Outwardly, the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers’ 34-14 victory over McNeese State was a cause for big-time celebration for WKU President Gary Ransdell.
The Toppers won the 2002 Division I-AA national championship.
Inwardly, the championship stirred another reaction. The playoffs for the I-AA division — now known as the Football Championship Subdivision — had cost WKU money. The first-round playoff game drew just 3,300 people to Bowling Green’s Smith Stadium. The title game had no payout.
“It was that moment actually that prompted me to think about what the future our program needed to be, particularly from a financial standpoint,” Ransdell said in an interview with WFPL.
“We won a national championship in 2002 — but it cost us a bunch of money.”
On Wednesday, almost exactly 10 years after that title game, the WKU football team plays in its first bowl game in the modern era of the program.
The Little Caesars Pizza Bowl wouldn’t seem to have quite the luster of a national title, even in a lower division. No matter, Ransdell said. A minor bowl game benefits WKU in plenty more ways.
Stepping Up in Class
WKU’s transition to the Football Bowl Subdivision — or FBS, and formerly I-A — in 2008 was costly.
Smith Stadium needed expansion. To pay for this, WKU clumped the project in with other capital projects — mostly for academic and student buildings — and placed a fee on students.
FBS teams also require more scholarships and bigger, better paid
staffs. Those costs, Ransdell said, are being paid for through ticket sales and other revenue from the football program.
The football budget has increased by about $2 million since the program moved to the FBS, Ransdell said.
Jack Harbaugh, the Toppers coach during the national championship season, earned about $150,000 a season. Bobby Petrino, WKU’s new football coach, will earn about $850,000. Some people, particularly on the WKU faculty, criticized WKU’s move to the FBS on that point.
But, despite paying more, Ransdell argues that WKU is in a better financial position.
“We’re spending a lot more money but we’re bringing in more money,” Ransdell said. “That’s just the financial dynamics of playing” in the FBS.
Little Caesars Pizza Bowl Brings More Dough
WKU won’t know how much the football program will reap from the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl until all of their Sun Belt Conference cohorts have played their bowl games, because the revenue is split.
Regardless, WKU will get more than it did for the 2002 national title.
“We’ll make a little money,” Ransdell said. “It won’t be a lot.”
In 2014, the Bowl Championship Series — which determines the teams playing in major bowl games — will begin sharing more revenue with college football’s less prominent conferences. Ransdell said that this, too, will bring more revenue into the Hilltoppers football program.
The FBS brings more than financial benefits, Ransdell argues.
WKU gets a mention each time a national publication runs a story with bowl game predictions, for example. It’s about branding the Bowling Green university.
“All those things come into play to build the brand and to continue to separate yourself from those institutions that don’t play at the FBS level and, in any given year, those teams that don’t play in a bowl,” Ransdell said.
In other words, WKU appears bigger than Murray State or Eastern Kentucky, state schools that play at Division I college football’s lower level. It looks stronger than the University of Kentucky, which didn’t make a bowl game this season. And which WKU beat in football earlier this year.
The football team helps WKU’s branding efforts by playing in the FBS — which may mean better recruitment of faculty and students, Ransdell argues.
A New, Controversial Coach
WKU’s football program made even more headlines this month after coach Willie Taggart left for South Florida after three seasons and the school picked Bobby Petrino to replace him.
Petrino, of course, being among the most controversial coaches in college football.
Ransdell said he’s comfortable with the choice — because he believes that Petrino is “serious about acknowledging his mistakes” and approaching the WKU job as “an opportunity to right the ship.”
The transition to the FBS was initially difficult for WKU — it included a winless 2008 season. After replacing then-couch David Elson, Taggart won two games his first season and finished 7-5 the past two seasons.
Petrino is, no doubt, a big name in college football. His hiring was covered by national media outlets — many of which were critical. Ransdell said he expects fan support to increase — and ticket sales, too — in the 2013 season.
“With the hiring of Bobby Petrino, the signal is sent that we’re serious about this,” Ransdell said, adding that WKU will raise ticket prices once it’s “earned that.”
In 2002, WKU’s national title was a landmark moment. The Little Caesars Pizza Bowl is just as big — if not moreso, Ransdell argues.
“I think when we look to the next 10 years, the goal clearly is for WKU to get to a BCS (bowl) game and be a team with a top 25 ranking, if not regularly then occasionally,” Ransdell said. “That will be the validation for this transition.”