WKU Thriving Under Selig

 

(AP) - BOWLING GREEN, Ky. - Wood Selig's goal when he took over as athletic director at Western Kentucky a decade ago was simple.

"My plan was to keep my job and not get fired," Selig said with a laugh. "I didn't know what the heck I was doing."

That might be overstating it, though Selig certainly had his hands full when he inherited an athletic program that was struggling on the field and at the gate.

The men's basketball team-long the school's bellwether sport-had just stumbled to its fifth straight losing season. E.A. Diddle Arena was in need of a facelift. The entire department, according to university president Gary Ransdell was "hemorrhaging money."

During his interview, Selig walked with Ransdell through the arena while the president rattled off a checklist of things he thought should be done to renovate the once-proud building. Luxury suites. Video boards. Air conditioning.

Selig, an associate athletic director at Virginia at the time, admits he was a little overwhelmed.

"It was a lot of stuff," Selig said. "But I bought into it. This was one of those take the right job at the wrong time situations. It was the wrong time at WKU, but it was the right job because there was nothing but upside potential."

Diddle Arena-now replete with suites, air conditioning, video boards and an expansive office and locker room for the basketball staff-is among the best venues of its size in the country.

The athletic department is paying for itself despite a handful of tough decisions, including disbanding the men's soccer team in 2008 due to budget concerns.

On the field, the product has never been better. The Hilltoppers have won 19 conference or tournament championships over the last two years, the most in the nation. The men's basketball team has established itself as one of the best mid-major programs in the country. WKU made it out of the NCAA tournament's first round for the second straight year and narrowly missed going back to the regional semifinals, losing a thriller to Gonzaga.

And nearly 90 percent of student-athletes who have completed their eligibility since 1999 have graduated.

"Our athletic program has never been stronger or a greater source of pride for the university, top to bottom," Ransdell said. "We've had individual teams that have had great postseason successes, but with what Wood has done for the last 10 years is to have it done with consistency."

It's heady praise, yet the only thing that has changed in the last 10 years has been Selig's ambition.

The football team is ready to start its first season as a full-fledged member of the Football Bowl Subdivision. The $50 million renovation of Houchens Industries-L.T. Smith Stadium was completed on time and on budget.

A football series with Kentucky will start next fall. A basketball series with Louisville began last November with the Hilltoppers knocking off the Cardinals.

The moves have allowed the Hilltoppers to emerge-a little-from the considerable shadow the programs at Kentucky and Louisville cast over the state. Although Selig isn't quite ready to say the Hilltoppers share equal billing with the Wildcats or the Cardinals, that doesn't mean isn't part of the plan.

"We want to be a three-horse race," Selig said. "When people think about intercollegiate athletics in Kentucky at the highest level, we want them to think of Kentucky, Louisville and WKU. We're having success against those programs."

The strides WKU has taken hasn't gone unnoticed. Kentucky and WKU had been playing football for nearly 100 years before the first time they met, with the Wildcats winning easily last fall.

Now there's a four-game set scheduled to begin in Lexington in 2010, with the Hilltoppers "hosting" Kentucky in Nashville in 2011 and 2013, a shrewd financial decision considering capacity at LP Field in Nashville more than doubles the 25,000-seat capacity at LT Smith Stadium.

"I have great respect for what Wood has done down there," said Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart. "He has worked diligently hard to bring Western Kentucky athletics to a level of very good competitiveness. If you take them on, you're going to play some really good athletes and some really good coaches."

Barnhart should know. He stole softball coach Rachel Lawson from WKU, and in two years, she took the Wildcats to the NCAA tournament.

Having a successful coach lured away isn't anything new at WKU, though it's something Selig hopes will change. Ken McDonald, who took over the basketball program after Darrin Horn left for South Carolina, said he views WKU as a place with "no ceiling."

That includes Selig. He has no plans of looking elsewhere as long as Ransdell-who has a 15-year contract 'sticks around.

"I've got a pretty tough to beat situation," Selig said. "You're only as good as your CEO, and I've got a tremendous CEO in president Ransdell and a very supportive board of regents. That's a lot of stability and continuity, and I want us to keep setting and trying to exceed our goals."

© 2009 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.