Are you hearing what the Hilltopper Haven is hearing?
Bob Knight was a signature away from succeeding Darrin Horn at WKU. Ken McDonald and Mary Taylor Cowles have been on the coaching hot seat for a year. Willie Taggart repeatedly walked out on football practices last fall, frustrated with what he saw.
Speculation runs rampant on the Haven, the largest public forum dedicated to WKU athletics outside of Diddle Arena and Houchens-Smith Stadium on game days. The online message board consists of some 20,000 discussion threads and has provided fans a space to talk, debate and vent about WKU athletics since 1998.
As an open forum, “Havenites,” as members are called, blur the line between fact and fiction in threads that easily tally hit counts in the hundreds.
Brad Hogan, a WKU donor, season ticket holder and unabashed Havenite, said he receives so many tips that he has to hold more sensitive leaks.
“I think the stuff that gets put in front of me oftentimes would scare a lot of people, and I think it would bother a lot of people,” said Hogan, who has coined the phrase “Are you hearing what I’m hearing?” when hinting to other Havenites that he has new information. “That’s like a tornado watch — just letting you know conditions are right, and that you should be on the lookout.”
Jonathan White, a former student from Russellville who posts under the screen name “Woodrow,” said leaking information on the Haven has become a running joke in some cases.
Take for instance an April Fool’s Day 2008 post “Bob Knight Is WKU’s Next Coach.” The thread became Haven legend, stretching to more than 600 posts while tallying 71,000 page views.
“But a lot of times some people are right on with things,” White said. “Because there is so much of it that goes on coming from so many different people, it’s hard to separate the truth from the garbage sometimes.”
Hogan said the Haven began as a group of fans with WKU as a common interest on America Online chat rooms in the mid 1990s. Bruce Davis, a former public affairs employee at WKU, eventually created the Haven as a permanent spot to discuss Topper athletics.
Davis, now on staff at Vanderbilt University, declined to comment on this story. He continues to operate the forum and occasionally updates the Haven’s website, which is separate from the forum and pays tribute to WKU’s athletics history.
When David Carter, a Haven member since the board launched, was growing up in Bowling Green, he said the most “fiery” WKU conversations all happened face to face. Now discussions are carried out the Internet, and in a message board setting, remain mostly anonymous.
“It’s the water cooler. It’s the barber shop of old. And now it’s instantaneous,” he said.
Carter, who posts under the name “dahbeed,” compares the Haven to a genie that’s come out of its bottle — “and it’s not going back in there.”
Hogan said that typically the larger the school, the more “voices” — or forums, blogs and information — exist.
“Here, the Hilltopper Haven is pretty much it, and it has been for some time,” Hogan said.
Hogan — or “TxTop, as he’s known on the Haven — said the boards haven’t changed much from how they began. A small, hardcore group of fans posts in front of a growing number of readers, of which he said has never been larger than it is today.
Hogan considers the forum “one of the five or six best things” to happen to WKU in the last 20 years.
“Does it keep people on their toes — absolutely, because there’s many times we’ll get information weeks in advance,” he said. “Whether it’s good, bad or indifferent, it gets on there.”
Before it was formally announced last year that Athletics Director Wood Selig was going to resign, the information was on the Haven before traditional media reported it. Over the years, the same formula has applied to numerous player transfers, disciplinary actions and coaching changes.
But it’s the rumors WKU officials worry about — not the facts.
Todd Stewart, senior associate athletic director, said athletics personnel monitors what’s said on the Haven just as they do with other social media.
“All that we ask is people to be fair and accurate,” Stewart said. “Somebody might put something up that’s negative, but it might be fair.”
The Haven is technically not open to the public, although the boards are made available for all to read.
Haven rules require a personal email account, such as a wku.edu address, for applicants before they’re approved to post. Those who support other schools are welcomed to post only in select sections of the boards, and not all accounts are approved.
Nick Baumgardner, WKU beat writer at the Bowling Green Daily News since 2007, said the Haven captures the small-town, gossip-laden feel of Bowling Green even at a school where enrollment tops 20,000.
He called the Haven “exciting” and said members who care so much about WKU need somewhere to vent.
“The thing too that I think people get a misconception of, is if you read something on that message board — or there’s an overall theme on that message board — then that’s the thought of the whole fan base. Which it’s not,” Baumgardner said. “It’s the thought of the 10 to 15 percent of die-hard crazies — fanatics if you want to call them that — who are really invested into it.”
Former men’s basketball player Orlando Mendez-Valdez, now a professional player in Mexico, tweeted Feb. 27 that he can find motivation from reading posts on the Haven even after two years away from WKU.
Coincidentally, a Feb. 26 post by user “Gabibbo” called Mendez-Valdez “the most over-romanticized player in WKU history” whose “bone-head” plays were what kept him from succeeding until his senior year.
Mendez-Valdez’s tweet sparked a two-page thread on the Haven that was viewed more than 1,400 times.
Although Mendez-Valdez is a former player, Baumgardner said current players and coaches also read it.
“Whether they want to admit it or not, they have,” he said.
White, who posts with the screen name “Woodrow,” said he would advise current players and potential recruits to not read the Haven.
He goes back and forth on whether the forum is a good thing for WKU athletics as a whole — not just for fans to vent in a public setting — because conversations can sometimes turn “nasty,” as they did during basketball season.
“If the team is winning, the Haven is a great place,” he said. “But when things are tough, even I don’t like to read it.”
It’s because of the Haven’s opinion-heavy environment that President Gary Ransdell said he “can’t” bring himself to read the forums.
“The athletic director gets enough advice without me coming to him after reading the Hilltopper Haven and saying, ‘Hey, how about this,’” Ransdell said. “It’s just best for me to not get caught up in the emotions — stay objective, analytical and make decisions for the right reasons.”
Carter said it’s hard to ignore what’s said or conveyed on the boards in decision making, as so many of WKU’s donors and season ticket holders post — though many of them anonymously.
“If they really think it’s just a bunch of yahoos or hardcores, I think they’re sticking their head in the sand just a little bit,” Carter said. “I’m not going to give us a bunch of power or anything, but it is a pulse. That’s an apt description of it.”