Selig: Football key to WKU's future

See Daniel Pike's full story at the Bowling Green Daily News web site

The 2007-08 athletic season at Western Kentucky was among the most successful in university history. The Hilltoppers won 10 Sun Belt Conference championships, more than any other NCAA Division I school. Six programs qualified for NCAA postseason competition, including volleyball, baseball, women’s basketball and men’s basketball – which advanced to its first Sweet 16 in 15 years.

WKU athletic director Wood Selig is entering his 10th season on the Hill this month. He has overseen a period of rapid change in Hilltopper sports, highlighted this fall by the expansion of Houchens-Smith Stadium as WKU football continues its transition into becoming a full NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly I-A) member.

Selig spoke last week with Daily News sports editor Daniel Pike about the growth of Hilltopper athletics, how I-A football benefits the entire athletic department, the Sun Belt Conference, minor league baseball and why there could be still more changes on campus.

This interview has been edited for length and for clarity.

Question: Your thoughts on the 2007-08 season, and are there certain things that stick out to you?

Answer: Last season a couple factors really stick out in my mind. One was just the overall championship effort that all of our student-athletes and coaches gave. To win 10 conference championships out of only 18 possible championships is just remarkable. As we dissected the SEC and Georgia with five championships, the ACC with Virginia with six championships, it was obvious to us at that point what a remarkable accomplishment our programs enjoyed. It’ll be hard to duplicate in the future. Can WKU do better than 10 next year? That’s certainly a goal that will be put out in front of all of our programs.

That was one, and secondly, academically. We just had our spring academic report card turned in and we had 12 of our 20 (counting men’s soccer at the time) teams have a better than 3.0 semester last year. Over half of them have a 3.0 cumulative average for their teams. Then the fact that over the last 10 years we’ve graduated 87 percent of our student-athletes who’ve completed their eligibility.

Q: You’ve said the 10 conference championships will be hard to duplicate, but the goal is to get close to that every year. What has to happen in order for that to be the case, and do you feel like it is happening now?

A: I feel like the role of our university and athletic administration is to put our programs, our coaches, our student-athletes in position to win championships. You do that by providing them with first-class facilities, with budgets that are strong relative to conference competition and perhaps even comparative to some of the nation’s elite. There’s a commitment of resources that goes along with that. And then supporting our programs philosophically. Being in support of the values of intercollegiate athletics and everything that is derived from participation and competition by the student-athlete, by the student body, by the community.

Q: Let’s talk about men’s basketball – the Sweet 16, the fact that you guys have said that being a consistent top 25-type program is a goal. So that sort of run is presumably something you’d like to see happen a little more often. You mentioned budgets – what changes money-wise, budget-wise are going on in that program to help with that?

A: First we’ve got a brand-new (E.A.) Diddle Arena with an outstanding weight room and auxiliary gym space. As we finish the construction of our football stadium, we added a 10,000-square-foot weight room, a training room that’s going to take a lot of pressure off of the Diddle Arena facilities and allow sports to enjoy the new facilities over in the football stadium. That will give basketball and volleyball a primary tenant status in Diddle Arena. It will become more of a basketball facility with obvious markings in the weight room, in the auxiliary gym, so I think there will be greater visibility and prominence by basketball in Diddle Arena now.

Houchens Industries has definitely jumped on board, not only with the football stadium, but with our basketball program. In large part to their financial commitment last year, WKU men’s basketball was televised every single game, home and road (by the Hilltopper Sports Satellite Network). It was on Fox College Sports in 53 million homes, and don’t forget the men’s basketball (selection) committee was able to get all of our games. So that financial commitment to television is a huge impact in the visibility of our program.

We will have a financial windfall from “The Shot.” With Ty Rogers winning the dramatic last-second shot to propel us over Drake and help us get to that Sweet 16 level, the way the Sun Belt Conference’s revenue-sharing policy works, that was a $450,000 benefit to WKU to support our men’s basketball efforts. So there will be some additional funding that will be made available.

Q: Are plans in place again for the same or a similar television package for basketball this year?

A: Well, just like anything, you want to grow from the previous year. We want to somehow find a way to further the Hilltopper Sports Satellite Network. We’re in great shape with our Fox College Sports partner, but if there’s a way to further the penetration of those telecasts, we’d like to try to do that, as well as in the commonwealth of Kentucky.

Q: After the Sweet 16 run, has there been greater interest from or more discussions with, say, ESPN about televising men’s basketball games?

