And One: Paul Sanderford, wandering legend of coaching

Paul Sanderford (photo courtesy of WKU Athletics)
Paul Sanderford (photo courtesy of WKU Athletics) /

The Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame coach left a legacy everywhere he went.

“There’s a lot of talent to work with, and I plan on giving the fans a product they can be proud of.”

Back in June 1982, that’s what up-and-coming coach Paul Sanderford told the press upon being named head coach of the women’s basketball team at Western Kentucky University. I hate to spoil the ending, but he absolutely followed through.

Go back about 15 years. Out of high school in Zebulon, North Carolina, Paul “Buster” Sanderford took his athletic talent a half-hour up the road to Louisburg College, where he lettered in basketball and baseball. He was an All-American in 1970 when he earned his Associate’s degree and transferred to Methodist University in Fayetteville, North Carolina.

There he continued playing baseball at a high level, earning All-Dixie Intercollegiate Athletic Conference honors in baseball twice, and he was named an honorable mention All-American his senior year.

More from History

After graduating, Sanderford spent a couple years at Methodist as assistant coach for the men’s basketball and baseball teams before landing his first head coaching gig for the women’s basketball team back at Louisburg College.

It didn’t take long for him to show off his coaching prowess. In six years at Louisburg, he compiled a 163-19 record, including the NJCAA Championship in 1981 and honors as Outstanding Coach at that year’s tournament. The following year, he wrapped up his time in North Carolina with a 33-2 season record and a rematch in the title game, falling this time to Moberly Area Community College.

He went out on four consecutive Region X Coach of the Year honors and as winner of the Wade Trophy for Junior College Coach of the Year.

That success earned Sanderford his first Division I coaching job, now back in the summer of 1982 at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

Still in its first decade of modern women’s basketball, the Lady Toppers were inconsistent at best throughout the 1970s. Their third head coach in four years got them to the AIAW Tournament in 1977, but through the late ’70s and early ’80s, they went on a downward slide, leading to the coaching change.

Sanderford came in a confident young coach with the accolades to back that up. Advertising pressure defense and fast-paced offense, from the beginning he had the fans in mind, telling the Messenger-Inquirer at the time, “We’re going to play a lot of pressure defense and we’re going to use a lot of people and hopefully we’re going to entertain the fans.”

Despite their lack of success, the Lady Toppers had the talent to win. 1981 Kentucky Miss Basketball Lillie Mason earned second-team All-America honors her freshman year, junior Diane Depp led the team in rebounding and had All-American potential as an upperclassman, and Gina Brown was coming off a conference All-Freshman team selection.

Paul Sanderford (photo courtesy of WKU Athletics)
Paul Sanderford (photo courtesy of WKU Athletics) /

It took no time for Sanderford to turn the program around. In his first year, the Lady Toppers finished the season 20-6, second only to Marianne Stanley’s Old Dominion team, led by a young Anne Donovan. They made a run through the Sun Belt Tournament, falling to the unstoppable Lady Monarchs.

The 22-7 finish still earned Sanderford his first honor as Sun Belt Coach of the Year, and the Lady Toppers could look forward to the coming season, when they would add 1983 Kentucky Miss Basketball Clemette Haskins to the roster.

Unfortunately, before the 1983-1984 season started, their All-American candidate Lillie Mason went down with an injury, putting an early damper on what was a promising outlook for the season.

Despite the loss, Sanderford led the team to a similar 21-11 finish, falling again to Old Dominion in the conference tournament, but this time earning a bid in the National Women’s Invitational Tournament (what would become the WNIT). The Lady Toppers won their first game in the tournament before losing two in a row to end their season.

The following year was huge for Sanderford and crew. With everyone back healthy, the Lady Toppers again rolled through the regular season to a 23-4 finish. Once again they could not get through Old Dominion in the conference tournament, but they earned their first at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, a No. 4 seed with the privilege of hosting the Mideast Regional.

Before a biased home crowd, they took down Middle Tennessee State to earn the right to face off against No. 1 Texas and coach Jody Conradt.

