Stephens: Athletic energy continues with move to C-USA

Brad Stephens

There aren’t any more barriers, any more excuses.

No more blaming unpopular coaches, no more blaming administration for not doing anything, no more blaming a conference for holding a school back.

After Monday, WKU finally has the pieces in place to become “Gonzaga of the East,” “Boise State of the South” or whatever else it could want to become.

The school has a football program coming off its first bowl game and led by one of college football’s best coaches, Bobby Petrino.

Ray Harper’s men’s basketball program recently came home from its second straight NCAA Tournament trip. Michelle Clark-Heard’s women’s basketball team just finished its best season in three years.

Volleyball and track and field are still collecting trophies. Baseball and softball are both in first place in the conference.

Diddle Arena and Houchens-Smith Stadium have been renovated and upgraded. Athletes are graduating and programs aren’t dealing with NCAA violations or major disciplinary issues.

But there was one last item of business for president Gary Ransdell and athletics director Todd Stewart to address — moving WKU to a conference that better fit its needs.

The final step came Monday when the school announced it’s leaving the Sun Belt Conference July 1, 2014 to join Conference-USA.

“The energy of making this move… there is so much that is positive about this for WKU,” Ransdell said Monday during a press conference at the Harbaugh Club. “I’m very proud of the fact we’ve taken a proactive step to create a better future.”

This was the right move at the right time for WKU.

Heading to C-USA allows the school a chance to compete for more postseason berths, play against teams that are within a more reasonable distance from Bowling Green and make more money.

Starting next fall WKU football players won’t be pacing back and forth on bowl selection night, waiting to hear if they’ve been snubbed after a 7-5 season.

Fans won’t have to drive five hours to Georgia State to see the closest road conference game.

Football and men’s basketball will have more than just a handful of conference games televised nationally.

And the school should start receiving seven figures of television revenue annually rather than five.

Had WKU declined C-USA’s invitation, the league likely would’ve just turned to another of WKU’s Sun Belt brethren and the Toppers would’ve missed their chance. Instead the school was proactive and took a step that should help put WKU on par with any similar-sized athletics department.

There aren’t many WKU coaches who’ve been around here longer or had more success than volleyball’s Travis Hudson. He said the “great energy” around WKU’s athletics department right now is as much as he’s seen in his 17 years as coach.

“In terms of the here and now, I think the timing is great when you look at the coaches that are in place here,” Hudson said. “It’s something Todd Stewart can feel confident about that he’s got a group of leaders that can compete right away.”

Hudson’s thoughts echoed Ransdell, who said WKU intended not just to join C-USA’s rank-and-file but to “bring value” to the league.

The Toppers and Lady Toppers are poised to bring plenty of value in several sports.

Petrino, if he’s still coaching WKU in the 2014 season, will bring his coaching acumen to a league he once dominated while at Louisville. WKU should compete for plenty of bowl berths, which will be more numbers in the C-USA.

Harper and Heard will bring two rising basketball programs to a league with a better basketball RPIs for both the men and the women. Neither should have to worry much about being dealt NCAA Tournament 16 seeds anymore.

And Hudson’s volleyball program, baseball, track and other sports should keep clicking, especially with the additional financial backing made possible by C-USA’s TV dollars.

“The sky is the limit,” Heard said. “Today is a big day for all of us, not just one or two sports.”

WKU has taken a bold step to join a new league and in the process has set its programs up to make it a successful transition.

These next several years around here should be a lot of fun.