THE PURSUIT An Inside Hilltopper Sports special Feature

by Hannah Page

January 30, 2017

Nestled atop a hill in Bowling Green, KY proudly stands Western Kentucky University (WKU). White squirrels scurry up a group of trees. Tents are scattered across South Lawn. Red and white pennants are streamed tree to tree. Workers quickly enter and exit Houchens Industries - L.T. Smith Stadium. Students, alumni, and locals are buzzing on social media inquiring about who plans on attending the game, which team will win, and ultimately proclaiming "#Topsby90." It is Friday, and the Hilltoppers are gearing up for their first home football game.

Ask a die-hard Hilltopper, and they will tell you that WKU is, historically, a "basketball school." It was not uncommon to see a packed E.A. Diddle Arena: the crowd fervently cheering on fan favorites such as Courtney Lee, Tyrone Brazelton, A.J. Slaughter, Ty Rogers, Orlando Mendez-Valdez, and Jeremy Evans. An empty seat was not to be found in the student section. Should you ask a student if they were attending a football game, you might have received a chuckle or a reluctant "maybe."

Had you told Hilltopper Nation that WKU Football would go on to accumulate six consecutive winning seasons (none of which less than 7-5), four bowl appearances, three bowl wins, two conference championships, and one Top 25 finish, fans may have looked at you with nothing but sheer and utter confusion. In what was one of the quickest turnarounds in college football history, WKU Football went from 2-10, 0-12, 2-12, to 7-5 in just four short seasons: their first four seasons in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS). The journey may have not been easy, but WKU Football has continued in the pursuit of greatness. We begin by taking a look at, what many consider, a turning point in WKU Football's history...

1968-1983

Ohio Valley Conference, NCAA Division II

Head Coach: Jimmy Feix

Record: 106-56-6

OVC Champions: 1970, 1971, 1973, 1975, 1978, 1980

NCAA Division II Runner-ups: 1973, 1975

OVC Coach of the Year: 1973, 1978, 1980

Displayed beneath a large red towel on the 50-yard line of Houchens Industries - L.T. Smith Stadium, are the words "Feix Field." Named after the legendary and late Jimmy Feix (1931-2014), it seems most appropriate that the field is in honor of WKU Football's most successful head coach in school history. Feix's service went beyond the field as he he also spent two years in Alumni Affairs and, then, took over as WKU's Director of Athletics. He was a Hilltopper through and through. During Feix's head coaching tenure, the Hilltoppers accumulated six conference championships, two NCAA Division II championship appearances, and a record of 106-56-6. Players - such as Virgil Livers and Darryl Drake - flourished under Feix's direction. It may have not been the high-powered offense we are accustomed to today, but in every regard, Jimmy Feix's commitment, accomplishments, and risks established the framework and set the precedent for the future of WKU Football: leading WKU into the Division I-AA. Today, WKU Football's uniforms honor the late coach by incorporating a houndstooth pattern on the helmet and undershirt in memory of Feix's famous houndstooth fedoras.

Image: WKU Athletics

Image Credit: Courier Press, The Logan Journal, WKU Herald Projects, WKU Herald Projects, WKU Herald Projects
"It was tougher than I ever imagined to compete as an independent. I miscalculated the effects on the program." -Jimmy Feix

Feix expressed how difficult it was to compete as an independent team and took it upon himself to carry the burden, stating: "I miscalculated the effects on the program." As an independent, the team needed an unblemished record to be considered for a postseason invitation. In addition to the pressure, televised games and increased ticket sales were not financing the team. The biggest risk is the one not taken. Had Jimmy Feix not taken a risk on WKU Football and transitioning to Division I-AA, the program would likely not be in the position it is in today.

