Support for WKU from all around
Dec 03, 2012 (Daily News - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
As Bobby Rainey learned Sunday night that Western Kentucky accepted its first bowl bid as a member of the Football Bowl Subdivision, the former Hilltopper running back let out a chuckle.
"That's great to just know that," Rainey said. "We should have gone to one last year, so it's about time they let us in one."
The news -- that WKU will face Central Michigan on Dec. 26 in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl in Detroit -- represented the next step for the Hilltoppers, who finished 0-12 in 2009.
The Toppers have steadily improved since then during their acclimation to the FBS level, posting records of 2-10, 7-5 and 7-5.
Last season, 7-5 wasn't good enough to go bowling and WKU was one of two eligible teams left at home.
"Last year, I felt terrible for the seniors -- guys like Bobby Rainey and (offensive lineman) Wes Jeffries," WKU senior tight end Jack Doyle said Sunday. "I'm just so glad for my classmates to get to play with them one more time."
Rainey didn't get that chance, but he says he'll be at Ford Field in Detroit when the Hilltoppers take on the Chippewas. He's currently on injured reserve with the Baltimore Ravens and is rehabbing a knee injury.
"It doesn't matter where we're going," he said. "I'll be there."
Ole Miss Athletic Director Ross Bjork, the former WKU AD, vividly remembers last year's bowl snub for the Toppers. At the time, Bjork lobbied late last season for a spot for the Tops, particularly in the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, Ala. In a twist of fate, Bjork's Ole Miss Rebels will play Pittsburgh this season in the Compass Bowl.
"First, let me say congratulations to Hilltopper Nation," Bjork said. "They're deserving with a 7-5 record, but the Sun Belt (Conference) needs more auto tie-ins. After that, you're relying on open spots. It's the exact same situation as last year. Two bowl tie-ins makes it a challenge each year. The program has earned it on the field and with the investment in facilities."
Bjork added that he's confident WKU will continue to increase its chances each season with improved attendance and season ticket sales.
The bowl bid should help bolster fan support, said Nathan Belcher, a junior at WKU.
"Winning programs get the most fans," said Belcher, a Morgantown native. "I think attendance should be good at the bowl game. The day after Christmas is a rough day to travel, but people can head up there, enjoy the town, go out that night. The fans will rally around our team. We're pretty much always the underdog for things, but I think they can support trying to win something that we can actually hold on to.
"I think it's very important for the program. It's a big step. When you join (the FBS), a bowl is your ultimate goal. I think winning seven games two years in a row shows we're prepared."
Former WKU coach David Elson, who was fired in 2009 during his seventh season at WKU, congratulated the Toppers and their seniors on the bowl bid via Twitter on Sunday.
Elson was a coach in some capacity at WKU for 14 years, and this year's seniors were largely his recruits. He's currently the defensive coordinator at New Mexico State.
"All I can say is that those seniors are why we coach," Elson said in an email to the Daily News. "They persevered through adversity & stayed loyal to each other & their school. They are what college athletics is all about! Honored to be associated with them in a small way."
Although WKU's improvement under Willie Taggart has come fast, the third-year coach said Sunday that the Tops won't be satisfied with simply reaching a bowl game.
In order to turn the opportunity into long-term department success, WKU must keep moving forward, Athletic Director Todd Stewart said.
"The key is that you want to be able to say, 'Are we better off today than we were a year ago ' " Stewart said. "This is a huge step. Look at the programs around the country that aren't in a bowl game -- and we are. You're known by the company you keep, and I think it's validation that we're headed in the right direction."
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