‘Battle tested’ Tops celebrate storybook season

Brad Stephens

WKU won its lone national championship the hard way.

The 2002 Toppers dealt with roster losses of some of their most talented players from the 2001 season.

Once the season began, they dealt with a 2-3 start, the team’s worst in seven years.

As the season progressed, the Toppers had to deal with injuries to key players.

Finally, once they reached the NCAA Division I-AA Playoffs, they dealt with playing the No. 3-, No. 2- and No. 1-seeded teams in order.

The team that overcame that adversity to become 2002 I-AA national champions will be honored at halftime of WKU’s game on Saturday night against Southern Mississippi.

This will be the first major reunion of that team, said Bowling Green attorney Brian Lowder, a safety on the 2002 team.

“It’s just a group of guys that had a common goal,” Lowder said. “We had one goal, and that was to win it all.”

WKU won it all with a lot of backups from the previous year’s team.

Jason Michael took over at quarterback for the dynamic Donte Pimpleton.

Michael, now tight ends coach for the San Diego Chargers, became a captain and team leader.

Lowder and several others replaced a secondary that lost NFL draft picks Joseph Jefferson and Mel Mitchell and the talented Bobby Sippio.

“We had all played together — it was just second string,” Lowder said. “It was tough to meet those expectations because the defensive backs had been so talented in years past. It made us better.”

Another backup, Karl Maslowski, had to play a major role after star linebacker and leading tackler Erik Dandy sustained a season-ending knee injury.

Maslowski, WKU’s current special teams coordinator, finished the season third in tackles on the team, with 95, and had a key interception in the national championship game against McNeese State.

“If you look at the 2001 team, we were more talented. A lot more talented,” Maslowski said. “2002 was a bunch of scrappy guys, a bunch of blue-collar guys that loved each other.”

After a 2-3 start, WKU won its final six games of the regular season to sneak into the 16-team playoffs as the No. 15 seed.

“Our backs were against the wall early,” Maslowski said. “We knew we had to win every game if we wanted to make the playoffs.”

WKU blew out Murray State in first round and got by No. 3 seed Western Illinois 31-28 in the quarterfinals.

The underdog Toppers then beat perennial I-AA powerhouse No. 2 seed Georgia Southern 31-28 in the semifinals thanks to some late heroics by Michael.

On WKU’s final drive, Michael converted a fourth down pass to keep the game alive, hit a long pass down the sideline to get inside the GSU five-yard line, then ran for a two-yard go-ahead touchdown.

“That was 10 years ago, and I can almost tell you the plays that we called, the yards that we gained, who caught what — I can take you through that drive,” former coach Jack Harbaugh said. “I can’t remember what I had for breakfast yesterday, but I can take you through the drive because of the impact it had on that championship season.”

The Eagles got the ball back, drove down the field and set up for the tying field goal.

But the kick landed short, sending WKU to the title game.

“It was almost divine intervention,” Harbaugh said.

From there, it was on to a Dec. 20 championship game in Chattanooga, Tenn., against No. 1 seed McNeese State.

Earlier that season, the Cowboys handed the Toppers a 38-13 loss that turned out to be WKU’s last defeat of the year.

McNeese had been the best team in Division I-AA all season, but by the time of the championship game, WKU was better prepared because of the trials it had faced up to that point, Harbaugh said.

“We were really a tested team,” Harbaugh said. “It was metal on metal. It was a team that had seen it and been tested.

“…(McNeese) wasn’t really tested during the playoffs. We were, and I think that gave us a little bit of an edge, because we were a little more battle-tested.”

The title turned out a 34-14 Topper rout, as running back Jon Frazier ran for a pair of touchdowns behind a dominating offensive line.

“We were hungry for revenge,” Maslowski said. “… We knew we had them beat just walking onto that field. I don’t think any of us really felt nervous on what we were going to miss out on, but we knew — we felt it when we walked in.”

Harbaugh stepped down after the season and defensive coordinator David Elson became head coach.

Five years later, WKU began the transition from Division I-AA to Division I-A (the Football Bowl Subdivision).

Current head coach Willie Taggart, an offensive coordinator on the 2002 team, said the program’s current status as a Sun Belt Conference title and bowl game contender might not be possible without the national champs.

“That was monumental in our football history to get us to this point where we’re at now,” Taggart said. “That was big.”