The Walkthrough: Nike deal validates, solidifies the success of Hilltopper athletics

Evan Heichelbech is the College Heights Herald Editor-in-Chief for Fall 2018 and Spring 2019.

Evan Heichelbech

The state of Hilltopper athletics has been written about, discussed and opined upon a lot in the recent past, and for good reason. But after news broke Tuesday that WKU and Nike had agreed to a five-year apparel deal, the time to start officially start talking about Hilltopper athletics as a brand has arrived.

With the school’s exclusive on-field sponsorship with Russell Athletic set to expire on June 30, WKU’s 16 athletic programs will receive an entirely different perception as the swoosh replaces an “R”.

The truth of the matter is this: WKU and Russell have been trending in completely opposite directions on a performance scale as of late.

Almost four months after the Hilltoppers won their 31st game in the last three years in a Boca Raton Bowl victory, it was announced that the Russell Athletic Bowl would become the Camping World Bowl.

Eight days before the highest recruit in WKU basketball history laced up for the nationally televised McDonald’s All-American Game, Russell lost another client as Ohio University inked a new deal with Adidas.

Perception and branding is everything to college athletes, and as hard as it may have been for athletic director Todd Stewart to reduce the locally headquartered company from “exclusive on-field sponsor” to just an “apparel licensee,” it was a move that was necessary.

In 2007, when seemingly no other apparel company was willing to supply WKU as the school was in the early stages of trying to take the step up to Division 1 in football, Russell was there. The two sides agreed to a five-year, $2 million agreement and extended that contract in 2011 and again in 2015.

Because of this, it is important to highlight the loyalties being paid to the company by Stewart and the athletic administration in keeping Russell as an apparel licensee. Most schools would’ve cut ties with the company completely.

As Russell’s hold on a claim in college athletics slowly blurs, shoe companies and their involvement in recruiting and AAU circuits are coming into even sharper focus.

If WKU didn’t hire one of the country’s best recruiters when it brought in Rick Stansbury as its head basketball coach last spring, it certainly hired one of the most ambitious. Rumors of a switch in apparel providers have circulated since Stansbury began recruiting what has become a consensus top-15 recruiting class for 2017-2018.

It’s not a matter of if, but of how much influence Stansbury had on the move to Nike. Ever since he’s been in a coaching position vital to recruiting players, Stansbury has been stamped with an elite brand backing both he and his school. Now, he has one again.

A lot of WKU’s coaches have established their own style of branding in recent years. Jeff Brohm wanted to play fast. Stansbury wants to get “back on the map.” Mike Sanford wants to chase titles with “the pursuit.” Michelle Clark Heard had the “new look,” but the “same goal” for the past two seasons.

Effective July 1, all will have one, common and very iconic brand to share.

Sports Editor Evan Heichelbech can be reached at 502-415-1817 and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @evanheich.