Top assistant Hank Plona named WKU’s new head basketball coach

Published 4:12 pm Tuesday, April 2, 2024

By Jeff Nations, Bowling Green Daily News

Western Kentucky has named Hank Plona as the program’s 17th men’s basketball head coach, WKU Director of Athletics Todd Stewart announced Tuesday morning.

Plona replaces Steve Lutz, who was named the head coach at Oklahoma State on Monday afternoon after more than a week of speculation.

Stewart didn’t have to search far for Lutz’s replacement, tapping his top assistant in Plona to take over the program. A formal news conference to introduce Plona is scheduled for 11 a.m. on Wednesday at E.A. Diddle Arena. The event is open to the public, and free parking will be available in Parking Structure 2 (PS2) in between Diddle Arena and Houchens-Smith Stadium.

“I’m incredibly honored to be chosen as the next head coach at Western Kentucky,” Plona said in a news release announcing his hiring. “Thank you to Athletic Director Todd Stewart and President Tim Caboni for trusting me with this opportunity. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t thank Steve Lutz for the opportunity to come to WKU a year ago and wish him and his family well at Oklahoma State.

“My staff and I haven’t stopped working since the day we got back from Indianapolis and the NCAA Tournament and we are eager to build upon the success of the 2023-24 season into the future. We will continue working tirelessly on the recruiting trail – both in retaining current Hilltoppers and identifying future ones.

“Our team will continue to be one that you can be proud to cheer for. We will play an exciting, fast-paced style of basketball, we will excel in the classroom and graduate our student-athletes, and we will be active on campus and in the community. Our players will represent WKU and this community with class in everything we do. Go Tops!”

In his first season at WKU in 2023-24, Plona played an instrumental role in helping the Hilltoppers win the Conference USA Tournament and reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 11 years. Under Lutz, also in his first year, the Tops posted a 22-12 overall mark and an 8-8 record in CUSA to finish third in the regular-season standings.

The Tops led the country in adjusted tempo (75.2 possessions per game, per KenPom) and averaged 80.2 points per game, their most since the 1994-95 season (80.4 ppg) and best in Conference USA.

Prior to joining Lutz’s staff, Plona spent eight seasons as head coach at Indian Hills (Iowa) Community College, where he won 86.6% of his games and led that program to eight consecutive ICCAC regular-season titles, six postseason conference titles and the NJCAA National Tournament seven times.

One of Plona’s All-American stars from Indian Hills, Don McHenry, followed him to WKU was named All-CUSA, first team All-District, and CUSA Tournament MVP after starting all 34 games at point guard for the Hilltoppers in 2023-24, averaging a team-best 15.1 points per game. Plona also coached Enoch Kalambay at Indian Hills. Kalambay played in all 34 games for WKU this past season, starting eight, while averaging 6.2 points per game and 4.6 rebounds per game in 18.3 minutes per game.

“Hank Plona is a winner,” Stewart said in a news release. “He played an integral role in many areas of our program during this past championship season, and I am confident under his leadership we will continue to build on the strong momentum that has been established. His incredible winning percentage over his previous eight years as head coach at Indian Hills speaks for itself, and he has a proven history of strong recruiting and player development. His career path prior to joining WKU coupled with the vital role he played this past season has prepared him well for this opportunity. I am excited for the future of our basketball program under his direction.”

In his last season in the junior-college ranks, Plona led Indian Hills to a semifinal run at the 2023 NJCAA National Tournament, the team’s best finish since 2014. They were ranked No. 1 in six different polls during Plona’s tenure and ranked in the national rankings all but one week, including 39 Top-10 rankings and 18 Top-five rankings over his last four seasons alone.

Plona coached 12 All-Americans in his time at IHCC, along with 42 All-Region performers. A total of 59 of his players moved on from IHCC to Division I schools, and nearly 20 of those former Warriors are currently playing professionally around the globe. One hundred twenty-three student-athletes garnered Iowa Community College Athletic Conference (ICCAC) All-Academic honors for their work in the classroom. As a team, the Warriors were named an NJCAA Academic Team of the Year during the 2021-22 campaign.

Plona was named the ICCAC Coach of the Year on four separate occasions while earning five NJCAA District Coach of the Year honors. Under Plona’s tutelage, six consecutive Indian Hills men’s basketball players were named ICCAC DI Men’s Basketball Players of the Year. Along with the success of moving players on to the next level, Plona has seen an abundance of former assistant coaches earn spots at high-level programs throughout the country.

“Congratulations to Hank Plona on being named the next head coach at WKU,” Lutz said in a news release “Hank is the right choice to build upon the foundation that was established last season. He was a big part of our success in 2023-24 and a coach that I leaned on to help lead all aspects of the program throughout the year. He is a proven winner and developer of talent who does things the right way, and I’m confident he will continue to do those things at a high level as the head coach at WKU. I am going to miss working with Hank, but am excited for his future at WKU. Congratulations to Todd Stewart, Tim Caboni and WKU on a great hire!”

A 2007 Providence College graduate, Plona is a native of Avon, Connecticut. He got his start in college coaching as a student manager graduate assistant at Providence under Tim Welsh and Keno Davis (2007-09), then spent a season as an assistant coach at Arkansas-Fort Smith (2009-10), followed by one year as an assistant at Indian Hills, then a stint as an assistant at South Plains College (2011-15) as that program won a national championship in 2011 and reached the title game again in 2015 just before Plona landed the head coaching job at IHCC.

“The WKU basketball team’s momentum is strong, coming off its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2013, and I am confident that Hank Plona is the right person to continue this trajectory,” Caboni said in a news release. “His passion, expertise and vision align perfectly with the ambitions of WKU. He brings to the table a familiarity with the program that will enable players and staff to continue striving for excellence. Our program is steeped in history, and I am delighted that Hank has accepted the offer to become WKU’s next head coach.”