Stephens: Stewart deserves bowl berth credit

Head football coach Willie Taggart (left) and Athletic Director Stewart laugh during a press conference Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012 at Diddle Arena. Western Kentucky will make its first postseason debut in history by playing Central Michigan in the Little Ceasers Pizza Bowl at Ford Field in Detroit. 

Brad Stephens

Todd Stewart was hired for times like the last month.

He didn’t follow the typical route toward athletics director, a job usually given to people on the fundraising and business side of an athletics department.

Stewart spent his career leading up to this job as a public relations specialist, using his skills to help market employers.

Twenty years of that experience, both in the college and NFL ranks, is one of the primary reasons the 2012 WKU football team will play a 13th game.

Stewart was senior associate AD last year when WKU was turned down for a bowl berth despite a 7-5 record. Upon his promotion to AD earlier this year, he mentioned football bowl games as one of his main goals.

In his first football season as AD, he led the march to make that happen.

The Toppers got their sixth win of the season on Oct. 27, meaning they reached bowl eligibility nearly a month before they did in 2011.

By the following Monday, WKU’s marketing report was in the hands of “multiple bowls,” Stewart said.

From there the athletic department was talking to several bowls, gauging destinations and seeing where to focus its efforts.

As November wore on and the Toppers’ season took a downward turn, Stewart narrowed the search and focused on the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.

And last week while WKU fans were worrying about whether their team would get its second snub in a row, he was finalizing a deal to play in that bowl.

Stewart was determined and creative in his pitches. The Toppers finished the year 2-4 in their last six games, so he pitched what they did at the beginning of the season: beating SEC opponent Kentucky and eventual Sun Belt champ Arkansas State.

WKU had a perceived disadvantage by never having been to an FBS bowl game. So Stewart pitched what the game’s executive director, Ken Hoffman, called a “bowl-hungry” team to a game with a history of taking teams making their first trips to FBS bowls.

And Stewart also used Antonio Andrews’ chase of Barry Sanders’ single-season all-purpose yardage record as a specific draw to the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl. In what better city could Andrews break the record than Detroit, he reasoned, the town where Sanders became an NFL legend with the Lions?

“I felt sorry for Ms. Rebecca (Stewart’s wife) because he’s been on the phone with those guys like they’ve been his girlfriend,” coach Willie Taggart said. “He’s been working really hard for us and all the credit goes to him… He worked his tail off.”

And so Stewart did the improbable — he sold a bowl on taking a team that, at least on the outside, didn’t have much going for it.

Hoffman said Stewart had been talking about WKU for about a month.

“Western Kentucky was the team that our board wanted and our selection committee wanted,” Hoffman said. “They are the definition of being a bowl-hungry team and university.”

Compare the decisions made by Stewart, who helped his program obtain a bowl bid, to those reportedly made by Louisiana Tech AD Bruce Van De Velde, who might have cost the 9-3 Bulldogs a bowl berth.

Van De Velde turned down a bid to the Independence Bowl because he was waiting on bids from two other games, USA Today reported Monday.

When those fell through, Louisiana Tech was left at home and Van De Velde was under fire from alumni and players.

While Van De Velde and Louisiana Tech miscalculated the bowl picture, Stewart and WKU seized what was likely their lone opportunity and clinched a berth in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.

When WKU takes the field in Detroit on Dec. 26, it’ll be a milestone moment for the people that built the program — guys like Jimmy Feix, Jack Harbaugh and Taggart. Credit can also be given to seniors like Kawaun Jakes and Jack Doyle.

But just as much credit can be given to Stewart, the first-year AD, for fighting to get them there.