One year ago today, Western Kentucky hired Todd Stewart on a full-time basis to be its athletic director.
Stewart’s first 365 days on the job have been filled with coaching changes, historic wins, championships and the announcement of a major switch to a new conference.
The Daily News sat down with Stewart this week to look back on the athletic year that was and to survey the year that will be.
Daily News: When looking back at the year that was, what are the major things that stand out to you?
Stewart: “Our goals to me kind of fall under four different areas. I feel really good about three of them, and the fourth one I feel good about, but we need to improve.
“Goal No. 1 is, obviously, we need to be successful. We need to win, not only games, but win championships, go to the NCAA tournament and advance in the NCAA tournament. We feel like we’ve done that.
“Goal No. 2 is our student-athletes have to graduate. They have to progress toward their degree, and they are. We have 74 that will graduate Saturday and 33 graduated in December – so I feel good about that. APR-wise (academic progress rating), we’re in great shape. GPA-wise, we’re in great shape.
“No. 3, I think it’s extremely vital that our athletic department, and all of our programs, have an impact in our community. One of the things I had talked about with Lindsay Boyden (assistant athletic director of marketing), to me it seemed that there are 365 days in a year, so let’s try and have 365 hours of community service as a benchmark. That’s an hour a day. If we can have an impact with one hour a day – well, we’re almost at 500 hours this year and, obviously, the year’s not quite finished. I feel good about that and, ultimately, if we got up in that 750 range that would be like a month of community service and that’s what we would shoot for.
“The fourth one, which I feel good about, but there’s certainly room to improve on, is growing our fan base. We made some strides this year and our season tickets were up in football and in basketball – in football we had two sellout crowds, but really it tailed off at the end. We’ve got some work to do there, still.”
DN: So, how do you continue to grow that fan base?
Stewart: “I think what we do with what we can control is be visible in the community. I think the day of sending out an email and having a billboard and a website and thinking that’s enough – those days are gone. You’ve got to be visible, and we actually have a pretty aggressive plan that we’ll have a sales force and a marketing force, not just out in Bowling Green, but in Elizabethtown and in Owensboro and Glasgow and Paducah, Nashville, Louisville – all those areas. We do the tour stops, but this won’t be in place of that, this will supplement that. I think we’ll actually go into those areas and be visible.
“And then obviously, winning. There’s a lot of variables that go into winning, but if you win, it helps. There’s things that we can do that we started doing a year ago that we just need to continue to do.”
DN: Do you still feel hiring Bobby Petrino to lead the football program was the right move to make?
Stewart: “I really do. I think he’s been tremendous in terms of the imprint he’s put on our football program. Just the overall, high-level success that he brings, the assistant coaching that he’s hired – for Western Kentucky University to have a coaching staff that has 59 (combined) bowl games of coaching experience, 12 BCS bowl games, three guys that played in the NFL – that’s pretty amazing. Six years ago we played in a one-sided stadium in the Gateway Conference. Now our head coach is somebody in the prime of his career who, within the last six years, has been to the Orange Bowl, the Sugar Bowl and the Cotton Bowl.
“Then the other reason I feel good about it, it kind of goes back to the fan base. A big disappointment from last year was our last two home football crowds. Our actual attendance for the North Texas (11,074 announced) and FAU (14,185 announced) games was under 10,000. The North Texas game, honestly, looked like a high school game. That was disappointing. For whatever the reason, we lost our energy at the end of the season. I think hiring coach Petrino has brought some energy back to the program.”
DN: You announced the long-anticipated move to Conference USA last month, but some argue that league is nothing more than an updated Sun Belt Conference in terms of competition. Is that a fair argument?
Stewart: “What’s so positive about it from our standpoint are the people that we’ll be playing on a regular basis that I think our fans will enjoy seeing – and programs that we haven’t been playing. Obviously we’ve been playing Middle Tennessee and North Texas and FAU and FIU. That part is not new, but we haven’t been playing Marshall, we haven’t been playing UAB, we haven’t been playing Southern Miss, Old Dominion, Charlotte – those people we haven’t been playing and I think to start playing them on a regular basis will be a good thing and that will help from an energy standpoint as well.”
DN: How about the jobs that men’s basketball coach Ray Harper and women’s basketball coach Michelle Clark-Heard were able to do this past season?
Stewart: “Just fantastic. Both of them historic, really. (Harper), in men’s basketball, the only time in the history of college basketball that a team has won their conference tournament two straight years by winning four games in four days. Our players deserve credit, too, for buying into his vision and not giving up. The last two seasons, where we were in January, nobody probably thought we’d be where we ended up being in March. (Harper) and his assistants deserve tremendous credit for that – and our players, too.
“(Heard), to go from 21 losses to 22 wins with no seniors and two juniors and, to her credit, saving four scholarships for this year – taking the court with, initially, 11 scholarship players and then (freshman) Kendall Noble gets hurt and we only have 10 scholarship players, to have the type of season we had was remarkable.”
DN: Looking ahead, what in your view are some new things WKU fans can look forward to getting excited about?
Stewart: “I think what might be new in some respects is just the excitement and momentum that I feel from fans that we have in so many of our sports heading forward. Even when you talk about volleyball, Travis Hudson deserves so much credit, too, because in most places if a team goes 31-4 (in 2011), they’re probably reloading the next year. We go from 31-4 to 33-4 (in 2012) and win an NCAA tournament game with a 1,000 APR. You’d be hard-pressed to find a program in any sport that combines the success that they have.
“Then softball broke some barriers down this year. Very proud of them. I think they’re role models from the standpoint that they were picked sixth and they won the league. That’s a great example, whether it’s in athletics or elsewhere, don’t settle. You are the ones that control your destiny, and they didn’t settle. They were picked sixth and now they go to the conference tournament as the one seed and that’s just a terrific accomplishment.”