Western Kentucky AD proud of athletic, academic success
By GARY B. GRAVES
Western Kentucky athletic director Todd Stewart is proud of the school's ongoing success in competition and classwork.
The Hilltoppers earned Conference USA titles in women's basketball and volleyball this past year, bringing the total to 24 since entering the league in 2014. Stewart noted that his school has twice the hardware of the next closest conference member, Middle Tennessee, over the same time period.
WKU also posted a graduation rate of 85 percent with 11 of 14 programs registering at least 970 in the NCAA's Academic Progress Rate. Four posted perfect 1,000 scores, making Stewart proud on multiple levels as he enters his seventh year as AD.
"Big-picture wise, I feel really good about where we are because the winning continued," Stewart told the Associated Press. "We've doubled everybody up and at the same time our graduation success rate is 85 percent, the highest it's been in WKU athletics.
"That speaks to our coaches and athletes and doing it the right way, and doing it well."
Volleyball showed that by winning its fourth consecutive regular season and tournament titles and reaching the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Alyssa Cavanaugh was recently named C-USA Female Athlete of the Year, the third Hilltopper to earn the prestigious honor over the past four years.
Women's basketball meanwhile won its second consecutive tournament title and third in four years under former coach Michelle Clark-Heard. The former Hilltopper player left soon after the NCAA Tournament for the head coaching job at Cincinnati, where she had been an assistant.
Stewart wasn't shocked Clark-Heard earned another opportunity after she went 154-48 over six seasons with four NCAA appearances in Bowling Green. The AD promoted associate coach Greg Collins to the lead job, believing his familiarity with the program can maintain the winning.
"She just did a phenomenal job," Stewart said of Clark-Heard. "We knew we had a succession plan in place, so when she decided to go to Cincinnati it was easy to name Greg the head coach, and our players are excited about that."
Men's basketball has generated similar anticipation after reaching the NIT semifinal under second-year coach Rick Stansbury. Early-season upsets of No. 18 Purdue and SMU spurred WKU (27-11) to achieve its highest win total in a decade before falling to Utah in New York City.
Stansbury's next step is earning the `Toppers' first NCAA appearance since 2013 with a C-USA title and automatic bid. Encouraged by an incoming class featuring 6-foot-11 Charles Bassey and a returning cast led by guard Taveion Hollingsworth - a former AP Kentucky Player of the Year - the coach believes his team is capable of bigger things.
"I don't want it to be `maybe'. We can," Stansbury said of his team's outlook. "Last year was a brand new team, a fun team to watch. We had some great success early. This is a fun team because we have good people and that's why it mixed so well."
After back-to-back C-USA titles and bowl wins under Jeff Brohm, the football team finished 6-7 in Mike Sanford's head coaching debut and played in its fourth consecutive bowl. Linebacker Joel Iyiegbuniwe (fourth round, Chicago Bears) and quarterback Mike White (fifth round, Dallas Cowboys) were selected in the NFL Draft, giving the program seven selections since 2016.
The Hilltoppers' challenge now is replacing those two key players with a schedule that includes in-state rival Louisville and Big Ten member Wisconsin along with a tough C-USA docket.
"The problems that come with winning are better than those that come with losing," said Stewart, who has seen Bobby Petrino (Louisville) and Brohm (Purdue) parlay successful WKU tenures into Power 5 coaching jobs. He believes WKU can compete this year now that Sanford has put talent and personnel in place.
"People became used to precedent and it's hard to win three (titles) in a row," he added. "Last year was kind of a reset, mainly because the 2017 roster was so different from 2016."
Stewart's positive outlook for his program is being reflected in facility upgrades to meet increased ticket demand, especially in basketball. The football stadium and basketball arena will add video boards and improve sound systems, and the AD is eager to see how C-USA's new TV deal with CBS Sports Network benefits exposure.
The AD acknowledges that WKU remains challenged financially, but takes satisfaction in how his program has thrived despite lagging behind other conference schools. Stewart believes that success will pay off and remains committed to making it happen.
"Hopefully the situation gets better for us, because if it does I think we can do bigger and better things," he said. "What we sell here is that we have a winning culture. There are a lot of positives, and that's what we try to focus on."
Updated July 11, 2018