By Michael Compton, Bowling Green Daily News
Reprinted from Sept. 14, 2012
Those who haven't been to the Western Kentucky University campus in 10 years or longer will probably have trouble finding their way, as the campus has grown tremendously in the last decade.
Perhaps nowhere has that growth been more visible than the athletic facilities.
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With a makeover that began in late 1999 with the additions of the WKU Softball Complex and WKU Soccer Complex, WKU facilities have seen a substantial growth in the last decade. Three extensive renovation projects, totaling $70 million, upgraded E.A. Diddle Arena, Houchens Industries-L.T. Smith Stadium and Nick Denes Field.
WKU athletic director Todd Stewart said the recent expansion hasn't just benefited the student-athletes and coaches, it's given the university a boost as well.
"Many times the athletic department is the front porch of a university," Stewart said. "Many people's opinions of a university is determined by their opinion of an athletic department.
"That being said, I think the opinion of an athletic department can be formed by the opinion of your facilities. We've always felt it is important to have first-class, state-of-the-art facilities, certainly from an image standpoint, but mainly to create a first-class environment for our student-athletes and coaches to work and perform in."
Diddle Arena was the first to renovate, getting a makeover in 2002. The basketball facility was originally built in 1963, with a peak capacity of 13,508 in the 1970s.
The university spent $32 million on the project, which included the addition of 16 luxury suites, two video boards, a new playing floor, and elevator access to all floors. The project also included the addition of two new auxiliary gyms, new locker rooms and basketball offices.
Since the renovations, WKU has hosted Sun Belt Conference basketball and volleyball tournaments, as well as first- and second-round games in the 2009 NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament. The KHSAA Girls' Sweet 16 Basketball Tournament has been an annual event since before the upgrade.
"It's unbelievable," said WKU women's basketball coach Michelle Clark-Heard, who played for the Lady Toppers from 1986-90. "The facilities that we have are second-to-none. There are a lot of universities that don't have what we have. It's state of the art, specifically for us. To be able to have our own practice facility, to be able to have the space that we have in our locker room and lounge area, it excites recruits. I think they're impressed."
The Hilltoppers' football venue, L.T. Smith Stadium, was next to get the makeover treatment, part of a $37.5 million project that was completed in 2008.
Originally opened in 1968, the stadium saw a few changes before 2008 - such as the addition of lights in 1987 and a switch to an artificial playing surface in 2002. The move from the Football Championship Subdivision to the Football Bowl Subdivision and the Sun Belt Conference necessitated another growth and the one-sided stadium converted into a larger complex.
The makeover included the addition of 5,000 seats to the west side of the stadium. WKU also added new locker rooms, new offices, updated concourses and a $1.5 million scoreboard.
The renovations have helped WKU draw higher profile opponents such as Indiana, Navy, South Florida and Southern Miss, Stewart said, and paved the way for the university to host the six state high school football championships and other events.
"We would never bring all these people to our campus if we hadn't expanded our football stadium," Stewart said. "It's also transcended athletics. We had the John Cougar Mellencamp concert here last May and that would not have happened if we hadn't expanded our football facility."
While Diddle Arena and Smith Stadium saw a sudden change, Nick Denes Field has seen a more gradual growth, with nearly $3 million in enhancements from 2002-10.
Those changes include a press box, indoor hitting facility and a clubhouse that opened in 2010. Nick Denes Field's renovation project has also included new outfield walls, 800 chair-back seats and a pair of fan decks.
It's quite a different look for a complex that opened in 1968 and at one time had a tree in center field.
"I know our students really enjoy coming to our facilities," Stewart said. "We want people to come to our events, but enjoy being there in addition to enjoying the actual event."