Western Carolina Athletic Director Chip Smith announced at a press conference at the Ramsey Center on Friday, May 15 that Karen Middleton, who has served the past two seasons as an assistant coach at Illinois, will be the 10th Head Coach of the Western Carolina Women’s basketball program.
Middleton replaces Kellie Harper, who stepped down in April to become the new Women’s Basketball Coach at N.C. State. Harper coached the Lady Catamounts for five seasons, posting a 97-65 record and guiding WCU to two Southern Conference Championships and NCAA Tournament berths.
“The search for the position of Head Women’s Basketball Coach at Western Carolina University went very smoothly,” Smith said. “We had a large number of very qualified applicants, which says a great deal about the program and the coaches who have helped shape it.”
“From this group of very qualified candidates, Karen Middleton possesses all of the qualities we were seeking in a head coach,” Smith continued. “She had a very successful career as a student-athlete at the University of South Carolina. While at Stanford, she was an integral member of a coaching staff that won eight PAC-10 Conference Championships and made several appearances in the NCAA Tournament, including four times as an Elite Eight team. Her background in recruiting for both Stanford and the University of Illinois is exceptional.”
“Western Carolina is a great fit for me,” Middleton said. “I feel very confident the experiences I have had to compete for championships at the highest level have prepared me to take on this position.”
Middleton, who met with her new players at Western Carolina last week in Cullowhee, said she has strong feelings about them.
“I am very excited about the team’s attitude,” Middleton said. “They play so hard and it is a full team effort and about their support and what the coming years are going to bring.”
Middleton signed a five-year contract on Thursday, May 14 to coach at WCU with a base salary of $110,000 plus incentives for winning a regular-season Southern Conference title, getting invited to the NCAA tournament and advancing in it.
Middleton’s contract is structured so that she could earn a maximum bonus of 10 percent of her base salary by taking the Lady Catamounts to the Final Four.
“We are excited to welcome Karen Middleton to Western Carolina University,” said Chancellor John Bardo. “She has coaching experience at some of the toughest women’s basketball conferences in the nation, including the Big 10, Pac-10 and Southeastern conferences, which will serve her well as the next head coach of the Lady Catamounts. With a reputation as one of the top recruiters in the game, she will be able to continue the tradition of excellence both on and off the court that we have come to expect from our women’s basketball program.”
While at Illinois, Middleton helped coach the Illini to 20 wins in 2007-08. In addition to leading the Orange and Blue to on-the-court success, Middleton also helped Head Coach Jolette Law and staff, sign the No. 3 recruiting class in the country, according to ESPN HoopGurlz, during the fall of 2008. “Just as important as her athletic expertise is her commitment to academics” Smith said. “Karen’s enthusiasm for and appreciation of academic success by her players was evident from our first conversation, and this is very important to the members of the team.”
“Everyone with whom we spoke about Karen praised her knowledge of the game, her recruiting ability, her organization and her genuine personality” Smith admitted. “We are pleased that she has accepted our offer to be the next head coach of the Lady Catamounts.”
Originally from Monroe, N.C., Middleton spent 10 years as an assistant coach at Stanford University before Illinois, where she handled off-campus recruiting and scouting for head coach Tara VanDerveer. She also played a role in player development, working mainly with the perimeter players.
While at Stanford, she helped the Cardinal to eight Pac-10 conference titles and 10 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, including four Sweet Sixteens and three Elite Eights. She also coached three Kodak All-Americans (Candice Wiggins, Nicole Powell and Kristin Folkl), two Pac-10 Players of the Year (Wiggins and Powell), and 11 players that went on to play in the WNBA.
Prior to Stanford, Middleton served as an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator at Eastern Washington University (1994-97) and as an assistant coach the University of South Carolina (1992-94).
Before her coaching career, Middleton attended and played at the University of South Carolina, where she was a four-year letterwinner from 1988-1991. She was a team captain, team MVP and a two-time All-Metro Conference selection during her career and finished as the fifth-leading scorer in school history with 1,714 points.
Middleton is in the books as the best shooter in school history as she still holds school records for career 3FG made (317), career 3FG percentage (44.5), season 3FG made (115) and season 3FG percentage (46.9). Her 115 threes made in 1991 ranks as the sixth-most in NCAA history. In addition to playing in four NCAA Tournaments, which included a Sweet 16 appearance, Middleton was a two-time GTE Academic All-District selection at South Carolina and participated in the 1989 USA Basketball Olympic Festival in Oklahoma City.
(More on Middleton’s hire and feedback from the WCU community will be posted at a later time. An in-depth look at the future of the women’s basketball team can be found in next week’s print edition of the Western Carolinian.)