1984-2002

Football Championship Subdivision Independent (1982-1998), Ohio Valley Conference (1999-2000), and Gateway Football Conference (2001-2006)

Head Coach: Dave Roberts (1984-1988); Jack Harbaugh (1989-2002)

Record: Dave Roberts (26-30-1); Jack Harbaugh (91-68)

OVC Champions: 2000

Gateway Champions: 2002

NCAA Division I-AA Playoff Appearances: 1997, 2000, 2001, 2002

NCAA Division I-AA Champions: 2002

Image: WKU Athletics

Upon Feix's resignation, Dave Roberts, a backfield coach from Vanderbilt University, found himself as the new head coach. His tenure was brief, as he coached from 1984-1988. With an overall record of 26-30-1, Roberts was the first WKU coach, in sixty years, to end his tenure with a losing record. However, Roberts ended his career at WKU on an upward trend: going 16-8 in his last two seasons. Despite the setback, Roberts was a stepping stone to future success.

One might argue that fate had a hand, or perhaps it was the WKU "Spirit" that played a role in the feel good story that is WKU Football. Whether fate, a magical Hilltopper Spirit, or out of pure luck, WKU landed, what would become, one of the biggest names in modern day football: Jack Harbaugh. The Harbaugh's are one of the most influential family affairs in college football and the National Football League (NFL). The success of, sons, Jim and John Harbaugh, are much attributed to their father's example and teachings.

It is difficult to picture WKU without its beloved football team. However, in 1992, WKU was on the brink of losing the program after a state-mandated $6.1 million budget cut. Prior to spring practice, Harbaugh was informed that the university planned on cutting the program. Insistent on not quitting nor accepting defeat, Harbaugh encouraged players to fight for the team. Today, the group of men - coaching staff and players - are better known as the "Save the Program" team. Every player stayed on the Hill, fought to keep the program, and did whatever means necessary to save the program. Meanwhile, previous athletic director, Jimmy Feix, launched an emergency fundraising campaign: persuading former WKU athletes to purchase season tickets. Because of Harbaugh, Feix, and the WKU Football team's dedication and relentless effort, the Board of Regents voted to allow the Hilltopper football program to remain but at a reduced budget.

Image Credit: Bowling Green Daily News, WKU Athletics, Bowling Green Daily News, WKU Herald, WKU Athletics

The Harbaugh family looked out for each other, and that was apparent during Jack's early years at WKU. In 1994, WKU suffered its fourth losing season under Jack. At the time, Jim was a quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts and John was a special teams coordinator for the University of Cincinnati. There was no hesitation to help their father. Jim became an NCAA-certified volunteer assistant coach for WKU: allowing him to recruit. Despite working for Cincinnati, John would provide a list of potential recruits that may not be suitable for the Bearcats, but would be a great asset to WKU's Division I-AA program. Then, Jim would use his NFL stardom to promote the unknown Hilltoppers. Jim would go on to recruit a name widely known at WKU and around the nation: Willie Taggart.

Image Credit: NCAA Photos, NCAA Photos

One decade after the "Save the Program" team conserved the future of WKU Football, the Hilltoppers were entering - what would be - Harbaugh's 14th and final season on the Hill. The 2002 campaign saw the Hilltoppers reach new heights as the team went 12-3 and 7-1 in conference (Gateway). The Hilltoppers only losses came at the hands of Kansas State, Western Illinois, and McNeese State. However, on December 20, 2002, WKU would get one last shot at revenge against McNeese State in the NCAA Division I-AA National Championship.

Revenge is what the Hilltoppers earned: defeating the Cowboys 34-14. WKU secured its win and put the game away with two scores in the fourth quarter. It was the program's first NCAA I-AA championship which included wins over each of the top three seeds during the playoff run. During that run, the Hilltoppers offense averaged 38.8 points per game: perhaps a commencement of WKU's high-powered offense known nationwide, today.

"In 50 years, they'll look back to 2002 and say Western Kentucky University is national champion and that's a beautiful thing...Our guys took the challenge and looked it straight in the eye. They're really warriors." -Jack Harbaugh

Harbaugh, the second-longest serving head coach in WKU Football history, took the program from an uncertain future to new heights during his tenure. Under Harbaugh, the Hilltoppers went 91-68, made four NCAA Division I-AA Playoff appearances, were one-time Ohio-Valley Conference Champions, one-time Gateway Conference Champions, and won the NCAA Division I-AA Championship. The statistics speak volumes of Harbaugh's success, but it was his "enthusiasm unknown to mankind" that made him a legendary coach. His sincere passion and love for family, football, and WKU truly exemplified that Hilltopper "Spirit."

