COLUMN: Todd Stewart’s open letter symbolizes growing pains

Jonah Phillips

Jonah Phillips

Last Thursday, WKU Athletic Director Todd Stewart released an open letter to “Hilltopper Nation” in which he heaped praise onto a football program he helped reinvent. He then announced that the next three WKU home games will begin at 11 a.m. due to television scheduling. 

The letter is simple in its content. Stewart explains why the game times have changed and why the shift is a positive change for the Hilltopper program.

Stewart also reiterated a point he brought up after the Popeye’s Bahamas Bowl: National television exposure is one of the strongest tools for growing a program. 

His comment after the bowl game was a response; he had been asked about the financial benefits of accepting a bowl bid in the Bahamas. However, the financial benefits of nationally broadcasting every WKU regular season game are very different; national broadcasting invites television and advertising contracts.

Yet emphasizing national exposure for the WKU football team is still a viable way to promote the program. In the long term, the program can only benefit from this exposure, which makes every single game available outside the south-central Kentucky area. 

Some fans, disgruntled with the short-term effects, are upset that the time shift  will intrude on their pregame plans. Eventually, though, they’ll see this kind of exposure could seriously raise the bar for WKU. Not only will it raise recruitment standards for the football program; it will also promote national recognition of the university’s brand.  

Stewart ensured fans he has WKU’s best interest in mind by showing the shift the program has undergone since he took his position as athletic director.  

He reminds “Hilltopper Nation” of the 26-game losing streak associated with WKU’s first few seasons in the FBS. Now, not even a decade later, the Hilltoppers have an FBS bowl win, another bowl appearance and four consecutive seasons with seven or more wins.

At some points in his letter, Stewart emphasizes tangential arguments about media exposure and gives resounding accounts of the program’s accolades to dodge fans’ main complaint: the games’ time change. 

Fans aren’t upset with TV deals or the program’s exposure and growth; they’re upset that their pregame traditions will probably be affected.

Stewart does briefly address the concern directly when he says, “while changing game times for television is a relatively new concept for WKU, it is not new to the majority of football programs nationwide.”

By heaping praise on the program — praise it deserves — Stewart is trying to make the pill easier to swallow. Tailgating before games may taper drastically, but Stewart happily extended tailgating hours after the contests until dark.  

The fact the Stewart had to release a statement more-or-less justifying a schedule change because some fans were upset that television contracts were dictating kickoff times indicates growing pains. 

Growing pains are a positive sign, and Stewart recognizes this.  Some Hilltopper fans may think the game atmosphere has been altered — but flip on “College GameDay” on ESPN any Saturday, and campuses around the country are clamoring at 10 a.m. for some college football. 

These are all new concepts to a program that started 2-10 and 0-12 respectively in its first two seasons in the FBS just seven years ago. That the changes are even a talking point shows positive growth for WKU football.