Ranking the most important WKU football teams of all time

WKU+sophomore+wide+receiver+Stephon+Brown+dances+in+a+circle+of+his+teammates+while+celebrating+WKU%E2%80%99s+win+over+the+Kentucky+Wildcats+at+LP+Field+in+Nashville%2C+Tennessee.

Shelby Mack / Herald

WKU sophomore wide receiver Stephon Brown dances in a circle of his teammates while celebrating WKU’s win over the Kentucky Wildcats at LP Field in Nashville, Tennessee.

Jake Moore and Wyatt Sparkman

Football season returns to the Hill on Thursday when the Hilltoppers march into Houchens-Smith Stadium to face the UT Martin Skyhawks.

In honor of another year of gridiron action, the Herald has ranked the ten most important teams the football program has fielded throughout its history.

Honorable Mentions:

Post-War Football – 1922

The WKU football team started in 1913, but from 1917-19 the program did not field a team due to World War I. When WKU restarted the football program in 1920 it went an unspectacular 2-5-1 in its first two years back before E. A. Diddle took the head coaching job in 1922. 

Diddle completed an unbelievable turnaround season in his first year at the helm, leading WKU to a 9-1 record on the season. The Hilltoppers took home wins over in-state rival Louisville and its 100 Miles of Hate rival, MTSU. 

The team’s only loss came in a close matchup against the Vanderbilt B team by a score of 13-6. The team ended the remarkable turnaround in fitting fashion with a shutout victory over Southern Presbyterian.

The Petrino Experiment – 2013

WKU brought in a larger-than-life figure to helm the roster for 2013. Bobby Petrino, still dealing with the fallout from his highly-publicized motorcycle accident and ensuing scandal during his final year at Arkansas, signed a four-year contract to replace head coach Willie Taggart, who had left to coach at South Florida. 

Petrino’s time at WKU was marked by the soaring high of defeating the Kentucky Wildcats 35-26 in Nashville and the depressing low of missing out on a bowl berth despite an 8-4 record. 

The Petrino experiment ended ahead of schedule as he took his former position with the Louisville Cardinals in early 2014. However, his exit paved the way for the arrival of one of the most successful head coaches in school history.

10. Coach Jimmy – 1975

The Hilltoppers, with former star player and beloved head coach Jimmy Feix leading the way, split their sixth Ohio Valley Conference title with Tennessee Tech after going 9-1 in the regular season. The highlight of the year came when the Hilltoppers defeated their in-state DI rival Louisville in Old Cardinal Stadium by a score of 21-17 in the second week of the season.

WKU’s only regular-season loss came against No. 4 Eastern Kentucky. The Hilltoppers defeated New Hampshire in the Grantland Rice Bowl 14-3 to advance to the program’s second DII championship in three years, falling to Northern Michigan 16-14. WKU finished the year ranked No. 3 in the AP poll.

9. Finding their Footing – 2011

After a dreadful first three years in Football Bowl Subdivision play that saw the team go 2-34, second-year head coach Willie Taggart led WKU to its first winning season in Division I-A play. The Hilltoppers found some traction in 2011, going 7-5 and compiling a 7-1 record in Sun Belt play. 

The team started off 0-4 before winning its first game in a thrilling double-overtime game against rival Middle Tennessee on Oct. 6. WKU rallied the rest of the way, winning seven of their last eight games to finish the season bowl eligible. However, the Hilltoppers would have to wait one more year for their first FBS bowl appearance.

Running back Bobby Rainey broke the then-WKU rushing record with a 1,695 yard season while becoming the first player on the Hill to win Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year. Along with Rainey, eight more Hilltoppers made the All-Conference Team, including six on the All-Sun Belt First Team. 

Rainey and tight end Jack Doyle went on to achieve success in the NFL after their time with Taggart’s team.

