Hilltopper legend John Oldham dies at 97

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BOWLING GREEN, Ky. - Western Kentucky basketball legend John Oldham – a fixture on The Hill as a player, coach and administrator – died Monday morning in Bowling Green. He was 97.


Oldham’s impact on WKU was so far-reaching that the court at E.A. Diddle Arena was named in his honor Dec. 27, 2012.


“We are very saddened to learn of the passing of John Oldham,” WKU Director of Athletics Todd Stewart said in a news release. “Coach Oldham is one of the all-time iconic figures in Western Kentucky University Athletics history who impacted the Hilltoppers as a player, head coach, athletics director and developer of the Red Towel athletics logo.


“His outstanding collegiate playing career was interrupted when he left school to serve in the United States Navy during World War II, but he returned to earn All-American honors while leading WKU to national prominence including a No. 5 national ranking in 1949. He won 78 percent of the games he coached during his seven years as WKU’s head coach while leading the Hilltoppers to the 1971 Final Four. His impactful 15-year tenure as WKU’s Director of Athletics from 1971-86 trails only Ed Diddle for longest service in overseeing WKU Athletics.


“A soft spoken and enormously kind man, I truly enjoyed knowing him, visiting with him and learning so much about WKU from him. It was a special evening on December 27, 2012, when we officially named the court in Diddle Arena ‘John Oldham Court’ with he and his family in attendance, ensuring him the recognition he never sought but certainly deserved. It was an honor to have known him, and our thoughts are prayers are with his family.”


Oldham left his mark on Hilltopper basketball in each of his roles, earning All-America accolades as a player in 1949 and later coaching some of the greatest teams in WKU history.


Oldham, a native of Hartford, came to WKU in 1942 to play basketball for E.A. Diddle after earning All-State honors at Hartford High School. After his freshman season at WKU, Oldham served in the U.S. Navy for three years during World War II.


In four years as a student-athlete (1942-43 before World War II and 1946-47, 1947-48 and 1948-49 after the war) he earned a place in WKU’s 1,000-point club, racking up 1,006 career points, and helped the Hilltoppers to three appearances in the NIT, four conference championships and 102 wins. He was named an All-American by both the United Press International and the Associated Press as a senior in 1949, and he was also named to a spot on the first All-Ohio Valley Conference Team that season.


Oldham was selected to the WKU Basketball All-Century Team in 2018 as a player.


After two seasons for the NBA’s Fort Wayne (now Detroit) Pistons, Oldham returned to The Hill to coach at old College High School before moving on to Tennessee Tech as the head coach. He returned to WKU in 1964 to take over the Hilltopper Basketball program from the retiring Diddle.

In seven seasons at his alma mater (1964-71), Oldham compiled a 142-40 record and led the Hilltoppers to five postseason trips, four conference championships, a Sweet 16 berth and a trip to the 1971 Final Four.


Oldham’s .780 winning percentage as a head coach remains the best in WKU’s illustrious men’s basketball history by a wide margin, and his number 42 from his playing days hangs in the rafters of E.A. Diddle Arena in tribute. He coached two of WKU’s three consensus All-Americans (Clem Haskins and Jim McDaniels).


In all, Oldham had a hand in 244 men’s basketball victories, eight postseason appearances and nine conference championships in 11 years as a player and head coach. The overall record of those 11 teams was a remarkable 244-53 (82.2%).


Oldham was also a pioneer for social change in the sport, putting the Hilltoppers on the forefront of integration in the south in the 1960s.


One of the truly beloved individuals in university history, Oldham also served as athletics director from 1971-86 and, in 1971, conceptualized the Red Towel logo, which has evolved into one of the most easily recognized and historic athletic logos in the country. WKU’s Big Red mascot was also created during his tenure.


His time as AD aligned with the creation of Title IX, the revival of women’s athletics and the football program’s move to Division I-AA, and his coaching hires included some of WKU’s best in Paul Sanderford (women’s basketball), Joel Murrie (baseball) and Curtiss Long (track and field).


During his tenure as athletic director, WKU won six OVC All-Sports Championships and one Sun Belt Conference All-Sports Championship.


Oldham has been inducted into the Lions Club Kentucky High School Hall of Fame (1969), Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame (1986), Ohio Valley Conference Hall of Fame (1989), Kentucky High School Hall of Fame (1990), Tennessee Tech Sports Hall of Fame (1990), WKU Athletic Hall of Fame (1991) and WKU Hall of Distinguished Alumni (2002).


A private funeral service is set for Nov. 30 at J.C. Kirby & Son Funeral Chapel on Lover’s Lane. Burial, with military honors, will be at Fairview Cemetery. The family is planning a memorial service in the spring.

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