BOWLING GREEN, Ky. (WDRB) – When you make a list of programs that have made unexpected NCAA Tournament runs over the last decade, you start with Butler, VCU and George Mason. Make a similar list of programs outside the Bowl Championship Series conferences that have done great things in football and you begin with Boise State.
Merge the lists. You won't find much crossover.
Todd Stewart wants to change that – at Western Kentucky, where Stewart serves as the athletic director.
"What I would like us to do is be the one program that does what both of those programs have done – to go to a Final Four in men's and women's basketball and to go to a BCS bowl game in football," Stewart said.
Is this Stewart's version of Howard Schnellenberger opening his playbook at Louisville and saying the Cardinals were on a collision course with the national championship, the only variable being time?
Not exactly. But WKU has long been serious about it commitments to men's and women's basketball. The resources that Stewart and WKU president Dr. Gary Ransdell plan to invest in the football program remain considerable as the Hilltoppers continue to build upon their transition from former Division I-AA national champions to a program that has won consecutive games against Kentucky.
"It's a lofty goal," Stewart said. "I'm not naïve to the fact that that's a difficult marker up there.
"But I think that's what you owe to your fans, that's what you owe to your student athletes and that's what you owe to the university – to truly aim for the top. And it can be done."
Stewart discussed those goals and others during a recent interview in his office at Diddle Arena. He was officially named to replace Ross Bjork about 18 months ago.
Much of Stewart's administrative background was formed in media relations. He's worked for the Indianapolis Colts, Cleveland Browns and in the Sun Belt Conference league office. He's a graduate of Miami (Ohio) whose father worked on the basketball coaching staff at Austin Pay for three seasons in the early Seventies.
Here are other topics that Stewart discussed:
*The Hilltoppers' 6-4 football season in a year when many WKU fans were expecting more with the arrival of Bobby Petrino and a season-opening victory against UK in Nashville.
"When Bobby came in there was just tremendous excitement," Stewart said. "It was almost like an airplane taking off. We got to 30,000 feet almost in a matter of seconds …
"I've had people come up to me saying they thought we were going to go 12-0 … That's probably a reach to think we could have done that this year."
*Season ticket sales improved with the arrival of Petrino, but there is still considerable room for growth. Stewart said that WKU sold about 8,500 season tickets in 2013, less than the school record of 8,642 set in 2008, the Hilltoppers' first season as an FBS program. Stewart said the school sold 1,000 tickets for $25 in 2008.
"We have to bring in people from outside Bowling Green," said Stewart, targeting Louisville and Nashville as two areas to recruit paying customers.
*WKU and UK just completed a four-game football series. Stewart said that he and UK athletic director Mitch Barnhart have agreed to discuss the possibility of reviving the series after a break of several years.
"Mitch has been great, as was Rich Brooks for agreeing to play us," Stewart said.
*Stewart says that WKU and Louisville will play a men's basketball game in December and also in the next two seasons. That will make eight consecutive seasons the Hilltoppers and Cardinals have played.
Stewart said U of L coach Rick Pitino certainly didn't have play WKU eight straight seasons, including two games in Diddle Arena.
"I'll give Rick Pitino credit," Stewart said. "He comes to Diddle Arena. I don't want to name names, but there are a lot of prominent coaches that won't come here … They give a good, politically correct answer and it doesn't happen. He doesn't have to do that. We benefit from it a lot more than he does. But I think it's great for basketball fans."
*Stewart said that he believes that the success of the basketball programs at UK and U of L is a plus for the Hilltoppers.
"There's room for three (major programs) and people will notice what we're doing also," he said. "They've both been great to us."
*Stewart believes that WKU's pending move from the Sun Belt Conference to Conference USA will benefit all the Hilltoppers' athletic teams. The basketball teams will have greater opportunities for post-season play because CUSA is more likely to be a multiple bid league. In football, CUSA has ties to more prestigious bowl games.
"People can outspend us," Stewart said. "They've been able to outspend us in the past. They can outspend us today and they'll certainly outspend us in the future. It doesn't mean they can outwork us."
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