Stephens: Time for students to play their part

Brad Stephens

My, how a place can change in four years.

Here’s the campus I found when I came to WKU a floppy-haired freshman from Winchester in 2009:

—The visor-wearing, sledgehammer-wielding, David Elson was the football coach tasked with leading the Toppers from FCS to FBS.

—Ken McDonald was coming off an NCAA Tournament appearance in his first year as men’s basketball coach. Ray Harper was also on the bench, but was sitting one seat to his right as an assistant.

—Todd Stewart was a media relations director facilitating press conferences, not speaking at them.

—Travis Hudson’s volleyball team was competing for Sun Belt Conference championships (OK, some things haven’t changed).

—Willie Taggart was coaching running backs under Jim Harbaugh at Stanford. Bobby Petrino was on the verge of turning Arkansas into an SEC powerhouse.

 —WKU was in the Sun Belt Conference and would be for the foreseeable future.

I’m leaving this campus four years later with a diploma (fingers crossed), a better haircut (check out McKinney’s on 31W) and an extra pound or two (thanks, Chick-Fil-A). I’m also leaving behind an athletics department almost entirely different than when I first got here.

I won’t take up your time going through the fates of Elson, McDonald, Taggart and everyone else I mentioned above.

What I will do is tell you readers, especially the ones that will be here after I’m gone, just how much better you all have it when it comes to WKU sports.

Men’s basketball, the sport for which this campus is known, is back. Harper’s taken a team full of McDonald’s players to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments.

Fan favorites George Fant and T.J. Price have two years left. Aleksejs Rostov, who I’m betting will be a conference player of the year by the end of his career, has three years to play. Harper will bring in pieces capable of complimenting the core.

As for football, I still wake up some days and kind of just wrap my head around the fact Bobby Petrino is coaching Topper football. Will he be here more than one or two years? Maybe not. After he goes 9-3 or 10-2 this fall some mid-level SEC program will look past his past and give him more money than WKU can offer.

But enjoy Petrino while he’s here. There’s not another directional school like this in America that has a football coach as good as him. In a few years you’ll see him coaching in the BCS and ponder the fact he was once in Bowling Green.

You’ve been granted your wish of a Conference-USA life raft. C-USA is by no means perfect, but the TV money, rivalries and geography offered by C-USA allow for opportunities not possible in the Sun Belt.

Volleyball is still dominant. Women’s basketball is on the way back up. Baseball has some exciting young players. Other non-revenue sports are doing well.

And leading it all is Stewart, a capable athletics director who, thanks to a $1 million buyout in his contract, will likely be here for a while. Stewart brings an NFL background to his job, and his skills made a bowl game, Petrino and a new conference possible for WKU.

 There’s just one missing ingredient to all this — the students.

I remember coming here as a freshman expecting the student section to be packed for every men’s basketball game.

Instead, Diddle Arena was home to cash crawls, TV timeout “Cottoneye Joe” and no more than 500 or so students. Thankfully the cash crawls are gone, but the crowds aren’t much better.

I also expected big crowds for football, complete with festive tailgating atmospheres and a true college football home environment

Instead I learned A) any threat of rain keeps everyone home and B) there are students that actually go home on weekends of home games. It wouldn’t have been such a big deal to me if the excuse was something better than “I want to see my parents.”

You spent the first 18 years of your life seeing your parents. This is college. Stay here. Tailgate. Cheer on your team. Live a little.

The returns on this year’s spring game attendance were positive, with a record crowd of 6,500 showing up. That needs to continue into the fall, and students must lead the charge.

I’m absolutely convinced that any real boost in attendance must start with the students. If the student section is full and loud, that’ll permeate through the rest of the arena or stadium.

If students can turn basketball and football games back into important events in their lives as students then there’s no limit on how great an atmosphere they can create.

And so as I leave the Herald after three and a half years covering the Toppers, I try to pass onto you people coming back next fall as to just how good you have it. These next several years on The Hill should be full of huge games, postseason berths and great memories.

It’s up to you to decide whether or not you’ll go enjoy them.