If a Western Kentucky sports team was playing during the last 20 years, Gary and Julie Ransdell probably weren’t far from the action.

The Ransdells attended more than just Hilltopper football and men’s basketball games. They were in half-court seats for every women’s basketball contest, in the stands for volleyball and soccer games and, in Gary Ransdell’s case, often in the press box providing color commentary for WKU baseball.

Ransdell is quick to point out that in two decades as WKU’s president, he and his wife also supported students at dance recitals, musicals, forensics competitions and even the engineering school’s concrete canoe races.

“We love to watch our students perform and compete,” Ransdell said. “It’s just that we have a lot of athletic events and they’re very visible. So people notice we’re at those more than when we’re at other events in Van Meter (Hall) or elsewhere.

“But we love it. … We take great pride in everything WKU. When students work hard to compete and represent this university, they need our support.”

Ransdell retired Friday as school president, ending a tenure that started in 1997. His replacement, Tim Caboni, started Saturday.

Ransdell oversaw changes throughout the university, from new buildings to increased fundraising to prioritizing what the school calls its “international reach.”

WKU’s athletic department also transformed during Ransdell’s presidency. His 20 years at the helm of the university included the football program’s jump to the FBS, facilities upgrades and a move from the Sun Belt Conference to Conference USA.

Ransdell played an active role in athletics throughout his tenure. He sold his vision of WKU and its sports programs not just to fellow administrators, but to future Hilltopper and Lady Topper athletes.

“There is not a person you’ll find on this earth that’ll sell WKU as effectively and passionately as Gary Ransdell,” WKU football coach Mike Sanford said. “He did an unbelievable job with us on our official visit weekends … in just selling his passion for this university, what it’s meant for him, what it’s meant for his wife and their life’s work.”

Ransdell spoke Thursday to the Daily News about the athletics landscape he’s leaving behind at WKU. The soon-to-be-former president talked of programs that have won 21 C-USA regular season or tournament titles, more than any other conference member, since joining the league in 2014.

“We’ve always been pretty good athletically,” Ransdell said. “Now I think we’re really hitting our stride at a national level in the NCAA.

“It was my intent over 20 years to raise our sights athletically as well as academically and from a facilities standpoint. I think we’ve done that.”

‘An important change to make’

The most visible athletic move during Gary Ransdell’s tenure was the football team’s jump to Division I-A (now called the FBS) that began in 2007.

Ransdell arrived at WKU in 1997, five years after the school’s football program nearly shuttered in 1992 due to budget issues. Five years into Ransdell’s presidency, coach Jack Harbaugh’s Hilltoppers won the 2002 Division I-AA national championship.

The Sun Belt Conference, WKU’s home at the time for all sports other than football, was putting a priority on football. Ransdell said the league “was beginning to get a little frustrated” with the Hilltoppers playing I-AA (now FCS) football and pushed the school to make the leap to I-A.

“We had to compete at the highest level at all of our sports,” Ransdell said. “We were doing that except for football.

“I was determined we were going to compete at the highest level at everything we do, academically or athletically. That was an important change to make.”

WKU made the leap and started its move to the top division of college football in 2007.

A big piece of that transition was a renovation of Houchens-Smith Stadium. The school added a new side to the previously one-sided stadium to increase capacity and to house the football team’s facilities, including a new weight room and locker room.

The school built the stadium addition as part of a larger infrastructure project that included renovations to College High Hall, Van Meter Hall and the Preston Center and the construction of a new music building.

“That allowed the stadium work to be done in the context of a broader range of projects that cut across academics, student life and athletics,” Ransdell said. “That kind of diffused the attention that just that project would’ve brought in and of itself, by itself in a vacuum.”

The new side of Houchens-Smith Stadium was completed in time for the 2008 season, one year after WKU went 7-5 in ’07 against a mix of Division I-A and I-AA schools.

Things got tougher in a hurry. The Toppers went 2-10 in 2008, then bottomed out to 0-12 the following year. Coach David Elson was fired during that winless 2009 campaign.

Ransdell and WKU replaced him with former star Hilltopper quarterback Willie Taggart. After a 2-10 season in 2010, the program finally got going with a 7-5 campaign in Taggart’s second year.

The Hilltoppers’ football program hasn’t looked back since. WKU has posted a combined 53-25 record since 2011 under the direction of Taggart, Bobby Petrino and Jeff Brohm. The Tops have won three straight bowl games and two straight Conference USA titles.

“Was I disappointed that it took us two or three years of struggle to get to a point where we could be competitive? Yeah, I’m not the most patient guy,” Ransdell said. “But that wasn’t a surprise either.

“We had to build a I-A coaching staff. The moves we’ve made over the course of time, we’ve done that.”

Other notable athletic achievements during Ransdell’s tenure included a $32 million renovation to E.A. Diddle Arena in 2002, the addition of softball in 2000 and women’s soccer in 2001 and a move from the Sun Belt to C-USA that was announced in 2013.

“We were tracking conference realignment and what was happening when and where,” Ransdell said. “(Athletic director) Todd Stewart and I recognized that when Tulsa left (C-USA) for the American Athletic Conference, that was the opening where we determined, ‘Our time is right, let’s go for it.’ And we did and fortunately it worked out.”

‘We’ll do what needs to be done’

Gary Ransdell has also faced his share of challenges during his two decades at WKU. That includes coaching turnover and hard decisions on personnel.