"Now go out there and attack this day with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind." - Jack Harbaugh

Today, the legacy of Jack Harbaugh and his wife, Jackie, are honored on the stadium club at Houchens Smith Stadium. Formerly known as the Topper Club, President Gary Ransdell presented Harbaugh with the prospect of renaming the section as a tribute to the dedication, resolve, and love for WKU that Jack and Jackie exemplified. On Saturday, September 22, 2012, an official, pre-game ceremony took place to commemorate the new club name. At half-time, Harbaugh, the "Save the Program" team and the 2002 I-AA National Championship team were honored.

2003-2009

Gateway Football Conference, FCS Independent, FBS Independent, Sun Belt Conference

Head Coach: David Elson

Record: 39-44 (30-17, Gateway Football Conference; 7-5, FCS Independent; 2-10 FBS Independent; 0-12, Sun Belt Conference)

NCAA Division I-AA Appearances: 2003 (Quarterfinals), 2004 (First Round)

Upon Harbaugh's departure, WKU hired a young coach who was extremely familiar with the program: David Elson. Elson served as a defensive backs coach (1996-2000) and defensive coordinator (2001-2002) during Harbaugh's tenure.

Like Feix, Elson had a vision for the future of WKU Football. At the conclusion of Elson's fourth head coaching season, the Hilltoppers began their transition from Division I FCS (Gateway Conference), to FCS Independent (2007), to FBS Independent (2008), and ultimately joined Division I FBS (Sun Belt Conference, 2009). It was also during this transition that WKU began construction on the new addition to Houchens Industries-L.T Smith Stadium: increasing stadium capacity by 4,613 seats and completed in 2008. Despite going 2-22 in his final two seasons, Elson's vision, eventually, paid off for the Hilltoppers.

Image Credit: WKU Herald

Image Credit: Bowling Green Daily News, WKU News, WKU Alumni Association

2010-2012

Sun Belt Conference

Head Coach: Willie Taggart

Record: 16-20 (13-11 Sun Belt Conference)

Bowl Eligible: 2011 (7-5); 2012 (7-5)

NCAA Division I FBS Bowl Appearance: 2012 (Little Caesars Pizza Bowl)

Image: WKU Herald

In 1998, star, dual-threat quarterback Willie Taggart ended his collegiate career for the Hilltoppers in the record books. Taggart was one of three WKU players in fifty years to be a four-year starter at quarterback and one of only four players to have his jersey retired. He was an All-American senior, a two-time finalist for the Walter Paton Award, and a I-AA Independents' Offensive Player of the Year. Taggart immediately jumped into his coaching career as WKU's wide receivers coach in 1999. He would remain at WKU through 2006 as a quarterbacks coach (2000-2006), co-offensive coordinator (2001-2002), and assistant head coach (2003-2006). After three seasons serving as a running backs coach at Stanford University, Taggart would come home: this time, as head coach.

Taggart would, ultimately, herald in a new era of WKU Football.

Image Credit: Courier Journal, WKU Alumni Association,

On October 23, 2010, WKU Football entered their matchup riding a twenty-six game losing streak: the longest losing streak in college football. Taggart was 0-6 through his first six games of his head coaching career. The Hilltoppers were set to play Louisiana-Lafayette at Cajun Field in Lafayette, LA. A win seemed doubtful, but winning an away game seemed even more impossible. The team had a different idea. After four quarters, the Hilltoppers broke their streak, and defeated the Rajin Cajuns 54-21. Although WKU would only win one more game in 2010, fans and the team, alike, saw something special in Taggart.

Despite a brief stay at WKU, Taggart's tenure was memorable and left a deep impact upon the program. Ask any fan what they remember about Taggart; aside from his smile spreading ear-to-ear, fans would likely mention a historic game that occurred on September 15, 2012. The Hilltoppers were facing off against the SEC's University of Kentucky Wildcats. Although the Hilltoppers were actually favored by 5.5, many did not believe the small, Sun Belt team could truly defeat an SEC squad AT Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington, KY.

