ESPN: WKU ‘did everything they could’ for bowl

ESPN: WKU ‘did everything they could’ for bowl

Brad Stephens

There will be no bowl for WKU this postseason.

As bowl pairings were announced on Sunday, the 7-5 Toppers, second-place finishers in the Sun Belt Conference, waited for the announcement that their season would continue.

Despite projections that WKU would play anywhere from Birmingham, Ala., to Honolulu, a bowl invite never came.

Dan Shoemaker serves as vice president at ESPN Regional, and the owner and operator of seven bowls, some of which were considering WKU.

He said the Toppers being left out wasn’t because of a lack of effort by Athletics Director Ross Bjork and others.

“I thought Western Kentucky’s administration did absolutely everything they could and they did everything right,” Shoemaker said.

Shoemaker said he and Bjork had been in direct contact for the last two weeks as WKU lobbied for a bowl berth.

Bjork said the school sold the Toppers, which finished the year winners of seven of their last eight games, to bowls as one of the nation’s hottest teams.

The athletic department also launched a reservation program in which fans could go the team’s website and make a $25 down payment on tickets for a potential WKU bowl.

“It was a 24/7 process really the last eight days to get to this spot,” Bjork said on Sunday following the team’s annual year-end banquet. “We tried everything in our power to get it done.”

One of the ESPN Regional bowls, the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, drew the most attention from WKU.

Though the bowl has direct tie-ins with the Big East and Southeastern Conferences, the Toppers became an option for an at-large berth when it became apparent the SEC didn’t have enough teams eligible to fill its slot in the game.

Fans bombarded the BBVA Compass Bowl’s Twitter and Facebook pages throughout the past week, telling the bowl to pick WKU.

But hopes for the Toppers playing in the Birmingham bowl died when undefeated No. 6 Houston was upset by No. 24 Southern Mississippi, a 17-point underdog, on Saturday afternoon in the Conference-USA Championship.

With the Cougars’ at-large Bowl Championship Series hopes done, there were suddenly just enough C-USA teams to fill all of their contractual ties in non-BCS bowls.

That meant the BBVA Compass Bowl, which has a secondary tie-in with the C-USA, was obliged to take a team from that league.

The next day it was announced they picked Southern Methodist to face the Big East’s Pittsburgh.

“So much of this is driven by contracts,” Shoemaker said. “In that particular case there was no opening.”

Bjork said WKU’s lobbying focus shifted during the afternoon to the Military Bowl in Dallas.

But when their representatives picked Toledo, the Toppers’ bowl hopes came to an end.

Of the 72 bowl eligible Football Bowl Subdivision teams, only WKU and Ball State were left without a bowl.

The Toppers were the only team with a winning record to be left out.

“I guess we still haven’t done enough,” Head Coach Willie Taggart said Sunday night following the team’s annual year-end banquet. “We’re still not respected. 

“You can finish No. 2 in the conference and don’t get in. Next year we’ve got to make sure we finish No. 1.”

The Sun Belt has just two bowl affiliations, primary tie-ins with the and R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowls.

Those slots were filled by league champion Arkansas State on Nov. 19 and third-place finisher Louisiana-Lafayette on Nov. 21, respectively.

Bjork, who said last week that the Sun Belt needs to reexamine its process on teams getting early invitations, said he and the league’s other ADs will discuss bowl matters over the offseason.

Meanwhile, Shoemaker said the conferences and bowls won’t come together to renegotiate the contracts until the current cycle ends in two years.

He said WKU’s newness to the FBS as a third-year full member played a factor in the Toppers not being picked.

But he said the efforts of WKU administration made a strong impression.

“They had all the information, they made all the phone calls,” Shoemaker said. “I thought they were tremendous throughout the process.”