WKU looks to build on success from last season

Running back Antonio Andrews runs with the ball during practice at Smith Stadium on Monday, August 5.

Lucas Aulbach

Athletics Director Todd Stewart has a motto for the WKU athletics programs this year — “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

The phrase means that improvement by one team or player can inspire improvement from other teams and players, and Stewart said the success the athletics department had as a whole last season has raised expectations for every team this year.

“We had five different programs win conference championships for the first time since 2009, and I would expect us to add to that,” he said.

In retrospect, the 2012-13 school year was one of the most successful for WKU athletics in school history — the football team reached a bowl game, the men’s basketball team went to the NCAA Tournament, the women’s basketball team posted an impressive turnaround, and the softball and volleyball teams each won NCAA Tournament games for the first time in school history.

Coming into the 2013-14 season, Stewart and President Gary Ransdell said they expect even better results this year.

WKU’s success in recent years helped pave the way for the school to accept a bid to join Conference USA in April.

With the school joining a bigger conference, Stewart said this season, it’s time for WKU to succeed on a bigger stage and win postseason games.

“To grow your identity outside of your region, you have to have postseason success,” Stewart said. “That means going to bowl games and winning bowl games, and that means going to NCAA Tournaments and advancing, and really prior to last year, men’s basketball was our only program that had had postseason success recently.”

He compared WKU’s situation to that of Florida-Gulf Coast, a small school that made national headlines when its men’s basketball team made a deep run in the NCAA Tournament last season.

“How many people really knew that Florida-Gulf Coast had a basketball team this time last year? Now you do,” Stewart said. “Maybe you didn’t even know they had a university, but now you do. That’s what can happen when you have success at a high level in postseason play.”

WKU will field several teams this fall looking to build on last year’s success.

The Lady Topper volleyball team was ranked No. 21 in the American Volleyball Coaches Association preseason poll, and the soccer team was picked to win the conference in the preseason coaches poll as well. The men’s basketball team will look to defend its Sun Belt crown and the Lady Topper basketball team will begin its quest for an NCAA Tournament berth in November.

For the time being, though, most eyes will be on the WKU football team.

The bar has been set high for the Toppers after last season’s historic strides and an eventful offseason. The Toppers advanced to an FBS bowl game for the first time in school history last year, falling 24-21 to Central Michigan in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl in December, before hiring new coach Bobby Petrino and an entirely new coaching staff after former coach Willie Taggart left for South Florida.

Ransdell wants to see even more eyes on the team — in the stands. The Toppers are going to a BCS-level conference and have a chance to compete in the national spotlight this season, he said, and it’s time for WKU fans to support the school like a BCS fan base.

“Our athletics department, our football program, our athletes have all bought in to playing at the highest level,” he said. “I don’t think our fans have yet to fully understand that and what it means.”

Stewart said he also hopes the raised expectations and publicity surrounding the WKU programs encourages fans to fill the stands at Smith Stadium, Diddle Arena and WKU’s other athletics facilities.

“I’d like to see more, and I don’t mean that as a criticism – we’re appreciative of the ones that come, they make a difference, but we’d like to see more,” he said. “We have a 20,000 enrollment and it’d be nice to get more than 900 at a basketball game.”

The overall development of the WKU athletics programs, though, has impressed Stewart, who has worked for the program since 2008.

He said he hopes to see even more success this season.

“It’s come fast — six years ago we were in a one-sided stadium in the Gateway Conference in football,” he said. “So it’s been a very fast development and it needs to continue to grow, but I’m really pleased with what I’ve seen over the last few months.”