"[Kawuan] Jakes to [Antonio] Andrews. Andrews going back to Jakes! He [Jakes] walks in! And Western Kentucky wins the game!"

WKU's 32-31 overtime win over UK shocked the state and nation. The win would become the team's first win over UK and the team's first win over an SEC opponent. Taggart's unconventional play calling left Wildcat fans dumbfounded and Hilltopper fans cheering. The trick play was, perhaps, a foreshadow of WKU Football's future.

Taggart knew what it meant to be a Hilltopper more so than anyone else. He had a way of connecting with players and fans, alike. It was not uncommon for students, staff, and faculty to spot Taggart walking around campus, megaphone in hand, and talking to fans (or trying to make a fan out of a student wearing "Blue"). His unabating effort in promoting and encouraging fans to support the team set the bar for future coaching staffs. However, it was not just Taggart's marketing abilities that set a precedent. Taggart recruited and coached some of WKU Football's finest including the likes of Bobby Rainey (New York Giants), Antonio Andrews (Tennessee Titans), Jack Doyle (Indianapolis Colts), Brandon Doughty (Miami Dolphins), Mitchell Henry, Tyler Higbee (Los Angeles Rams), Forrest Lamp, Leon Allen, and Ace Wales.

After quickly turning around a team whose only claim-to-fame, at the time, was the nation's longest losing streak, it was only a matter of time before other schools noticed the young, enthusiastic coach. Who would not want a coach who was able to turn around a fresh-faced 0-12 FBS program to 2-12 (2010), to back-to-back, bowl-eligible, [regular] 7-5 seasons (2011, 2012)? So on December 7, 2012, it came at no surprise that a struggling University of South Florida made an offer that Taggart could not refuse.

Five days before Taggart's announcement, WKU had just accepted its first ever FBS bowl invitation to the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl in Detroit, Michigan. However, Taggart would not coach the game and defensive coordinator Lance Guidry would become interim head coach. Hilltopper Nation felt a wave of emotion: happy for the team's accomplishments and heartbroken to see their beloved coach leave.

Despite being a head coach for three, short seasons, Willie Taggart left the program in better shape than what he found. Since 2011, WKU has not had a regular season less than 7-5. Little did Hilltopper Nation know, sitting among the team and coaching staff in a 2010 team picture was a future WKU Football head coach.

Little Caesars Pizza Bowl

December 26, 2012

In the 16th edition of the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, the Sun Belt's Western Kentucky Hilltoppers and Mid-American's Central Michigan Chippewas faced off on Ford Field. WKU finished their regular season 7-5, while the Chippewas concluded their season 6-6. It was the first meeting between the two teams and the first bowl appearance for the Hilltoppers.

Central Michigan quarterback Ryan Radcliff threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Cody Wilson with 5:11 remaining in the fourth quarter: Chippewas led 24-21. The Hilltoppers were fourth-and-two in the final minute of the game, and a field goal could have sent the game into overtime. In a post-game conference, interim head coach Lance Guidry stated: "That was all the players. We were going to kick the field goal, but they told me that they were here to win the game...I asked everyone and they wanted to go for it so we took the chance"

On the 19-yard line, with 51 seconds left in the game, quarterback Kawaun Jakes threw an incomplete pass intended for tight end Jack Doyle: ultimately resulting in a Central Michigan victory.

Image: WKU Herald

2013

Sun Belt Conference

Head Coach: Bobby Petrino

Record: 8-4 (bowl eligible, no invitation)

Image: The Associated Press

On December 10, 2012, three days after Willie Taggart's departure announcement, WKU's Athletic Director Todd Stewart managed to pull off the impossible: hiring Bobby Petrino. Lance Guidry remained the interim head coach through the 2012 Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, and Petrino would begin his work after the game.

Football fans across the country were well-aware of the Petrino name as he had been head coach for the University of Louisville (41-9), Atlanta Falcons (3-10), and University of Arkansas (34-17). Petrino had coached in seven bowl games which included four bowl wins and accumulated five top-25 finishes. However, scandal surrounded his name after Arkansas fired the four year head coach: leaving Hilltopper Nation, both, apprehensive concerning his past and excited about WKU's future. Landing a name like Petrino was too good to pass up.