David Elson, women’s basketball coach Mary Taylor Cowles, men’s basketball coaches Ken McDonald and Ray Harper and baseball coach Matt Myers all were fired or resigned during the latter half of Ransdell’s tenure.

Ransdell said he feels good about the school’s current coaches. Track and field coach Erik Jenkins, volleyball coach Travis Hudson and women’s basketball coach Michelle Clark-Heard all have won multiple conference titles at WKU.

Mike Sanford brings an impressive resume into his first year as football coach. And second-year men’s hoops coach Rick Stansbury has re-energized that program by recruiting a highly touted signing class headlined by five-star center Mitchell Robinson.

“We hired a few coaches where you kind of had to scratch your head at some point down the road,” Ransdell said. “But I’m not going to get into that. …

“We’ve had a pretty good batting average with coaches we’ve hired. A few of them didn’t quite work out the way we anticipated, but that’s with any complex organization.”

Ransdell’s tenure included the end of varsity men’s soccer and men’s tennis programs. It’s also included a halt to a traditionally successful swimming team.

The school announced in 2015 a five-year suspension of the men’s and women’s swimming and diving programs. That move came after an investigation into complaints brought by a former team member.

The investigation by the Bowling Green Police Department and WKU’s Title IX coordinator found evidence of violations of WKU’s student code of conduct, discrimination and harassment policy and Title IX sexual misconduct/assault policy, per a university statement.

The five-year suspension of a nationally competitive athletic program was a tough blow for WKU’s athletic department. But Ransdell said it was a move that had to be made.

“Institutional integrity and values will always come first,” Ransdell said. “We will … never tolerate or condone a program where things occur that are inconsistent with our institutional values. When that happens, we’ll do what needs to be done.

“We’ll make a change with a coach, we’ll suspend a program, we’ll do what we have to do to make sure that all of our programs function with character and integrity and are consistent with our fundamental values. I would not hesitate to take action with any program at any time if I thought their actions warranted a corrective action.

“But I would say that with the entire campus. It’s not an athletic thing.”

Ransdell then faced last year what he called “the biggest disappointment” in his 20-year tenure at WKU. That came when a proposed indoor practice facility and sports medicine complex fell through.

WKU and Med Center Health agreed on a $22 million building on Avenue of Champions. It would’ve housed the school’s sports medicine program and indoor practice facilities for Hilltopper and Lady Topper athletic teams.

WKU later agreed to competitively bid the project after a protest from Western Kentucky Orthopaedic and Neurosurgical Associates, which contended the negotiation process was unfair and illegal.

WKU announced in December that it was closing the bidding process for the project because none of the proposals it received met the project’s requirements.

Originally projected to be in use by 2018, the sports medicine complex is now on hold.

“We had that $22 million building and an agreement in hand,” Ransdell said. “We were ready to break ground.

“But the tension and the animosity between health care providers in our community is shocking to me. That hatred among medical providers, that issue became so intimidating and so threatening that it cost us that building.

“I may get over that someday, but it won’t be any time soon. But we’ll continue to seek ways (to fund the facility), because that’s fundamentally critical to any future athletic aspirations that we might have.”

‘You do develop close relationships’

Gary Ransdell was introduced about 10 years ago by David Elson to a football recruit named Bobby Rainey.

“We just connected,” Ransdell said. “That big smile and before he left that Saturday we were hugging his parents. I’m convinced that had a lot to do with his decision to come here.”

The positive impression Ransdell left with Rainey and his parents turned out to be a good thing for the Hilltopper football program. The running back eventually set WKU’s rushing record with 4,542 yards in a career that lasted from 2008-11.

Rainey was just one of the many athletes Ransdell said that he and his wife Julie have made close connections with during their time at WKU.

It’s a common sight at WKU graduation ceremonies to see bear hugs between Ransdell and athletes as they walk across the stage. He said many former athletes still stay in touch with he and his wife after they’ve gone on to the next part of their lives.

“We grew close to a lot of our students all over campus, but again, the spotlight’s a little brighter when you connect with athletes,” Ransdell said. “But golly, a lot of our young men and women on our teams, we became very close.

“Every sport, we had some athletes that just gravitated to us, especially Julie. I know of some athletes that it was almost a mother-son or mother-daughter kind of thing. That’s pretty special.”

Two WKU athletes especially important to the Ransdells were their sons Matthew and Patrick. Both Ransdell sons lettered for the Hilltopper baseball team during their dad’s tenure as school president.

“That was rare,” Gary Ransdell said. “They earned it. They earned their positions and earned their playing time.”

AD Todd Stewart said he appreciated how the Ransdells not only went to games and cheered for WKU teams, but were supportive of the athletes themselves.

“They’ve taken the time to get to know them personally,” Stewart said. “They attend so many events and I think that’s unusual.

“I don’t know how many college presidents and their wife are actually attending sporting events and getting to know the athletes on a first-name basis. But that’s what they’ve done, and we really appreciate it.”

Ransdell said he and his wife hope to continue supporting WKU teams and athletes after his days as school president.

The Ransdells will be based in Fort Collins, Colo., as Gary Ransdell starts his new position next year as president and CEO of the Institute for Shipboard Education.

But the couple will maintain a home in Bowling Green and become Hilltopper and Lady Topper season ticket holders, he said.

“You do develop close relationships,” Ransdell said, “and I hope we can do that in the future as fans.”{&end}

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