Mansfield: If I’m WKU, I’m hiring Phil Cunningham as basketball coach

Phil Cunningham is one of the best assistant coaches in all of college basketball. He’s spent most of his adult life playing a significant role for a number of successful programs. A Campbellsville, Kentucky native, Cunningham has spent time at Georgia State, Mississippi State, Troy and Western Kentucky, among other schools. He’s won everywhere he’s been and impacted the lives of many student-athletes along the way.

I first met Coach Cunningham in 2012 when he worked as an assistant coach under former WKU head coach Ray Harper. While I was only 13 years old at the time, I was still impressed by Coach Cunningham. I was actually having a basketball lesson with former Hilltopper player Ty Rogers in the auxiliary gym inside E.A. Diddle Arena when Coach Cunningham walked in. He came up to me and introduced himself, and we started talking basketball. It was a near 30-minute conversation. The main thing that stood out to me from that conversation was the fact that Coach Cunningham made it clear that WKU was where he wanted to be. He truly loved being on The Hill – and that still holds true today.

Photo Credit: WKU Athletics

Cunningham spent the 2012-13 season in Bowling Green before being hired as Troy’s head coach – and he held that role from 2013-2019 before returning to WKU to reunite with Rick Stansbury. Following a 12-year stint at Mississippi State, Cunningham was overdue for a head coaching opportunity. When he took over Troy’s program, he immediately went to work and turned the Trojans around.

In Coach Cunningham’s six seasons at Troy, he accomplished feats that had never been recorded in the program’s history. Entering the 2018-19 campaign, Cunningham’s teams had won the fourth-most Sun Belt Conference games over the prior two seasons with 24 – only four games behind Georgia State and Louisiana. The overall record (80-111) in six seasons might not be very attractive, but Coach Cunningham truly turned the Troy program around. His 2016-17 campaign – which included 22 wins, a Sun Belt Conference championship and trip to the NCAA Tournament – was one of the Trojans’ best seasons in school history. Coach Cunningham did that.

On the academics side of things, all 16 of Cunningham’s student-athletes who played as seniors earned their degrees from Troy – and in two of three years the Trojans earned the Sun Belt Conference’s Team Academic Award. He also had 14 players on the Sun Belt Conference’s Commissioner’s List – which includes a yearly GPA of 3.5-4.0 – during his tenure. Coach Cunningham truly values student-athletes’ educations, and that means a lot.

Following the NCAA Tournament season in 2016-17 and a top-five finish in the Sun Belt Conference in 2017-18, Coach Cunningham was dealt with a tough campaign in 2018-19. Troy’s best player – Jordan Varnado, who was the clear-cut favorite to be named the Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year – had to miss 10 conference games, which impacted the Trojans’ success. Additionally, Troy made a change at the athletic director position, and Coach Cunningham was treated wrong as the school let him go — despite everything the program had accomplished under his direction.

When Coach Cunningham was hired at Troy, he was tasked with doing a complete rebuild of the Trojans’ program – there’s no question about it. They certainly turned the corner in 2016-17 and were trending in the right direction. Troy made a terrible decision in letting Coach Cunningham go when he still had two years remaining on his contract. He worked so hard while leading the Trojans, and he should’ve been treated much, much better. But, despite everything, Coach Cunningham took the high road when he was let go and had this to say about his time at Troy: “I will greatly miss all of the wonderful players and others I got to know at this outstanding university and within the Troy community.” That’s pure class from one of more respected people in the business.

Being from Campbellsville and later playing at both Kentucky Wesleyan and then Campbellsville, Coach Cunningham is a true Kentuckian who values basketball in the Bluegrass State. When it comes to his coaching style, he is a true Xs-and-Os genius and makes phenomenal in-game adjustments. The way he directs practices is different from most coaches – his players are always dialed in and there’s a ton of energy in the gym. Cunningham’s players truly look up to him and enjoy playing for him, and he gets the very best out of them. Additionally, Coach Cunningham is a fierce recruiter and is great at building relationships with prospects – and landing commitments from them. If he were to be hired as the head coach at WKU, he’d be able to bring many top-tier players to The Hill – including many of the state’s best. He’d win a lot of games and have much success, too.

After spending the 2012-13 as an assistant coach and the 2019-23 campaigns as the associate head coach at WKU, Cunningham has made it clear that he’s loyal to the Hilltoppers’ program. Now 56 years old, Western Kentucky University is where Coach Cunningham wants to be for the foreseeable future. To put the icing on the cake, here’s something I’ve gathered: When Coach Stansbury was dealt with his health scare and had to miss a number of games and Coach Cunningham stepped in, he put together a deep, detailed plan for the Hilltoppers if he were to later become the head coach. One source told me that he and his staff would stay up late into the night to discuss the future of the program and plan out what they wanted to change and accomplish. I mean, who does that? I’ll tell you who: Someone who truly wants to lead a program – and has a clear vision. That’s what Coach Cunningham wants to do at WKU.

Looking at Western Kentucky’s program, it is not in a place where there needs to be a complete overhaul. Many fans won’t be able to understand that, but those who have been around the program for years understand what I’m saying here. It’s been about 20 years since former head coach Dennis Felton left for Georgia. Since then, basically every single Hilltopper coach has been fired or “parted ways” with. That even includes Darrin Horn, who was going to be let go before even taking the South Carolina job. At the mid-major college basketball level, great programs keep their head coaches for 10-15 years, if not longer. They don’t hire nearly five in a 20-year span. That doesn’t lead to success – by any means.

WKU fans need to realize one thing: Continuity and stability are the only ways for the Hilltoppers’ program to grow into what everyone wants it to be. It’s as simple as that. With that said, WKU doesn’t need some outsider taking over the program. Instead, Phil Cunningham needs to be promoted to head coach and lead the program into the future.

If hired, Coach Cunningham would have a top-notch coaching staff, retain the players who truly want to wear the “Western Kentucky” across their chests, land some big names from the NCAA Transfer Portal, recruit the state of Kentucky at a high level and lead the Hilltoppers to a number of wins, championships and NCAA Tournaments.

I know it without a doubt. I hope WKU – the school I truly cherish – does the right thing.

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