A: I don’t know that we’ve necessarily seen it from that standpoint, because a lot of it runs through our conference. But I think where we’ve seen it is that we’ve talked seriously with Gonzaga, we’re talking to Arkansas, Mississippi State, Davidson, Xavier, Wake Forest – these are serious conversations about home-and-home games. Not playing one, get bought, go there, or not a two-for-one. They’re serious conversations.

When you look at Gonzaga, Southern Illinois, Xavier – schools love to play them, because if you are lucky to beat them, that’s a heck of a win. And if you don’t have success against them, nobody in their right mind would come close to saying, “How did you let them beat you?” So it’s a great opponent. WKU, in the eyes of the overwhelming majority of college basketball, is now a great opponent, because it’s a Sweet 16 team.

Q: Football. With the renovated stadium, with the (largely FBS) schedule, it’s going to be the big story this fall. There was a time when it would have been hard to believe football might be a bigger story than basketball.

A: I have not been associated with WKU for its entirety, but I can’t help but think that this is one of the most exciting times to be a part of WKU athletics with everything that is in front of us. The transition to I-A and what that means, not just for football. That’s going to be a tremendous asset for all of our programs.

(WKU women’s basketball coach) Mary Taylor Cowles tells about going into a recruit’s home and after a while they said, “Now are you Division II or are you Division I?” I think so much of an individual’s perception of an athletic program is determined by whether or not that school is a I-A school or I-AA.

I think we’re going to start to be known by the company we keep. That company is going to be the likes of North Carolina, Indiana, Army, Kentucky, Virginia Tech on a regular basis, because those are the types of schools that we will be playing in football. Another case of football helping other programs: With the Virginia Tech game, we are talking to Virginia Tech about doing a home-and-home basketball series as a result of that opportunity from football. I think football is going to enhance all of our 19 sports.

Q: You mentioned North Carolina.

A: We don’t have anything with them, but we’ve talked to them seriously about a home-and-home in football.

Q: Coach (David) Elson is in season-prep mode and he doesn’t like talking about the football schedule as a whole. But what does the schedule and the level of teams you’ll be playing do from a perception standpoint? I know there are financial benefits as well.

A: It puts us in an entirely different neighborhood. We’re going to be on the ticker every week. We’re going to be playing top 25 programs. We’re going to be on ESPN SportsCenter. The program’s going to get a lot more notoriety and visibility than it’s ever had.

We felt in 2008, this is our second year of transition. We’re still not competing for a conference championship. The NCAA won’t allow you to, and we still are not bowl eligible. You’re kind of in no-man’s land. You’re truly an independent. You’re competing for pride, so part of the thought process was to challenge ourselves. These are the games and the type of opponents that every 18-, 19-, 20-year-old wants to measure themselves against.

It can certainly help us with recruiting, notwithstanding the financial benefit that comes from several of the games that we’ve scheduled. We can invest in the long-term growth of WKU football.

Q: After the baseball team’s NCAA Tournament appearance, it would stand to reason that next season might be one of increased fan interest. But we’ve also got a new minor league team in town. Do you think there will be a competition factor?

A: I’m not so worried about the competition factor. There may be a little bit of that from a corporate partner standpoint or a season-ticket holder standpoint. But as far as I can see, the minor league team will only elevate the profile of baseball in this market. You look at the success of our Little League, with a local team almost making the Little League World Series, and I think we’ve been flying under the radar from a publicity and recognition standpoint. We play in one of the top baseball conferences in America, and we’ve won the conference championship twice in the last four years, yet we’ve had a challenge drawing consistently to our facility.

I think minor league baseball could be a tremendous asset for WKU baseball, by getting people thinking and attending baseball earlier than just the minor league season.

Q: Have there been discussions about WKU using the minor league park for events?

A: They’ve indicated that if we have a big series that maybe we’re afraid that it’s going to exceed the capacity of Nick Denes (Field), we could “take it downtown.” Or if we have a single game and we want to put 4,000 or 5,000 people in, they’ve been very accommodating in letting us know that, “Hey, we’re here for you.”

Q: This is a question you probably get all the time. Do you think about whether the Sun Belt is the best place for Western?

A: Yeah, probably every day. And not from a dissatisfaction standpoint, but from a standpoint of wanting the Sun Belt to reach its maximum potential and wanting all the members within the league to reach their maximum potential that I think all of us know can be accomplished.

