CELEBRATION: Toppers finally get their party

Michael Casagrande

For nearly two hours this past weekend, Western football fans were in Hilltopper heaven.

The Division I-AA National Championship Western football team finally received their just recognition at Diddle Arena Saturday at 11 a.m. An estimated crowd of over 2,000 fans braved the snow to celebrate with the team 29 days after it made history.

“How ’bout those Toppers!” President Gary Ransdell proclaimed as he opened the day’s festivities.

A video chronicling the final three-game run to the title brought several fans to tears as it played overhead on the Pepsi Vision screens.

The ceremony progressed with city and county honors and proclamations. Coach Jack Harbaugh was presented with the key to the city of Bowling Green and a road sign welcoming visitors to the “Home of the Division I-AA National Champions.”

District 2 County Magistrate Cedric Burnham proclaimed Saturday as “Hilltopper Football Day” in Warren County.

Former Harbaugh employer and legendary Michigan coach Bo Schembechler prepared a video message for the celebration and couldn’t resist poking fun at his former assistant.

“I know him so well, I knew he was going to say something about the game,’ Harbaugh said afterwards.

Normally a video recording of C-SPAN would not draw much of a response from football fans, but Saturday it was a hit. A tape of U.S. Representative Ron Lewis’s address to the House brought the national impact of the victory into perspective for the fans.

Through all of the championship hoopla, coach Harbaugh’s favorite portion of the ceremony was the belated graduation ceremony of quarterback Jason Michael and defensive lineman Patrick Reynolds. The two were unable to attend the Dec. 14 commencement due to their semifinal match up with Georgia Southern.

The two marched with cap and gown as the pep band played traditional graduation music.

Michael graduated summa cum laude with a degree in civil engineering, and Reynolds received his diploma in general studies.

“To be able to do it in front of the fans and my family, it was a great feeling,” Michael said.

After graduation, the motivational film put together by Harbaugh’s son-in-law and Marquette basketball head coach Tom Crean was shown.

It was announced at the beginning of the ceremony that the away jerseys the players wore in the championship game would be sold to fans, and jerseys would be purchased for the players.

“I hope since we won the national championship, we can get bigger jerseys,” Coates said. “These are killing me!”

Western legend Jimmy Feix was then invited to the stage to help honor Harbaugh as National Coach of the Year.

For what happened next, no microphone was needed.

Harbaugh took fans back to his childhood, telling the story of his many pretend buzzer-beating back yard jump shots that would make him a hero and a national champion.

The 63-year-old field coach displayed the joy of a school child as he reminisced on the roller coaster ride the 2002 season was for his Hilltoppers. He reviewed the 10-game winning streak that salvaged the season from a disappointing 2-3 record to a championship trophy.

He pounded the podium after he recapped each of the 10 monumental victories and proclaimed, “And they went down.”