It was during Petrino's one-year stint that the Hilltoppers were introduced to a new uniform, went 8-4, and won their second straight against Kentucky. Despite his brief stay, Petrino continued WKU's stellar recruiting including the likes of Taywan Taylor, Kylen Towner, and Nicholas Norris. Over time, fans have learned that there is method to the madness. Perhaps Stewart knew Petrino's time on the Hill would be brief. Maybe - just maybe - Stewart already had an idea who would become WKU's next head coach.

2014-2016

Conference USA

Head Coach: Jeff Brohm

Record: 30-10

CUSA Championships: 2015, 2016

NCAA Division I FBS Bowl Wins: 2014 (Bahamas Bowl), 2015 (Miami Beach Bowl), 2016 (Boca Raton Bowl*)

Top 25 Finish: 2015 (#24)

*indicates did not coach game

Upon completion of WKU's 2013 campaign, Bobby Petrino departed the Hill for Louisville in place of Charlie Strong who was hired at Texas. Subsequently, Assistant Head Coach and Offensive Coordinator Jeff Brohm was promoted to head coach. The Louisville, KY native played quarterback for the University of Louisville, San Diego Charters, Washington Redskins, San Francisco 49ers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Denver Broncos, Cleveland Browns, and the XFL's Orlando Rage. It was during his time with the Rage that he became a viral sensation...

After ending his playing career in 2001, Brohm would begin his coaching career with the Louisville Fire arena football team as head coach: finishing the season 2-14. In 2002, Bobby Petrino hired Brohm to return to his alma mater as the quarterbacks coach. During Brohm's second season coaching at Louisville, he helped recruit his brother Brian: one of the most sought after quarterbacks in the nation. Brian flourished under the direction of his brother and Petrino. Jeff would remain at Louisville, even declining an offer to join Nick Saban's staff at Alabama, through the 2008 season. In 2009, Brohm joined his former college head coach Howard Schnellenberger at Florida Atlantic. From 2010-2011, Brohm was with Illinois and in 2012 with the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

His playing and coaching career, in addition to his deep connections with some of college football's greats, is nothing short of impressive.

Brohm's achievements while head coach at WKU are extensive. A thorough analysis would turn into a novella (as this article has become). If you have made it this far, let us take a look at each of Brohm's seasons:

2014 (8-5)

Brohm's first season as a head coach and the Hilltoppers' inaugural season with Conference USA was nothing short of entertaining.

The season began with some heartbreakers: losing four of their first six games by a combined 21 points. Against the Big Ten's Illinois, the Tops came close to defeating the Power Five conference team. After the 3rd quarter, WKU led 27-21. However, the Fighting Illini posted 21 points in the 4th quarter and won 42-34. The following game, better known as "100 Miles of Hate," WKU faced long-time rival, and conference foe, Middle Tennessee (MTSU). It was a back-n-forth brawl that resulted in three overtimes and a combined 97 points. Unfortunately, the Blue Raiders prevailed and won 50-47.

After five losses, the Tops were feeling the pressure. Starting November 8, the team's season took a turn for the best. WKU defeated UTEP, Army, and UTSA. In those three games, WKU averaged 44 points per game, won by an average of 24.7 points, and held opponents to an average of 19.3 points per game. The Hilltoppers had learned their lesson in 2011 and 2013; being 6-6 and bowl eligible was not enough. If WKU wanted to be a true contender for a bowl game, they HAD to win their next game. Their next adversary was 11-0, #19 in the nation, and was just one win away from an undefeated regular season. The Marshall Thundering Herd were favored to win by 23 points against the Hilltoppers; but a pre-game fight may have provided the Tops the extra edge and "chip on their shoulder." It was a dizzying contest filled with touchdowns, picks, and a combined 1,446 total yards. In overtime, after a Marshall touchdown and extra point, the gloves came off. Brohm did not want the game to go on any longer. So after a 25 yard touchdown pass to Jared Dangerfield from Brandon Doughty, the Hilltoppers went for a 2-point conversion. Doughty threw a pass to Willie McNeal that resulted in a 67-66 WKU victory.

