The State of the Program Entering I-A
Under Jack Harbaugh, Western Kentucky had climbed to I-AA prominence at the turn of the 21st century. At first, when the Hilltoppers reached the I-AA playoffs in 1997 as an independent team, it seemed merely a blip on the radar. They would rout state rival Eastern Kentucky 42-14 in the opening round before falling in the quarterfinals to Eastern Washington 38-21, and then faded back over the next two seasons as they transitioned into the Ohio Valley Conference.
WKU would claim their first league title in two decades in 2000, just their second year in the Ohio Valley Conference, returning to the playoffs and again reaching the quarterfinals before falling 17-14 at Appalachian State. They would switch leagues again to welcome the new millennium, swapping the Ohio Valley for the Gateway. An 8-3 record in 2001 was good enough to book a trip to the playoffs, but the team itself was merely good enough to bow out immediately to Furman.
In 2002, Harbaugh’s last season at the helm, the stars would align as Western Kentucky won a share of the Gateway Conference and parlayed it into a national title. They would finish 6-1 in league play and 8-3 overall to split the crown with Western Illinois. After each team won their opening-round contest against their respective opponents, the Leathernecks and Hilltoppers met in the quarterfinals. Squaring off at Hanson Field in Macomb, WKU prevailed 31-28 to advance to the semifinals.
Playing again on the road against a team a year removed from back-to-back national championships, the Hilltoppers narrowly defeated Georgia Southern by three to book a trip to the title game in Chattanooga. There they nabbed their twelfth win of the season, knocking off McNeese State 34-14 to claim the crown.
David Elson, Harbaugh’s defensive coordinator, took over the coaching duties after their longtime leader left the program for what he thought would be retirement. (Harbaugh would become a running backs coach under his son Jim during his tenure as the head coach at the University of San Diego.) At first Elson maintained the machinery built by Harbaugh over the decades, with nine-win seasons in each of his first two years as the head man in Bowling Green, Kentucky. But the Hilltoppers would end their time in the Gateway Conference with identical 4-3 conference records in 2005 and 2006, finishing in a tie for fourth both years with a 6-5 overall mark.
2007 would offer the beginning of the new era for the Hilltoppers as they left the Gateway to become transitional I-AA independents. WKU won all six of their games against I-AA opponents and also knocked off Middle Tennessee 20-17 on September 20 to finish 7-5. Another transition year as a I-A independent awaited, with the carrot of Sun Belt membership awaiting on the other side.
The First Season
Once the Hilltoppers were actually scheduling like a I-A team, they suffered the consequences of getting to schedule only two I-AA opponents. Their time in the top flight commenced on August 30 with a trip to Indiana, where the Hoosiers would knock off WKU 31-13. Elson’s team traveled across the state to Eastern Kentucky on the first weekend of September, defeating their former I-AA rivals 37-13 to even their win-loss record.
The same trend would continue over the next fortnight, as Western Kentucky loss their road game in Tuscaloosa against SEC juggernaut Alabama before winning the return game at home against I-AA Murray State 50-9. With one more weekend in September left, the Hilltoppers had reached .500 in the standings largely thanks to their two games against lower-tier competition.
The flagship institution in the state of Kentucky made sure that WKU recognized that fact on September 27. The Hilltoppers were humiliated on their trip to Lexington, as the Wildcats never let up in the 41-3 demolition of Elson’s squad. A visit to Blacksburg to face that year’s eventual ACC champion Virginia Tech ended with similar results, the Hokies winning by two touchdowns on the first weekend of October.
Returning home, the Hilltoppers fared no better on October 11 as Ball State arrived in the middle of an undefeated regular season; WKU would be one more milestone along the way, losing 24-7 to the Cardinals to fall to 2-5. With nothing but future Sun Belt Conference rivals left on the schedule in their final five games, Western Kentucky could now get a real gauge of their progress in the transition against teams they would face from season to season.
Visits from Florida Atlantic and North Texas dealt WKU two more defeats by the first day of November. While FAU was en route to a bowl appearance, the Mean Green would claim their only win of the season against Elson’s crew. Things only got worse, as Troy, Middle Tennessee and Florida International all wrapped up their seasons with double-digit victories over their future conference competitor. By the end, those wins over FCS opposition would be the only thing standing between Western Kentucky and a winless season.
How Have They Fared Since?
That winless season would happen in 2009 as Western Kentucky suffered the worst possible sophomore slump. Losing their opener 63-7 at Tennessee, the Hilltoppers would lose eight of their matchups by ten or more points. The futility would cost Elson his job, as the faculty looked around and settled on Willie Taggart as his successor.
Taggart, who had quarterbacked the Hilltoppers during their late-1990s resurgence, returned to his alma mater and started to turn around the losing tradition. Finishing 2-10 in his inaugural season leading at WKU, Taggart had the Hilltoppers posting a winning record by his second year in the leader’s chair. They rebounded from an 0-4 start to win seven of their final eight in 2011, only a loss in Death Valley on November 12 against SEC champion LSU preventing a long winning streak. But a bowl berth would have to wait one more year.
Another 7-5 regular season awaited in 2012, and this time a bowl berth also awaited at the end of the schedule. The season of first successes would include a first-ever win over WKU’s flagship state rival, the Hilltoppers knocking off the Wildcats in Lexington 32-31 for the upset. Persevering in another close contest at the end of the regular season, Western Kentucky knocked off North Texas to gain a seventh victory and book a trip to the Little Caesars Bowl. Taking on Central Michigan in Detroit, the Hilltoppers missed opportunities in the 24-21 defeat to the Chippewas.
But with Taggart now gone to take over at South Florida, time will tell if the trip to Detroit was a fluke or if the HIlltoppers can continue their surge toward success in Conference USA as they prepare to join a new league in 2013. WKU certainly has the potential for greatness, noted coaching guru and relationship bungler Bobby Petrino looking to earn redemption after an affair and a motorcycle crash led to his ouster at Arkansas.
The team certainly has the potential to make waves in their new league, though Petrino’s hire is undoubtedly a short-term solution as the beleaguered coach looks to regain his reputation with power programs around the country. Until they can find their next Jack Harbaugh, though, the Hilltoppers will have a hard time sustaining the successes that led to a I-AA national title a decade ago.
About the Author: Zach Bigalke
Zach is a historian and author who has been covering sports near and far for various publications since 2006. Formerly the managing editor of Informative Sports and Global Turnstile, he has also been featured at Helium, FanSided, the Portland State Vanguard and other online publications. He currently lives in Track Town USA, where he lives with his wife while belatedly pursuing higher education at the University of Oregon.