WKU Athletics provides needed escape for fans

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Jack Dobbs

Rick Stansbury, head coach of the WKU Hilltoppers basketball team, helps clear brush on Craig Street near WKU’s campus. Stansbury cleared debris with members of the team, who cleaned up in place of practice. “We will get more out of this than from having practice,” Stansbury said.

Wyatt Sparkman, Sports Editor

The devastation and destruction after an EF3 tornado ripped through the city of Bowling Green on Dec. 11 left residents hopeless. WKU Athletics did its part to help people in need by raising money and giving them an escape for a few hours at a time.

“What we’ve tried to do is just do our part,” WKU Athletic Director Todd Stewart said. “I really think in Bowling Green, Kentucky, we’ve seen the best of America, in terms of everybody just helping their neighbor out, in many cases, strangers helping complete strangers, people just rolling up their sleeves and helping out.”

Stewart explained that WKU Athletics and sports as a whole can play an important role in the aftermath of a tragedy by providing those affected with a temporary reprieve.

“First and foremost, sometimes we can help just by doing what we do, just give people something to focus on away from their troubles and a diversion, so to speak,” Stewart said. “Something to feel good about and just to kind of take their mind off of things.”

There was no better opportunity for the university to provide that escape than on Dec. 18. WKU Football and Basketball each played in nationally televised games that afternoon, making history in both.

Jacob Hayslip, a graduate assistant with WKU’s men’s basketball team, carries debris in a neighborhood off of Normal Street in Bowling Green on Monday, Dec. 13. The team came to clean up just two days after their 71-48 victory over Ole Miss. (Jack Dobbs)

WKU Football played in the Boca Raton Bowl on ESPN and dominated the Appalachian State Mountaineers 59-38, handing the school its first-ever bowl game loss. The main story of the day was the record-setting performance by WKU quarterback Bailey Zappe.

Zappe threw for 422 yards and six touchdowns in the victory. His performance handed him the single-season FBS records for passing yards and touchdowns, finishing the year with 5,967 and 62, respectively.

“[Bowling Green was] definitely on our mind the whole game, talking to the team before we left the hotel, we said ‘Hey, bowl games are important, winning is important, but it means more today,’” WKU head coach Tyson Helton said after the win. “It just meant more today to us because we knew our state and our community was going to be watching, and we needed to make them feel good.”

“That’s the beauty of football,” Helton continued. “It brings everybody together, and when we needed to bring everybody together, I’m sure they were back at home watching. We love them. Bowling Green is such a great town and great community and when the tornadoes hit, we all embraced and loved each other and went to work, and they’re continuing to work. We just wanted them to take a little break watching football and see the Hilltoppers win.”

Members of the WKU Hilltoppers basketball team were out helping in cleanup on Monday, Dec. 13, just two days after the deadly tornado struck Bowling Green early Saturday morning. Head coach Rick Stansbury said he cancelled practice so the team could help out. (JACK DOBBS)

Before the game, The Black and Gold Podcast, a show dedicated to Appalachian State sports, set up a Go- FundMe to help with tornado relief by benefiting Western Kentucky Regional Blood Center Inc. The original goal was $3,333, but $20,956 has been raised as of Jan 10.

“You give [Appalachian State] 100% respect. That’s awesome to see,” Zappe said before the bowl game. “Being opponents and everything, there’s kind of some feuding playing this weekend together, but for them to do that and reach out, [to] create that on their own and do everything on their own for us and for Bowling Green [and] everybody that’s affected, is awesome.”

Stewart said App State itself had other sporting events where they encouraged people to bring donations to help out.

“I mean, just the fact that they would do that was very touching, and I know it meant a lot to a lot of people who were really appreciative of that,” Stewart said.

Not even an hour later, the WKU men’s basketball team faced off against Louisville for the first time in Diddle Arena since 2008. The game was originally supposed to be played on the CBS Sports Network, but due to COVID-19 issues canceling the Ohio State vs. Kentucky and North Carolina vs. UCLA games, WKU slipped into a nationally televised spot on CBS.

The Hilltoppers went on to dominate the Cardinals on national television to the tune of 82-72, giving them their first win against Louisville in Diddle Arena in program history, snapping a nine-game losing streak to their in-state rival in the process.

Stewart said he doesn’t think you can “put a price tag on the value of exposure” that WKU Athletics, the university and the city of Bowling Green received that day. The Hilltoppers went from one of the highest rated pre-Christmas bowl games on ESPN straight into a primetime slot on CBS.

“To my knowledge, we hadn’t been on CBS, with the exception of the NCAA Tournament, in a long time,” Stewart said. “So to have six continuous hours of that, to win both the games, both of which were huge wins, it was really just an incredible time for all of us.”

A few days later, WKU Basketball was granted another nationally televised game due to a COVID-19 issue within Louisville’s program, this time against the Kentucky Wildcats. The Hilltoppers got within four points of the lead in the second half before the Wildcats took off to win 95-60. For both in-state games, Kentucky and Louisville pitched in to help out their fellow bluegrass school.

“Louisville’s men’s basketball team did something similar [to App State] when we played them, and the night before the game, their players actually unloaded their bus and put items on a truck,” Stewart said. “The University of Kentucky did a telethon and raised money, not just for Bowling Green, but for the whole state. That has been really the inspiring part of this, just the way that people have stepped up and wanted to help in whatever way that they can.”

WKU Athletics won six consecutive games after the tornado before the Kentucky loss. The women’s basket- ball program is 5-0 in that time frame while WKU as a whole is 10-2 since that fateful day. Both basketball pro- grams have yet to lose in Diddle Arena since Dec. 11.

The two programs went out a few days after the tornado to help out along with WKU Volleyball head coach Travis Hudson and his players. Men’s basketball head coach Rick Stansbury said he canceled practice because “there are more valuable things than practicing”.

“We get a lot more from it than some togetherness,” Stansbury said. “Our guys being out there in this community, understanding whatever bumps and bruises or bad things they think they got going on in their lives that’s bad, those are not problems. These are real problems here.”

“They have an opportunity to give back some,” Stansbury continued. “You’ll be a giver, help some other people. There was no question. It was something that everybody needs at times. It puts things in perspective.”

WKU guard Luke Frampton said it was a time for the team to bond and give back to a community that has given the basketball program so much.

“We’re out there working hard and cleaning up the best we can to help the people that support us throughout the year,” Frampton said. “So, going out and meeting the community and helping them in a time of need like that is a huge thing for us.”

Stewart said everybody that came out to help and support Bowling Green “validates what’s good about America,” especially an America that’s divided on multiple fronts. Stewart believes that the United States is the best country in the world because people look out for their neighbors.

“That’s what we saw. In our time of need, a tremendous amount of people, some of whom we knew and some of whom we didn’t, stepped up to try to help not only us, but to help Bowling Green,” Stewart said. “That’s really been kind of the fabric of the history of our country – those kinds of things happening.”

Stewart said once school starts back up and athletes return to campus, you will start to see more visibility from WKU Athletics. For now, the rebuild continues.

“This is a long, hard rebuild for Bowling Green unfortunately,” Stewart said. “There’s some progress that’s been made, but there’s a long road ahead. We’ll roll up our sleeves, and we’ll jump in there with everybody else and certainly do our part, whatever we can to help people get back on their feet and get their lives going in the right direction again.”

Sports Editor Wyatt Sparkman can be reached at [email protected] topper.wku.edu. Follow him on Twitter @wyattsparkman3.