Stewart introduced, must pay $1 million if he leaves early

Todd Stewart/

Lucas Aulbach

WKU has officially hired a new athletics director, and it looks like this one won’t be going anywhere for a while.

President Gary Ransdell took the stage at a press conference inside the Topper Club at Smith Stadium on Thursday to announce that he has removed the interim tag from current athletics director Todd Stewart.

Stewart, who was named interim AD immediately after former AD Ross Bjork departed for Mississippi in March, will take over the job full-time.

Stewart said he’s ready to officially be at the head of the WKU athletics department.

“The future of WKU athletics is bright and I am both excited and energized in leading the charge,” he said.

Ransdell and Stewart didn’t mention any contract numbers except one — the buyout clause included in Stewart’s contract.

The clause states if Stewart chooses to leave in the next five years, he would owe WKU $1 million. If WKU terminates the contract within that time, Stewart would be owed one additional year’s salary.

Stewart’s predecessor, Bjork, left for Ole Miss after two years on the job.

The clause was necessary and it says a lot about Stewart that he signed it, Ransdell said.

“It was an important statement for us to make and frankly, for Todd to make in immediately signing that term sheet, which I think gives us great confidence that he’s our man and he’s our man for the long term,” he said.

Stewart has worked at WKU for the past four years. He worked in communications and media relations with the Cleveland Browns and Indianapolis Colts for 15 years before serving as associate commissioner for communications for the Sun Belt Conference for three years.

He left that job in 2008 to accept a position at WKU as associate AD for communications and media relations. Stewart was promoted to senior associate AD in 2010.

When Bjork left, Ransdell immediately promoted Stewart to interim AD while he continued to look for someone to take over the position. Ransdell said he compiled a pool of several qualified candidates but, in the end, Stewart was the best fit.

“We purposely took our time in this search because my instinct told me the best AD for Western Kentucky University was among us, and I wanted him to have the opportunity to perform those duties,” he said. “Over the course of the past two months, he’s certainly done that.”

Ransdell said his experience at WKU and in the community made him the natural candidate to pick up where Bjork left off. He said he spent the interim period observing Stewart as AD before officially making the decision.

“What I was wanting to measure was performance on the job,” Ransdell said. “I knew the other intangibles that we would expect in this position were clearly in place with Todd Stewart and he took the reins and took that AD title and acted like the AD and made important decisions and earned the promotion that he’s now been given.”

Stewart has had a busy month and a half to familiarize himself with the position. Women’s basketball coach Michelle Clark-Heard was hired the same day he accepted the interim position in March and he had a hand in hiring several men and women’s basketball assistants.

Stewart will also play a big part in WKU’s role in athletic conference realignment that has swept up many universities across the nation. He and Ransdell will be responsible for WKU’s athletic future, in the Sun Belt or elsewhere.

Stewart said right now WKU would benefit the most by staying in the Sun Belt, if the conference can improve its membership.

“We’ll always do what’s best for WKU,” Stewart said, “but we’re in the Sun Belt Conference, we’ve been in the Sun Belt Conference for a long time, the league’s been great to us, and our focus right now is on how we can improve the Sun Belt Conference in bringing the entire league up, which therefore enhances our accomplishments even more.”

Ransdell said the biggest factor he and Stewart would consider in the face of realignment is the well-being of the WKU fan base.

“I want to make sure that where we are is something that our fans can enjoy and we have institutions that are like-minded and bring value to what we’re about, but we’re going to control our own destiny with the right coaches and the right leadership,” Ransdell said.

Stewart made the point that many WKU athletics programs have something now that they didn’t have a year ago — momentum. By having largely successful seasons, he said, the men’s basketball and football teams should sell more tickets and grow the WKU fan base, which Stewart said was one of his main objectives.

“We have awesome fans,” Stewart said. “The Hilltopper nation is great, but we need to grow our fan base, and we need to grow our revenue. We need to increase our membership in the Hilltopper Athletic Foundation, and we need to increase our season ticket base.”

Stewart said he believes WKU has the potential to accomplish those schools and be a premier athletic school.

“The sky is the limit for WKU athletics,” he said. “We don’t have to dream big, we can achieve big.”