8. Tangerine Dreamin’ – 1963

Members of the WKU football team prepare to board their flight down to Orlando, Florida to play in the Tangerine Bowl. Coach Nick Denes stands at the far right. (Herald Archives)

The Hilltoppers went undefeated (10-0-1), a 14-14 tie with the now-defunct Tampa Spartans serving as the only blemish on their record. The potent WKU offense dropped a 50-0 blowout on lowly Murray State and defeated the Coast Guard in the Tangerine Bowl in Orlando, Florida by a score of 27-0. 

That Coast Guard team was coached by Otto Graham, legendary Cleveland Browns quarterback and NFL Hall of Famer. Head coach Nick Denes was named the OVC Coach of the Year and the Hilltoppers took home their second OVC title, opening up the rest of the decade for WKU successes.

7. Close to Glory – 1973 

1973 saw the Hilltoppers take their fifth OVC title. WKU put together a perfect 10-0 regular season that included a 42-8 thumping of Middle Tennessee and four shutouts, one of which was a 35-0 win over EKU.

WKU tackle John Bushong (78) pressures Lehigh quarterback Kim McQuilken in the first round of the NCAA Division II Playoffs.
(Credit: Scott Applewhite)

WKU’s 1973 coaching staff included Romeo Crennel as defensive line coach, a former player who went on to coach in the NFL for over 40 years.

WKU defeated Grambling State 28-20 in the Grantland Rice Bowl in order to advance to its first-ever NCAA Div. II championship. The Hilltoppers were shut out 34-0 by future C-USA opponent Louisiana Tech but finished the year ranked No. 3 overall in the DII AP poll and first in DII in scoring offense. The teams’ 12 wins set a new school record that would stand until it was matched in 2015.

6.Going (FBS) Bowling – 2014

The 2014 season on the Hill ushered in a bevy of firsts. Both the Jeff Brohm and Conference USA eras began for WKU, but the new age got off to a rough start with a 3-5 record.

The Hilltoppers turned their season around after a 35-27 comeback win against UTEP on Homecoming night. WKU then broke off a five-game winning streak, which included a 67-66 overtime thriller against rival Marshall and a 52-24 win over Army that saw running back Leon Allen run for 345 yards, breaking WKU’s single-game mark. 

The Hilltoppers found themselves in their second FBS bowl game in school history against Central Michigan, the same team that had defeated them in their first FBS bowl two seasons prior. WKU took revenge, fending off the Chippewas’ 35-point comeback attempt. WKU’s defense thwarted CMU’s two-point conversion after an insane multi-lateral play to win 49-48.

5. Jimmy Under Center – 1952

Jack Clayton coached WKU to its first Ohio Valley Conference Championship with Jimmy Feix in his senior season at quarterback. WKU went 9-1, only losing to Tennessee Tech and picking up victories over rivals Middle Tennessee and Eastern Kentucky. 

The Hilltoppers qualified for their first-ever bowl game, defeating Arkansas State in the “Refrigerator Bowl” in Evansville, Indiana by a score of 34-19. The bowl was given its name because Evansville was known as the “refrigerator capital of the United States” at the time, producing 3,800 units daily.

 Jimmy Feix led the nation’s college quarterbacks with a 63.1 percent completion percentage, completing 111 of 176 passes for 1,581 yards and 15 touchdowns. He finished the year ranked fourth in the country in passing yardage and became the first-ever Hilltopper to be named an All-American.

4. E. A. Diddle Does Double Duty – 1928

The final year of E.A Diddle’s tenure as WKU head coach ended with an 8-1 record, with all eight wins coming in the form of shutouts. Marquee victories included blanking Louisville 20-0 and rival Middle Tennessee 19-0. The Hilltoppers outscored their opponents by a jaw-dropping 171-7 margin, and the only points the defense allowed were to Union University in an uncharacteristic 7-6 loss. 

Football looked very different in Diddle’s day: He was coaching the basketball team at the same time as the football team, unheard of in the modern era, and wanted his athletes to play as many sports as possible to stay in tip-top shape.

