year at Texas, Harper said he went home to Kentucky and decided he did not want to return to Austin. He looked into schools around western Kentucky and decided to call up Division-II’s Kentucky Wesleyan and ask for a scholarship. While With the Panthers, Harper made back-to-back appearances in the Final Four.
Harper’s college playing career at Kentucky Wesleyan ended in the 1985 national semifinals with a loss to none other than eventual National Champion Jacksonville State University.
In that game, Harper got a glimpse at the pinnacle of JSU basketball up close, and now, as the program’s coach, he is tasked with restoring it to its former glory.
With a 12-win improvement, an OVC title and an NCAA Tournament berth in year one, Ray Harper seems on track to accomplish just that.