Beginning of an era: WKU now officially in Conference USA

WKU football team signs autographs for fans at WKU’s Conference USA kickoff party at 6-4-3 sports bar on Tuesday July 01, 2014. Jeff Brown/HERALD

Elliott Pratt

It’s official. WKU is the newest member of Conference USA.

The university celebrated its inaugural day in the league after 32 years in the Sun Belt Conference with a kickoff celebration at 6-4-3 Sports Bar in Hitcents Park Plaza in downtown Bowling Green.

The WKU marketing department spent Tuesday traveling around the community handing out Conference USA prizes as part of the promotion “Paint BG Red” to offices, businesses and restaurants whose employees wore WKU red.

“I really am thrilled. Thrilled for our student-athletes, our coaches, our administration, our university and the Bowling Green community, because I really feel that going into Conference USA is a transformational moment that will elevate all of us and all of our programs,” Athletics director Todd Stewart said. “The energy and the excitement that we’ll derive from this move, and the national exposure that accompanies it will elevate all our programs and I think make us much more relevant both regionally and nationally.”

Conference USA commissioner Britton Banowsky was in attendance at the celebration to welcome the league’s 14th member.

“It’s a huge day for the conference and a huge day for Western Kentucky,” Banowsky said. “We’re starting our 20th year as a league and we’ve had great, great moments over the last 20 years. To have a program like Western Kentucky come in, we can project great moments into the future, so it’s a great moment for both of us.”

Before WKU entered the Sun Belt in 1982, it competed in the Ohio Valley Conference from 1948 to 1982.

WKU joins 13 other institutions – Charlotte, Florida International, Florida Atlantic, Louisiana Tech, Marshall, Middle Tennessee, North Texas, Old Dominion, Rice, Southern Miss, Alabama Birmingham, Texas-El Paso and Texas-San Antonio – to make up the 2014-15 membership.

Because WKU notified the Sun Belt of its exit more than 12 months before the departure, there is no exit fee. The entrance fee into Conference USA is $2 million, payable in four installments, and will be paid for by private funds.

WKU’s total athletics department budget for 2013-14 was approximately $22.9 million, the ninth highest budget out of the 14 institutions in the league. The mark is just $2 million below the average institutional athletics department budget and $10 million below the top budget.

“It’s a pretty lean budget as it is in comparison to the peers we compete with,” Stewart told the College Heights Herald in May. “Some of these Conference USA schools used to be in the Sun Belt. That’s one thing that illustrates challenges, but I believe we can overcome that by investing in good people and I believe we’ve done that with our coaches.”

Banowsky was thrilled at the fan response at the kickoff event, which has been in the making since the announcement on April 1, 2013.

“The enthusiasm and passion of the fan base is obvious and something we wish all of our schools had, frankly,” Banowsky said. “We’re very proud of the association and know the fans are going to give us a big lift.

“…From the moment we brought them in it was obvious it was a perfect fit and the rest of the league is embracing Western Kentucky.”