LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- It wasn't the most pleasant trip of his Western Kentucky University presidency when Gary Ransdell made the trek to Louisville to pitch his idea to move the Hilltoppers to NCAA Division I-A football before The Courier-Journal's editorial board six years ago.
The reception was something less than the roaring cheers the team is hearing these days in Houchens Industries-L.T. Smith Stadium. In fact, the tone set by C-J editorial board director David Hawpe and others was, "Why in the world would you want to do that?"
I doubt if there was a sympathetic ear in the room -- including my own. The actual value of a winning football program to a university is a matter of some debate. In 2009-10, between university funds and student fees, WKU and its students spent $15.4 million for a return of around $7 million in revenue.
That was then. We're now about to see how much a winning Football Bowl Subdivision team is worth to a school like WKU. Because the Hilltoppers have one.
I don't know if this was Ransdell's vision when WKU made the move, because I don't know if he dared to envision this kind of success. After winning on the road at Troy 31-26 in an ESPNU televised Sun Belt game Thursday night, the Hilltoppers improved to 5-1 on the season and won for the 12th time in 14 games. And the only two losses in that stretch have been to Alabama and LSU.
Along the way, WKU beat state rival Kentucky in Commonwealth Stadium. And truthfully, it wasn't one of WKU's better performances this season.
Here's what they have now in Bowling Green:
-- Heading into the Troy game WKU had the nation's sack leader, Quanterus Smith (1.62 per game) and the nation's interception leader, Jonathan Dowling, with one per game.
-- The nation's No. 2 all-purpose runner in Antonio Andrews.
-- A senior quarterback in Kawaun Jakes whose arm is becoming a bigger part of a ball-control offense that ranks among the top 10 nationally in time of possession.
-- A handful of votes in the USA Today Coaches Poll.
-- And a coach whose name now figures to come up with every vacancy that comes down the line.
In fact, that's the shame of college football coverage. As soon as a guy gets it rolling somewhere like Western Kentucky, half of every telecast seems to become devoted to where the coach will go next.
Taggart has earned some opportunities. But don't look for him to jump at the first one that comes along. A WKU alum, he can probably do better at this point that some of the C-USA and MAC jobs out there, and might be well-served if he can keep winning in Bowliing Green until he's sure of the right spot.
Regardless, Taggart has struck all the right notes this season. Even before the Troy game, he was trying to maintain perspective: "We are 4-1 and we haven't won anything that I know of. We haven't got a trophy for being 4-1. We haven't seen anything. That is irrelevant to this football team."
WKU plays is a hard-nosed brand of football. Everyone wondered if the Hilltoppers would be able to maintain their bruising rushing attack in the absence of NFL Draft pick Bobby Rainey. Into his place has stepped Andrews, who was 19th in the nation in rushing before carrying 26 times for 113 yards Thursday night.
Andrews' performance was all the more impressive because Troy came in determined to stop the running game, stuffing the box at every opportunity. That put pressure on Jakes to make plays in the passing game, and he did, hitting on 21 of 31 passes for 255 yards and three touchdowns.
"We knew that they were going to come in and stuff it," Taggart said. "[Troy] had been aggressive in the film that we had watched with their safeties coming in there. But we knew that what they got from us last year that they were going to be anticipating that again. We knew we had to loosen them up a little bit and we showed that we can throw the football, too. We just don't run the ball. We choose to run the ball, but we showed we can [pass], too."
It was WKU's third straight road victory and fourth in a row overall, including a 42-17 win over Southern Miss that compares favorably with a seven-point win over the Eagles by No. 16-ranked Louisville and a 40-14 win in Hattiesburg by No. 22 Boise State.
By the time it returns home to face league favorite Louisiana-Monroe on Oct. 20, WKU will have been away from home for nearly a full calendar month -- without taking a loss. Taggart said winning on the road is evidence that the mentality he's trying to instill is taking hold.
"We are always talking about being a great team and I think that is what great teams do. They find a way to win football games," Taggart said. "We are trying to be great. We are not there yet, but we're trying to be there. This shows that our guys are not giving up, which is something that we used to do and something we're not doing anymore. We are not giving up and we are fighting until the end. Good things will happen to us for doing that."
Good things already are. It should be some kind of homecoming when WKU faces ULM in Bowling Green on Oct. 20 at 3 p.m. The Hilltoppers will play four of their last six at home, where they figure to build on the attendance average of 19,790 in their first two home games (or 89 percent of stadium capacity.) They're already averaging more in attendance than their largest crowd from last season, and up considerably from the 14,103-per-game average In the season before Taggart arrived.
Ransdell was candid when he talked about the reasoning for moving to the Football Bowl Subdivision. It was out of a desire to be seen on an even plane with UK and U of L, to see "WKU" in the ticker of scores on ESPN and, perhaps one day, in newspapers around the nation if the Hilltoppers ever somehow made the national rankings.
Nobody thought he'd see that payoff anytime soon.
If the Hilltoppers keep playing like they are, however, it might be just around the corner.
Quotes provided by WKU Sports Information.
Copyright 2012 WDRB News. All Rights Reserved.
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