Stewart: WKU in “great shape” entering Conference USA

Todd Stewart/

Kyle Williams

After 32 years and 133 total championships in the Sun Belt Conference, WKU has finally begun its first sports calendar year as a member of the Conference USA.

Conference realignment brings with it many benefits, but it can also be a challenge for evolving athletic programs in terms of competition. However, WKU Athletic Director Todd Stewart said that since several of the department’s goals have been stabilized in recent years, the Hilltoppers will enter C-USA with some momentum.

“We’re in great shape for a number of reasons,” Stewart said. “All of our goals fall under one of three areas and right now I think we’re really strong in all three of those. Certainly one is to win. We’re in the business of college athletics and they keep score at the games, and if they keep score we want to win it.”

Success hasn’t come easy, but it has come often in particular sports for the Hilltoppers in recent years. WKU captured the Bubas Cup last season, which is given annually to the Sun Belt school that allots the most points based on its performance throughout the athletic year.

The school has won the honor six times, but last year was the first since 2008. Ten WKU programs finished in the top three of the Sun Belt league standings in 2013-2014.

“That speaks, I think, to the depth of our athletic department,” Stewart said. “You don’t win it by just being strong in one or two sports. So that, coupled with the conference championships that we’ve won, are (sic.) good.”

Stewart said the second aspect of the department’s three-pronged, goal-setting approach is academic success. That goal, per Stewart, has been strengthened due to the current 75 percent graduation rate for WKU student-athletes, which is roughly 25 percent higher than the university’s overall rate.

“The credit for that goes to our coaches for demanding that and recruiting true student athletes and our athletes for having the discipline and the dedication in the classroom,” Stewart said. “It matters for them to fulfill the obligations associated with that.”

Last, but certainly not least, is athletic community service. WKU student athletes, coaches and staff are given the opportunity to impact numerous organizations through the Hilltoppers with Heart community service program, which began in 2011 and has grown ever since.

“Three years ago we had 500 hours of community service,” Stewart said. “Two years ago we had 750 hours, and this year we had about 1,200 hours of community service and I certainly anticipate that growing every year.”

If WKU does hit the ground running in its new conference, the benefits will come in abundance. Television exposure, revenue totals, overall relevance and postseason opportunities will undoubtedly increase as a member of the C-USA.

The Hilltoppers will also welcome the opportunity to rekindle rivalries with old foes such as Middle Tennessee, Marshall, UAB, Charlotte, Old Dominion, Southern Miss and L.A. Tech. while beginning new bouts with schools like Rice and UTEP.

“You’re known by the company you keep,” Stewart said. “…I really feel, and all of us feel, the schools that we will now start playing on a regular basis are ones that our fans will identify with much better than they did many of the Sun Belt schools. My expectation is that brings energy and excitement to our venues greater than what we’ve had.”

Before the Hilltoppers can fully reap the benefits of their new digs, they have to compete, and according to Stewart, he believes they’ll waste no time in doing that.

“I wouldn’t expect us to take a step back,” Stewart said. “I would expect us, and our coaches feel the same way, to compete favorably and successfully in all of our sports. The level of competition, particularly in some sports, will be more difficult, but again I think, based on the leadership we have in place right now with our coaches, we’re prepared for that. I would expect us to have a bigger impact in Conference USA than we even had in the Sun Belt.”