When WKU beat Kentucky for the first time ever in football Saturday, the significance was not lost on Todd Stewart. He was part of the WKU athletics department when the Hilltoppers lost 26 straight games, including a winless 2009 season.
Monday afternoon, WKU Public Radio spoke to Stewart, who was named WKU athletic director in May. He praised head football coach Willie Taggart, as well as his UK counterpart, Mitch Barnhart. Here are some highlights of our conversation:
Reflecting on how far the WKU football program has come since losing 26 straight games:
“That’s the impact Coach Taggart has had. You talked about the 26 game overall losing streak. When he was hired a little over two years ago, we had a 20 game losing streak, which was the longest in the nation. We went 2-10 his first season, a kind of rebuilding year. And then we started 0-4 last year. So we had a period where we lost 36 out of 40 games."
"But since that stretch, we’re 9-2, and those only two losses were at #1 LSU and at #1 Alabama. It’s a remarkable job that he’s done in a relatively short order.”
On measuring the overall impact of beating Kentucky:
“I don’t know that you can measure how positive of an impact it is. It’s almost such a huge impact that it’s immeasurable. Especially here, in Kentucky, to beat Kentucky…I mean, so many fans in Bowling Green grew up UK fans. We have students on our campus who still wear UK shirts, and they grew up rooting for UK."
"So, for everybody—and especially for the people who grew up rooting for UK, or at least following UK—there’s no better way to validate that our program has turned the corner than to actually beat the team that they’re most familiar with. That’s huge."
"And the exposure part of it is just enormous. The fact that it was a nationally televised game on ESPNU means they therefore show highlights of the game on Sportscenter throughout Saturday night and Sunday morning. We’re on the front page of not only the Bowling Green paper, but the papers in Louisville and Lexington. You just can’t put a price tag on all those things.”
On being appreciative of the fact Kentucky was willing to sign a four-year football contract with WKU:
“Honestly, one thing that’s been lost in all this—I think Mitch Barnhart, Kentucky’s athletic director, and Rich Brooks, their former football coach, really deserve a lot of credit for this series. And what I mean by that is they scheduled this four-game series with us, and two of the four games weren’t even in their stadium. They did not have to do that."
"But what I think they did was do something that was great for college football. And if you look around at a number of the states in the country, the marquee team in the state doesn’t play teams within their own state.”
Does Stewart hope to continue playing Kentucky in football beyond next season?
"Well, sure. After we play in Nashville next year, that will be the fifth time in six years that we’ve played UK, so I think understandably it might be normal to take a little bit of break there. In 2014-2015, the Sun Belt conference will actually go to a nine-game conference schedule, so there’s one less non-conference game. So there’s some things to be determined in terms of scheduling."
On whether or not certain larger program might not be willing to play WKU if they continue to improve:
“It’s possible, but I don’t think we’re to that point by any stretch. That’s what has happened to Boise State. We face that in basketball, where it’s really hard for us to get good home games here in Diddle Arena in terms of getting a true home-and-home for that reason."
"It would be a good problem to have. It would mean the program has continued to develop. It does happen nationwide. I hope it doesn’t happen from the standpoint that we want to continue to be able to play these games, but I guess the more that these games become challenging, I guess that means the more that our program is growing, which would be a good thing.”