WCU Coach Middleton’s passion and past

Karen Middleton passion for the game and energy easily passes on her players. Photo by Hana Haden.

One of Karen Middleton’s earliest memories is playing basketball in the backyard with her older brother and his friends.  This is where her passion for the game began. Today, almost 40 years later, her passion is still going strong.  She is the third year head coach for Western Carolina University, where she is using her love and knowledge of the game to teach her players and hopes to lead them to a championship.

At McBee High School Middleton scored over 2000 points by the time she graduated in 1987, and was named the state’s player of the year two times.  Her jersey, number 20, was retired.  Middleton’s talents had earned her the interest of many top universities. She was faced with the decision of where she would continue her educational and basketball career. Schools such as University of North Carolina, Texas University, University of Maryland, and Clemson University, just to name a few, were all in the mix Middleton’s choices.

It was the local University of South Carolina that ultimately won her over.  It was close to home which made it easy for her family to watch her play.  She also felt the most comfortable with the team and coaches.  Her career continued to flourish at USC as she was an integral part of a team that made it to the NCAA tournament all four years. One of Middleton’s favorite memories was the 1989 regional semifinal game versus Northwestern University her sophomore year.

“I think it was 5 for 5 from the three point line that game and it took us on to the Sweet 16 of the tournament. “

Personally, Middleton was named the team captain, team MVP, and to the All-Metro Conference team twice.  She broke multiple South Carolina University shooting records. She finished being the 5th leading scorer in school history, having the highest percentage from beyond the three point line for a career, most three pointers made in a career, most three pointers made in a season, and highest percentage of threes pointers made in one season.  Today, these records still stand. Most people would argue this makes her the best shooter in South Carolina history.

Apart from basketball, Middleton graduated cum laude with a Bachelor’s of Arts in Elementary Education.  She wanted to teach and coach basketball at the high school level.  When the opportunity arose to be the graduate assistant at South Carolina while she earned her Master’s degree, she found herself with a foot in the door to be a college basketball coach.  This position eventually led to her next stop, Eastern Washington University, where she was the assistant coach for three years.  She continued to gain experience and moved on to take an assistant coach position at Stanford University in 1997. Middleton coached at Stanford for 10 years, learning from Tara VanDerveer, one of women’s basketball’s most successful coaches.  In 2007, Middleton made her way back across the U.S. to Illinois University, where she was the first assistant.  This situation proved to be a test because of the state the women’s basketball program was already in when she arrived.  It was a rebuilding time, which Middleton helped by helping bring in the third highest recruiting class in the country.

After two years at Illinois, Middleton was able to return to the east coast where the position at Western Carolina University was available.  This put her within a comfortable distance to her family, as well as her first head coach opportunity.  She carefully filled her staff with friends she had known over the years, including South Carolina teammate, Treka McMillian.

“Since I met Karen as a freshman in college, the thing that has made her successful is that she sets goals for herself and works consistently every day to achieve them.  She is definitely one of the most consistent people that I know,” McMillian said.

Karen Middleton has affected the lives of many student athletes as she leads with her distinct poise and composure that she has grown to be known for.  She encourages her teams to be the best they can be while keeping positive and grateful attitudes.  Senior Diamond Hunnicutt has grown a close relationship with Middleton during the three years that Middleton has been at Western.

“Karen is really good person.  She’s very supportive and looks out for her players as if we were her own kids.  She makes sure we have everything we need and goes out of her way to get it,” said Hunnicutt.

Middleton’s favorite part of WCU is the atmosphere and the people.  After a few tough transition years, Middleton says her team this year is one of her favorite teams she has been a part of.

“Whether it’s playing basketball or hanging out with each other, it’s always fun to be around this team,” said Middleton.

It’s not just the team that Middleton enjoys.  She gets to come to work every day with three of her best friends.  She puts countless hours into the planning of practice, reviewing film, scouting opponents, and recruiting future Catamounts.

“I’ve never had to work a day, because I get to do something I love,” Middleton said. Her passion for the game and for teaching her players is easily seen for anyone who gets a chance to know her.