With 4,900 fans in E.A. Diddle Arena, they took down the Longhorns in a tight 92-90 finish. In the next round, a crowd of 6,500 watched the Lady Toppers take down Van Chancellor and No. 2 Ole Miss 72-68, at which point Georgia head coach Andy Landers dubbed Paul “Cinderella Sanderford.”

The Bulldogs had made the trip to Diddle Arena earlier in the season, falling to Sanderford 72-67 in overtime, but this time the Lady Toppers were on a neutral floor in Austin. (However, I’m sure there were more than a few Longhorn faithful rooting for Western Kentucky to lose to avenge their team’s earlier loss.)

The Final Four matchup was a high-scoring affair, with Georgia ultimately coming out on top 91-78, and as Sanderford’s luck would have it, once again he would watch Old Dominion take home a championship trophy he was so close to securing.

“I’ve created a monster. People around here have a lot more expectations.”

Coming off their first Final Four appearance, Sanderford led Western Kentucky on another successful run, during which he acknowledged to The Courier-Journal the somewhat monstrous situation he had created for the school.

In the mid-1980s, the Lady Toppers became the state’s premiere Division I women’s basketball program, consistently bringing in the state’s top recruits. By the 1985-1986 season, 10 of the team’s 14 players were from the Bluegrass State, including three former Kentucky Miss Basketball winners: Mason, Haskins, and 1985 winner Bridgette Combs.

The monster was the mounting pressure. With an AP No. 4 ranking and top-10 average attendance in the nation — just over 3,000 fans were packing Diddle Arena, compared to hundreds in the ’70s — Sanderford realized that anything less than a repeat appearance in the Final Four would be a disappointment.

All the Lady Toppers did was dominate, losing just three regular season games (including one to Landers’ Bulldogs). On the way to a Sun Belt regular season championship, they beat Old Dominion in front of a record home crowd of 12,951, and they finally overcame the Lady Monarchs in the postseason to win their first conference tournament championship.

Paul Sanderford (photo courtesy of WKU Athletics)
Paul Sanderford (photo courtesy of WKU Athletics) /

That season, Sanderford was once again the Sun Belt Coach of the Year, and his star forward Lillie Mason was named Western Kentucky’s first Kodak All-American.

She ultimately led the team back to the Final Four as a four seed. In a rematch against the one seed Longhorns, Conradt got her revenge in the way of a 90-65 win, and Texas would finish their undefeated season with a national championship.

The Lady Toppers graduated five seniors that year, including their All-American, and though they brought in a lot of talent, Sanderford acknowledged before the 1986-1987 season there was plenty of work to be done. Forever the wordsmith, he told the press at the time, “We’ve got 10 players who have the potential to be starters. I’m more interested in who the finishers are going to be.”

In a “down” year for Western Kentucky, the team finished 24-9, third in the Sun Belt, and an early exit from the NCAA Tournament at the hands of USC.

The Lady Toppers maintained success for the next several years, winning at least 20 games and the Sun Belt Tournament championship in the following two years. The 1989-1990 season saw them drop to a 17-12 finish, but they got back to the NCAA Tournament again.

In 1991, Sanderford won Sun Belt Coach of the Year and led Western Kentucky back to the Sweet Sixteen before dropping to the eventual champion Lady Volunteers of Tennessee.

The 1991-1992 season saw Sanderford’s last deep run in the NCAA Tournament. After a 20-7 finish, Sun Belt regular season and conference championships, they entered the tournament as a four seed once again.

Just up the road in West Lafayette, Indiana, they made an impressive run: 98-68 over five seed Alabama, 75-70 over one seed Tennessee, and 75-70 again over two seed Maryland to get back to the Final Four.

In Los Angeles, they matched up against Southwest Missouri State, who were playing the role of Cinderella as the eight seed out of the Midwest Regional. After an 84-72 win, Sanderford and Western Kentucky made it to their first national championship game.

Unfortunately, they met the juggernaut Stanford program, coached by Tara VanDerveer. Led by Val Whiting and Most Outstanding Player Molly Goodenbour, the Cardinal took down the Lady Toppers 78-62 to end Sanderford’s tournament run.

Western Kentucky continued its run of success over the next five years but could not reach the pinnacle. Sweet Sixteen appearances in 1993 and 1995 followed Sun Belt Tournament championships, and they won the conference regular season in 1993 and 1997. From 1985 to 1997, the Lady Toppers made it to the NCAA Tournament every year but 1996, when they lost in the second round of the WNIT.

