Western Kentucky Coaching Legend Steps Down

By: Brian Freemund
By: Brian Freemund

Western Kentucky University men’s basketball head coach Darrin Horn announced Tuesday that assistant coach Paul Sanderford has announced his retirement. Neill Berry, who has served as an intern on Horn’s staff the last two seasons, has been promoted to a full-time assistant role.

“We are grateful for the time coach Sanderford spent with Hilltopper Basketball, and the contributions he made to the program the last four years,” said Horn. “You can’t underestimate the impact he has had on WKU Athletics, beginning with his ability to build the Lady Toppers into a nationally respected women’s basketball program.”

Sanderford returned to coaching in 2003 when he volunteered to fill in on Horn’s shorthanded staff days before the start of preseason practice, spending the last three years as a full-time assistant. He helped the Hilltoppers record three 20-win campaigns, advance to the National Invitation Tournament twice and play for the Sun Belt Conference Tournament championship in 2006 since joining the staff.

However, it was with the Lady Topper basketball program that Sanderford initially made his mark on the Hill. In 15 seasons as WKU’s women’s head coach, he recorded a 365-120 (75.3%) mark while leading the Lady Toppers to a runner-up finish in the 1992 NCAA Tournament in addition to reaching the Final Four in 1985 and ’86. Sanderford helped guide WKU to 14 postseason appearances, including 12 berths in the NCAA Tournament, as well as five Sun Belt Conference regular-season championships and seven SBC Tournament titles.

In fact, the Lady Toppers won 20 or more games on 13 occasions during his tenure, collecting a school-record 32 victories during the 1985-86 season.

Sanderford led WKU to 22 wins in his first season on the Division I level, then took the Lady Toppers to the postseason for the first time in school history one year later when his 21-11 squad was invited to the NWIT. In his third season at the helm of the program, WKU went 28-6 while advancing to the NCAA Final Four in the school’s first-ever appearance in the national tournament. A school-record 32 wins and second trip to the Final Four followed in year four, with Sanderford leading WKU to the Sweet 16 on four more occasions including a berth in the 1992 national championship game.

He is also the second-winningest coach at Nebraska, where he posted an 88-69 (56.1%) mark from 1997-02. Sanderford led the Cornhuskers to a 23-10 record and the second round of the NCAA Tournament in his first year in Lincoln, tying the school record for wins. He added another 20-win season and two more NCAA appearances, becoming the first NU coach to take the team to consecutive NCAA Tournaments.

Sanderford still ranks in the top 35 in NCAA Division I women’s basketball history in both all-time victories (453) and all-time winning percentage (70.6%).

Prior to coming to the Hill, Sanderford spent six seasons as the head coach at Louisburg (N.C.) College. He led the Hurricanes to a 163-19 (89.6%) record, including the 1981 National Junior College Athletic Association national championship.

He was named the NJCAA National Coach of the Year in 1982, and was inducted into the NJCAA Hall of Fame in 2000.

“I really enjoyed my four years working with coach Horn and the program, and especially enjoyed being around the kids,” Sanderford said. “I feel like Neal is definitely ready for this promotion, he’s an up-and-coming star in the business — I would have made the same decision to hire him.”

“Neill is a bright young talent who in the last two years has demonstrated an ability to develop great relationships with players, and he brings an energy and a winning attitude that you can trace back to his high school and collegiate careers,” Horn added. “The skills that he brings to the table will also make him an outstanding recruiter and a real asset to the program.”

Since entering the coaching profession as in intern in 2005, Berry has been part of a staff that has seen the Hilltoppers post a 45-19 (70.3%) mark over the last two seasons, which includes a 24-8 (75%) record in Sun Belt action. His efforts helped WKU win the 2006 SBC East Division title outright for the first time in three seasons while reaching the league tournament title contest en route to a berth in the NIT.

Berry, a 2003 graduate of Southeast Louisiana, is no stranger to success on the court. A four-year letterwinner, he started all 30 contests he appeared in as a senior to help SLU advance to the NCAA Tournament after going 24-9, including a 13-3 record in the SLC. The Lions shared the league crown in the regular season for the second straight year, defeating co-champion Northwestern (La.) State for the conference tournament championship. He averaged 2.6 points per game while recording 68 assists and 20 steals.

Berry helped the Lions to a 20-9 finish as SLU shared the Southland Conference regular-season championship with an 11-5 mark his junior year, averaging 2.6 points per game while shooting 54.3 percent from the field. He sat out the 2002-03 season as a redshirt in order to increase his playing time over his last two years after seeing action as a reserves in 45 contests as a freshman and sophomore.

A native of Brandon, Miss., Berry has extensive experience working summer camps — where his responsibilities included individual instruction, teaching groups and coaching teams — at WKU, Southeastern Louisiana, Louisiana State, South Carolina and Lipscomb.

Last winter, the Toppers finished 22-11 overall while playing the 58th-toughest non-conference schedule in the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI). WKU will return its top five leading scorers from a year ago, when it was one of three teams in the Sun Belt to earn a first-round bye in the league tournament after posting a 12-6 mark in conference action.

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