The theme of "fate" seems ever present in WKU Football. After defeating Marshall, and ruining the Thundering Herds' chances at a New Year's Six bowl game, the Hilltoppers were invited to play in first edition of the Bahamas Bowl. WKU would face, none other than, the Central Michigan Chippewas. The Chippewas came out victorious in WKU's first bowl appearance, and the Tops were ready for revenge. After three quarters, and leading 49-14, it seemed like WKU was well on their way to winning their first FBS bowl game. However, Central Michigan completely blanked the Hilltoppers in the 4th quarter 34-0. With 0:01 seconds left in the game, the Chippewas' completed a pass and three laterals for a touchdown. The Chippewas went for the 2-point conversion, but the pass was broken up, and the Hilltoppers exhaled. WKU won 49-48.

The success of Brohm's first season could be seen within quarterback Brandon Doughty. Under Petrino, Doughty threw for 2,857 yards and 14 touchdowns. But under Brohm, Doughty concluded the 2014 campaign hauling in 4,830 yards and 49 touchdowns: leading the nation in both categories. He only fell behind Marcus Mariota and J.T. Barrett in quarterback rating. Brohm was able to both exploit Doughty's skills and mold an entirely new athlete: a Doughty 2.0, if you will.

It was also during Brohm's first season that fans caught a glimpse of Leon Allen's talent. During his senior year, Allen racked up 1,542 rushing yards, 13 rushing touchdowns, 476 receiving yards, and 3 receiving touchdowns. Allen ended the 2014 season with six 100+ yard games, two 200+ yard games, ran an astounding 345 yards against Army, and was #18 in the nation for total rushing yards.

Image: The Associated Press

2015 (12-2)

On December 10, 2014, stud quarterback Brandon Doughty was granted a medical hardship waiver by the NCAA which allowed him to play for a sixth season in 2015. While Hilltopper Nation was ecstatic, the rest of Conference USA was less than thrilled. The hype surrounding the 2015 season was at an all-time high. Not only was Doughty returning, but so was a deep O-Line, a talented group of receivers, and a dominant running corps.

The 2015 campaign kicked off with a bang. On September 3, the Hilltoppers opened their season on the road against Vanderbilt University. Hilltopper Nation traveled well in hopes to watch WKU upset the SEC team just one hour south of Bowling Green, KY. After a very tight, low-scoring game, the Tops came out victorious: 14-12.

One week later, the Tops hosted Louisiana Tech. In 2014, the Bulldogs handily defeated WKU 59-10. Vowing to redeem themselves, the Hilltoppers came out swinging. However, running back Leon Allen sustained a gruesome leg injury early in the third quarter: ending his season. WKU won 41-38, but the win was bittersweet knowing Allen was out.

WKU would go on to only lose two games which included a heartbreaking loss to Indiana University. Keeping with a historic season, the Tops became undefeated in conference play after a dominant win over "Moonshine Throwdown" foe, Marshall University. The Hilltoppers immaculate conference play not only landed the team in the Conference USA Championship game, but allowed WKU to host the game against Southern Mississippi, as well.

There was a point, during the first half, in which the Hilltoppers were struggling and found themselves down 14 points. Poor execution and nerves found its way into the game, however, not for long. Beginning in the third quarter, WKU started an impressive run: scoring 24 unanswered points to put the game away. WKU won its first NCAA Division I FBS Conference Championship, 45-28, after only having joined Conference USA two years prior. Doughty posted 410 passing yards, 3 passing touchdowns, 1 interception, and 1 rushing touchdown. Running back workhorse, D'Andre Ferby, rushed for 57 yards and 2 touchdowns. Star receiver Taywan Taylor had 8 receptions for 165 yards and 2 touchdowns. Branden Leston, Prince Charles Iworah, and T.J. McCollum each had 1 interception.

"To me, this was our Super Bowl [winning CUSA Championship]" -Jeff Brohm

Remember the theme of "fate" throughout the story that is WKU Football?