In 1997, Sanderford announced his move to coach at Nebraska after 15 seasons in Bowling Green. In that time, he compiled a 365-120 record, 13 20-win seasons, five Sun Belt regular season championships, seven conference tournament championships, and 12 NCAA Tournament appearances including three Final Fours.

That summer, Sanderford was ready for a change of scenery, and the resources of a Big 12 school like Nebraska called out to him. He had been vocal about feeling like he should be paid at the level of the men’s program at Western Kentucky, given his success, and though there was contention over his hiring and contract, he ultimately agreed to take over the Cornhuskers program.

“I’ve never had a good team without a good floor leader.”

Fortunately, Sanderford, who spoke to the Lincoln Journal Star about his need for a player-coach on the floor, took over a team with incredible talent at the guard position. The Cornhuskers were led by Anna DeForge, who would eventually go on to a successful pro career in the ABL, WNBA, and overseas. Sanderford also inherited Amy Gusso, who Nebraska fans now know as head coach Amy Williams.

Just like at Western Kentucky, Coach took no time finding success. In his first year, he led Nebraska to a 23-10 record and an NCAA Tournament appearance. In an unkind twist of fate, Sanderford met his old rival Old Dominion in the Second Round, once again ending his season to the Lady Monarchs.

Over the next few years, he continued the run, finishing in the NCAA Tournament two more times. By the 1999-2000 season, he managed to up attendance to 5,000 fans on average, a program record and a top 25 mark in the NCAA.

The last two seasons were the first losing campaigns of his career, finishing 12-18 in 2000-2001 and 14-16 in 2001-2002.

“I can do just fine out of the spotlight.”

That’s what he told The Courier-Journal late in 2002, after undergoing a successful angioplasty amid concerns from his doctors. Earlier that year, he announced his intention to step away from coaching, citing the downturn and his health. He finished at Nebraska with a 88-69 record.

Though he may be out of the spotlight, his career deserves recognition today. In just over 20 years, he put together a 453-189 record. Including his time at the junior college level, he won 616 games, or about 24 wins per season with a 0.748 winning percentage.

Having returned to Bowling Green, he served as an assistant with the Western Kentucky men’s basketball team from 2003 to 2007. In 2008, he was inducted into the WKU Athletic Hall of Fame, and he had a jersey retired in his honor at E.A. Diddle Arena in 2010.

He has made a successful career in real estate in the years since and has also brought his knowledge to broadcasting, serving as an analyst for several Western Kentucky broadcasts in the years since he stepped away from coaching.

Sanderford’s impact on coaching today is undeniable.

Michelle Clark-Heard, now head coach at Cincinnati, played for Sanderford from 1987 to 1990 and was an assistant at Nebraska during his tenure there. She brought success back to Western Kentucky as head coach there from 2012 to 2018, leaving Bowling Green with 154 wins and just 47 losses.

Though Western Kentucky isn’t the state’s best women’s basketball team anymore, national contender Louisville perhaps owes a debt to Sanderford. Jeff Walz, head coach for the Cardinals, was an assistant at Western Kentucky in Sanderford’s last year and followed him to Nebraska for much of his tenure there.

Lastly, the aforementioned Amy Williams played for Sanderford in his first couple of years in Lincoln, and she moved on to the coaching ranks, ultimately returning to her alma mater in 2016 and winning Big Ten Coach of the Year in 2018.

The legacy is undeniable. The wins and tournament appearances will forever sit beside his name, but just as important is his continued impact on the game. He upped excitement for women’s basketball in the state of Kentucky and across the country and instilled that spirit in the current generation of head coaches.

In his postgame presser following the Louisville-Notre Dame matchup earlier this season, Walz spoke of Sanderford’s ability to promote the game and fill the seats, even “back when it was hard to get a packed, sold-out crowd.”

So, when the finalists for the 2019 Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame were announced, it was no surprise to see Sanderford’s name on the list. Though he never brought home the national championship he yearned for, his résumé as a competitor and his influence on the game are worthy of a spot in Knoxville with so many of the greats he built the game alongside.