Jimmy Feix still makes it to every game played on the field that bears his name.
The 80-year-old — a two-time All-American quarterback, assistant coach, head coach and athletic director at WKU — has been slowed a bit in recent months by the effects of Parkinson’s Disease.
But he will be there Saturday when the Toppers take Feix Field to face Louisiana-Lafayette in WKU’s annual Homecoming contest.
“I want to see them get a win on that Feix Field,” said Feix, whose 106 wins as head coach from 1968-1983 are the most of any coach in program history. “It’d mean just a little more to me than it would to everyone else in those stands.”
There’s a lot that brings the Topper legend back, especially on this particular weekend each year.
Feix gets to see the team he for so long was a part of play on a field named after him, rekindle old ties with men he once coached and share memories with teammates from his playing days.
One of his favorite parts of Homecoming is the reunion of WKU’s 1952 team that went 9-1, one of the best in school history.
The 1952 Toppers capped off that season with a 34-19 win over Arkansas State in the Refrigerator Bowl.
After not officially coming together for four decades, the team celebrated its 40th reunion at Homecoming in 1992, and has been meeting on that weekend every year since.
This year will be the 59th anniversary of the Refrigerator Bowl team. Feix, who was named an All-American that season, said the bond the players on the team developed brings them back to the Hill each year.
“We were with each other through thick and thin,” Feix said. “You feel that personal warmth that’s there, and that connection.
“You’ve been in the huddle with them, in the room crying after a loss, then celebrating. You’ve done things that you’ve done with nobody else.”
In many respects, Feix has himself to thank for the fact WKU still has a Homecoming where he can see his old teammates.
Feix said that in the 1990s, after he had retired from a five-year stint as Athletic Director, he received a call saying school president Thomas Meredith was going to drop the Topper football program altogether.
Feix, along with longtime assistant Butch Gilbert and former WKU player Mickey Riggs, decided to take action so that the program they’d spent their lives building wasn’t going to die.
Under the direction of then-Head Coach Jack Harbaugh, Feix and his friends picked up the phones to sell tickets and raise support for the football team.
“We got on the phones and started hollering,” he said. “We started shaking some leaves, getting some support, just doing anything we could to save the program.
“And Coach Harbaugh dug his heels in and would not quit on me. That made all the difference in the world.”
Administration chose to keep football and, just a short time later, Harbaugh led WKU to the 2002 I-AA National Championship — that title ironically coming during the 50th anniversary season of Feix and his teammates’ Refrigerator Bowl win.
Head Coach Willie Taggart, an assistant on that team and a former All-American Topper quarterback himself, has invited Feix to talk to the current WKU squad several times.
“You look at a lot of his success — it was because of his love for Western Kentucky University,” Taggart said. “He’s one of the toughest guys you’ll ever meet, and our guys need to see that.”
Senior running back Bobby Rainey and junior tight end Jack Doyle hand-delivered Feix a team birthday card on his 80th birthday in August.
Rainey said it’s vital that WKU football players learn about Feix and what he’s put into the program.
“As far as even having this program, he’s an important guy,” Rainey said. “To know your history and be able to go talk to him and present him a card for his birthday, it’s an experience you’ll never forget.”
WKU has faced rough times in recent years after making the transition from the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) to the Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A.)
While some have questioned the Toppers’ move to the FBS, Feix said WKU made the right choice because “there wasn’t any way to go but up.”
“In the past we moved from Division III to Division II, we thought, ‘woo-wee,’” Feix said. “Then Division II to Division I-AA, we said, ‘woo-wee.’ Now we’ve moved from I-AA to I-A and we’re saying, ‘woo-wee.’ So it’ll come. It just takes awhile.”
He said he has confidence Taggart is the right man for the WKU coaching job, and that he’ll have a successful career as the Toppers’ head coach.
“Willie’s kind of like me — an old quarterback, an old Westerner and an All-American,” Feix said. “And because he’s a Westerner, he’s got the energy and enthusiasm to make it work.”