One day after a Conference USA title, WKU was selected to play in the Miami Beach Bowl against - none other than - Willie Taggart's University of South Florida. WKU was favored to win by 3: a tight line for two talented teams. It was anyone's game. Players, coaches, and administration were able to reunite with the previous Hilltopper head coach. However, it was back to business on December 21. Like the CUSA Championship, the Tops overcame a first-half 14 point deficit. The high scoring matchup saw the Hilltoppers put up some "video-game" numbers. Doughty threw for 461 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. Ace Wales ran for 105 yards and 2 touchdowns. Wide receiver Nicholas Norris posted 120 yards and 2 touchdowns. WKU won 45-35.

The unforgettable season was filled with trick plays, endless team accolades, and ended with the program's first Top 25 finish. Doughty threw more touchdowns than any other quarterback in a two-year span in NCAA history. He finished his career in the top 25 in NCAA history for career passing yards, passing touchdowns, and completion percentage. In 2015, he led every statistical category. Taywan Taylor finished #3 in the nation in receiving yards and #2 in receiving touchdowns. WKU's offense was regarded as one of the nation's best.

To cap off the season, Tyler Higbee, Brandon Doughty, and Prince Charles Iworah were selected in the 2016 NFL Draft. WKU Basketball great, turned WKU Football player, George Fant would later be picked up as an undrafted free-agent. Just five months later, Fant would become one of the NFL's biggest storylines in 2016.

The country was taking notice of WKU Football...and Jeff Brohm.

Image: USA Today Sports

2016 (11-3)

Entering the 2016 season, many conference opponents did not believe that the Hilltoppers could repeat a Conference USA title. No one doubted Brohm's coaching ability, however, many writers and fans within the conference believed the departure of Doughty, Higbee, Iworah, Nick Holt (Jr.), Jared Dangerfield, Wonderful Terry, Antwane Grant, Jontavius Morris, and Garrett Schwettman would be too much of a loss for the Tops to handle. Or so they hoped.

The question loomed. Who would replace Doughty?

In the meantime, WKU was looking to replace some coaching vacancies left when Tyson Helton (offensive coordinator) and Neil Callaway (offensive line) accepted positions at the University of Southern California. Brohm wasted no time and hired his brother - Brian - as a co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Then, came the intriguing hire of Tony Levine as a special teams coordinator/co-offensive coordinator/tight ends coach. The previous Houston head coach had been with the Cougars from 2011-2014. As Brohm continued to fill vacancies, Hilltopper Nation became increasingly more anxious for a starting quarterback to be named.

Four months after the spring game, it was announced that Mike White would be WKU's QB1. White, a transfer from the University of South Florida and played for Wille Taggart, had to sit out the 2015 season due to transfer eligibility rules. But when the stadium lights turned on, and the Hilltoppers took the field to face the Rice Owls in the home opener, White wasted little time. In his starting debut, White accumulated a whopping 517 passing yards, 3 passing touchdowns, and ended with an 80.6% completion percentage. His 98.3 total quarterback rating (QBR) was noted by ESPN Stats & Info as the highest QBR by an FBS quarterback in Week 1 in the last decade. Unfortunately, during the same game, running back D'Andre Ferby dislocated his sternoclavicular joint, backward. The injury would require surgery and Ferby would not return in 2016.

Against Alabama - a 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship finalist - the Tops hung on to the Crimson Tide as well as, if not better than, teams such as USC, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi State, and Florida. But signs of struggle began against Miami(OH) after scraping out a 31-24 win.

A victory over Vanderbilt seemed likely as the Hilltoppers were favored by 8.5. However, the brutally hot September 24 afternoon saw struggles continue and Vanderbilt defeated WKU in overtime 31-30. It is difficult not to look back and say "what if?" Nonetheless, the Hilltoppers had to move forward. After a quick and easy thwarting of Houston Baptist, WKU had just five days to prepare for Louisiana Tech. Again, the Hilltoppers struggled early. The Bulldogs were like a mirror image of WKU in every position. Miraculously, WKU was able to make a comeback in the fourth quarter which included a blocked punt returned for a touchdown. Sadly, a WKU fumble with 2:13 left in the game would lead to a heartbreaking 55-52 loss. On October 6, WKU was 3-3 and fans were nervous.