3. Back from the Brink- 1992

With a $6.1 million budget cut placing the program in jeopardy, head coach Jack Harbaugh told players to either accept defeat and leave, or fight to keep their team. WKU legend Jimmy Feix wrote to former players, encouraging them to buy season tickets to keep the program afloat. On April 30, 1992, the WKU Board of Regents voted to keep the team at a reduced budget.

WKU defenders swarm UCF’s Mark Whittemore in WKU’s 50-36 defeat of the Golden Knights on homecoming night. (Rick Loomis / Herald)

The team itself finished the 1992 season with an underwhelming 4-6 record, but what happened off the field was more important. The Hilltoppers still managed a 50-36 victory over Central Florida on homecoming night.

2. Jeff. Brohm. – 2015

The season following WKU’s first FBS bowl win, the program would put together its best campaign since joining the FBS classification as an independent in 2008. The season started off with a thrilling 14-12 upset win against the SEC’s Vanderbilt. 

The Hilltoppers finished the season with a 12-2 record, equaling the school record for wins set in 1973. WKU’s only losses came in a 38-35 squeaker against Indiana and a respectable defeat at the hands of No. 5 LSU by a score of 48-20. WKU went 8-0 in conference play, rolling through their competition and beating their opponents by an average score of 27 points per game. 

WKU quarterback Brandon Doughty is all smiles during the Hilltoppers’ 35-19 defeat of Florida Atlantic University on Nov. 7, 2015 at home. (Andrew Livesay / Herald)

The Hilltoppers made and subsequently won their first C-USA championship game, beating rival Southern Miss in a 45-28 comeback win. WKU finished its incredible season with its second consecutive Bowl victory, this time against former WKU head coach Willie Taggart’s South Florida team in the Miami Beach Bowl. The Hilltoppers took home the hardware after a 45-35 barnburner that featured a 28-point third quarter from the red and white.

WKU ranked third in the nation in passing efficiency. Hilltopper quarterback Brandon Doughty had an FBS-leading 71.5 completion percentage to go along with wide receiver Taywan Taylor’s remarkable season that saw him rank second in FBS in receiving touchdowns and fourth in receiving yards. 

Six Hilltoppers made the All-Conference USA First Team, a league high, and the team produced  six NFL draftees in Doughty, Taylor, Tyler Higbee, Prince Charles Iworah, Forrest Lamp and Joel Iyiegbuniwe.

Perhaps most impressively, WKU was ranked as the 24th-best team in the nation according to the final AP Poll of the year. It marked the first and only time in program history the Hilltoppers breached the top 25.

1. Champions – 2002

The greatest team in Hilltopper history was the program’s 2002 squad that won WKU’s first and only Division I-AA (now called FCS) Championship. After starting the season 2-3, WKU broke off a 10-game winning streak to run the table the rest of the way en route to the title.

WKU head coach Jack Harbaugh celebrates his team’s 2002 I-AA championship at E. A. Diddle Arena. (Aaron Thompson / Herald)

The campaign saw the end of Jack Harbaugh’s tenure on the Hill, retiring as the second-winningest coach in team history (91-68). Harbaugh won his only AFCA National Coach of the Year Award and the Hilltoppers produced three AP All-Americans: Sherrod Coates, Chris Price and Buster Ashley. 

2002 was also the year of the sledgehammer incident. A brawl broke out between the WKU and Western Illinois benches during the quarterfinals of the Division I-AA playoffs on Dec. 7 and 

Hilltopper safety Cris Riviere was dismissed by the team the following Monday for using a sledgehammer during the fight:

The Hilltopppers ended up winning, despite the circumstances, claiming revenge on the team that had beaten them 14-0 earlier in the season. WKU defeated No. 3 Georgia Southern in the semifinals 31-28 and took down No. 1 McNeese State 34-14 in a decisive championship game victory to become the only WKU squad to win a national championship.

The 2021 team has generated quite a lot of hype over the past few months. Only time will tell if this roster will one day be considered one of the most important units in Hilltopper history.

Sports Editor Jake Moore can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Charles_JMoore.

Football reporter Wyatt Sparkman can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @wyattsparkman3.