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WKU's new head coach Tyson Helton (left) shares a smile with WKU athletic director Todd Stewart (right) during Helton's first press conference as the new head coach of the Hilltoppers at the Harbaugh Club in Houchens-Smith Stadium Nov. 27 in Bowling Green. "It's not about making championships," Helton said. "Its about making champions." Helton comes to WKU after working for Tennessee and Southern California.

Letter submitted by Keith Norris, WKU class of 1988

After WKU athletics director Todd Stewart fired Mike Sanford, Jr. as football coach on the afternoon of Sunday, Nov. 25, it quickly became apparent that something nefarious and underhanded was going on. Within hours of Sanford’s firing, ESPN reported that WKU was close to a deal to hire Tyson Helton as its new football coach. Stewart, by his own admission at Helton’s introductory press conference, had been discussing the position and negotiating with Helton while WKU still had a head football coach, Sanford Jr., under contract.  This is a complete lack of respect for Sanford Jr. and his staff, and it stoops to a lower level than I ever thought WKU would do.

My main purpose for writing is not to defend Sanford Jr. To the contrary, it can’t be denied that Sanford Jr’s results during his two years as the WKU coach dropped off substantially from those of his predecessor, Jeff Brohm. Brohm, who is now highly coveted by both college programs and NFL teams, is a rare coaching talent unlike any seen in Bowling Green in a very long time, if ever. It is unreasonable and foolish to expect first time head coach Mike Sanford Jr. to immediately achieve at the level Brohm did, or face firing after just two years. 

High atop Houchens Industries-L.T. Smith Stadium sits the Jack & Jackie Harbaugh Stadium Club. Jack Harbaugh is the second winningest coach in WKU football history and was coach of WKU’s only national championship team in 2002. His WKU record after his first two years was 8-13, which is very comparable to Sanford Jr’s record of 9-16. Harbaugh is considered a program savior, as he and the late Jimmy Feix saved the WKU football program from near-extinction in the early 1990’s. If WKU administrators at that time had been so shortsighted that they fired Harbaugh after two years, there would be no national championship and no football program today.  

WKU’s unfettered and outlandish football expectations and aspirations are absurd and unreasonable. Several years ago, a small group of vocal fans bombarded officials of a bowl game with e-mails and social media posts, demanding that WKU get an invitation to that particular bowl game. Yet, when WKU has been invited to bowl games, the fans don’t buy tickets and go to the games. They don’t even buy tickets for home games. Even though Houchen Industries-L.T. Smith Stadium is one of the smallest stadiums in the Football Bowl Subdivision, WKU couldn’t fill it for the conference championship game two years in a row when Brohm was coach. WKU is a member of the bottom-feeding Conference USA. Even in WKU’s banner years in football, a no-name bowl in some sunny locale like Boise or Detroit is the reward that usually awaits them. 

Though AD Todd Stewart stokes WKU’s football ambition, he did not create it.  That distinction belongs to former WKU president Gary Ransdell, who was often more concerned with writing the narrative for his own legacy than he was with serving the greater good of the university. Ransdell, along with certain well-heeled and powerful boosters and members of the Board of Regents, forced this  pigskin folly upon the rest of the university community. 

It is too late to turn back now. The $50 million stadium upgrade was completed long ago, and  WKU is an active participant in the college athletics arms race.  Mike Sanford Jr. has been fired, and his replacement hired not only before Sanford, Jr. had time to get out of town, but before he even had a chance to clean out his office. The same fate awaits Tyson Helton if he doesn’t win right away.

My suggestion is simple. I think WKU should part ways with athletics director Todd Stewart, find “new leadership” and “go in another direction.” 

Sincerely,

Keith W. Norris,  WKU Class of 1988