That’s why the CEOs a year ago passed a membership standards document that calls for specific accountability by every one of the Sun Belt Conference member institutions pertaining to attendance, pertaining to the marketing and the funding of the core sports within our league. Let’s lock arms and let’s agree to hold each other accountable, because no one can hold the Sun Belt down perhaps more than our own institutions can. So let’s not be our own enemy. We’ve got enough of those on the outside; there don’t need to be any internally.

So let’s take a I-A conference and let’s see if we can’t start climbing the ladder and start picking off some of the other I-A leagues. I love the footprint of the conference. It’s a southeastern footprint. We’re kind of a mirror image of the SEC. We talk internally that (we should) try and be what the (Mid-American Conference) is to the Big Ten. The MAC is a very well respected conference that happens to match the Big Ten footprint. We want to do the same thing with the SEC.

We’re in the Sun Belt. We’re in the growth belt. We’re where recruits are born and bred. We’re where the population is moving. We’re where fans can be outside and enjoying the sports almost year-round. I think our best days are still ahead as a conference.

Q: So you would rather see the Sun Belt grow and develop instead of leaving for a “bigger” conference?

A: Well, I would like to know what, quote-unquote, a bigger conference is. Because we’re not going to the SEC. The Big East, need to see what happens there, but if something breaks there, who knows? It’s going to be rats off the ship from all conferences in that regard.

What is a bigger conference? Is it Conference USA? I’d say that we’re every bit as good, if not better, than Conference USA. Is it the (Western Athletic Conference)? The MAC?

Everybody wants to recruit in Florida, and we’ve got two schools in Florida that we play twice a year across all sports. I think the biggest handcuff right now within our conference (is) perhaps the funding of programs across the board. I think there’s a direct correlation – the more you invest, the greater your success. We’re now starting to see so many of our conference schools really start to increase their investment and commitment to their intercollegiate programs. That’s why I think in a few short years the Sun Belt is really poised to make some noise among the 11 I-A conferences.

If we get Florida Atlantic and Florida International really, really healthy and turn those programs into absolute beasts overall, and WKU continues to do what we have been able to do over the last five to 10 years, now from top to bottom you take away a lot of your weak links and you turn them into powers and you become one of those power conferences. Florida Atlantic is certainly getting it done in football, and I think we could become a football destination conference, a lot more so than some other conferences.

Q: Can being a power football conference carry the load for the entire athletic program in ways that Sun Belt basketball can’t?

A: Absolutely. When you look at the revenue potential, men’s and women’s basketball has just a finite amount of revenue potential still available given the strong support that we currently enjoy. If we can sell maybe 1,000 more season tickets, we’re going to be close to sold out. The luxury boxes are sold out. So your ability to drive HAF donations and ticket revenue through your basketball facility is approaching capacity.

Football on the other hand, with 22,000 or 23,000 seats, with the stadium club, everything associated with football ... absolutely represents the greatest financial potential that WKU athletics has, as well as visibility. That’s going to be the key to our future – the success of our football program and the level of support that we’re able to gather from our community.

Q: Do you step back and think about all the physical changes and athletic improvements, and how much further do you want to go?

A: I guess I’m lucky that (WKU) President (Gary) Ransdell never showed me my office during my official interview. I had no idea where my office would be; I knew that Diddle Arena needed some major attention. There were positive things that could be done, but it was going to take some effort. So it’s been a lot of work, it’s been a ton of heavy lifting, but we’ve had great leadership. ...

We still say around here our best days are ahead of us. We’re going to be able to sit back and enjoy some of the fruits of our labor in regard to the facility upgrades, in regard to the dynamic young coaches we’ve been able to attract and retain.

Ultimately, facility-wise, we want to get the clubhouse (completed) for baseball, we’d like to complete our track complex with concession stands, scoreboard, lights. ... And at some point we’re going to have to start talking about an indoor football (practice) facility. I think if we want to get serious at the I-A football level, we’re going to have to have some type of indoor facility. It certainly can be multi-purpose in that you can practice baseball and track inside, but the overwhelming support would be directed toward our football program.

Those are some of our future facility projects that I am starting to think about and turn some attention to as we check off Diddle Arena, football stadium, baseball field. Track is halfway there. Soccer, softball in pretty good shape right now, but I’d love to have a soccer/softball coaches’ office/locker room complex that perhaps we’d build into that modest parking area between the two fields. Ideally one day they could have that as their permanent home.

So we’re not going to check the football stadium off and start going home early every afternoon.