The "Thrilltoppers" season took a turn on October 15 as they were set to play Middle Tennessee at Johnny "Red" Floyd Stadium. It was a nail-biter that saw seven lead changes. However, it was not a true "100 Miles of Hate" classic showdown unless the game went into overtime. And that it did. After a blocked field goal, the Hilltoppers found themselves in prime position to end the game. An Ace Wales touchdown and Skyler Simcox extra point concluded the game, and WKU won in two overtimes: 44-43. The loss to Louisiana Tech would be the last of the season.

Fate had a hand...again.

The only way WKU could host the Conference USA Championship would be if Louisiana Tech lost to Southern Mississippi. The scenario seemed unlikely. But that is exactly what happened. The Bulldogs lost to the Golden Eagles 39-24. Not only would WKU have the opportunity to seek reprisal, but host the championship, as well.

Meanwhile, Brohm was becoming a hot commodity.

If you like a spectacle, the 2016 installment of the Conference USA Championship game was your dream come true as WKU and Louisiana Tech combined for over 1,000 yards and 100 points. It was an exhilarating and, at times, close game. But with the help of game MVP Ace Wales (209 rushing yards, 4 rushing touchdowns, 53 receiving yards, and 1 receiving touchdown) the Hilltoppers won 58-44 to secure their second consecutive C-USA championship.

Image: Bowling Green Daily News

2016 Boca Raton Bowl

Two days after WKU's Conference USA Title, and one day after accepting the Boca Raton Bowl invitation, news broke that Brohm had accepted an offer from Purdue University to become the Boilermakers' next head coach. Subsequently, defensive coordinator, Nick Holt, became the Hilltoppers interim head coach.

After a brief break, the Tops had ten days to prepare for the University of Memphis and the Boca Raton Bowl. Holt had every intention of making the most of a situation. And that he did. Amid speculation that the Tops would falter without Brohm, the team found hope and motivation through Holt and the remaining coaching staff.

For 10 minutes it seemed as if the bowl would be a "too close for comfort" game. Then, Holt and play caller Bryan Ellis decided to have a little fun. It began with a Mike White backward pass to Forrest Lamp: one of the nation's best offensive linemen. Lamp then ran 9 yards for a touchdown. ESPN and Twitter went crazy.

Holt and Ellis were not done, yet.

With 0:35 left in the first half, WKU appeared to take a knee to run out the clock. In a blink of an eye, Ace Wales had run 53 yards. The fake kneel would be compared to a similar play seen in the 1994 film The Little Giants.

WKU would handily win, 51-31: laughing in the face of doubters. It was the perfect ending for Forrest Lamp, Taywan Taylor, Ace Wales, Nicholas Norris, along with the rest of the graduating class.

2016 was filled with excitement and disappointment. Hilltopper Nation saw one of the nation's best offensive lines and special teams, one of the best receiving duos, a star quarterback in the making, an explosive running back, and a defense unlike other years. But there was also disappointment with the injuries of D'Andre Ferby and Nacarius Fant. There was the disappointment of losing early season games. But the team was able to face adversity and thrive.

After the bowl win, the team and individual players finished the season with many honors. Mike White was #5 in the nation in passing yards, #8 in passing touchdowns, #8 in completion percentage, #2 in yards per attempt, and #3 in quarterback rating. Taywan Taylor concluded the season as #3 in the nation in receiving yards and tied for #2 in receiving touchdowns. Nicholas Norris had a breakout season as #13 in the nation in receiving yards and tied for #5 in receiving touchdowns. Ace Wales ended the season as #8 in the nation in rushing yards, #1 in rushing touchdowns, and #1 in total points scoring. Kylen Towner impressed on special teams as #3 in the nation in kick return yards.

As a team, WKU finished #2 in the nation in total offense, #1 in total points, #1 in points per game, #6 in rushing yards allowed, #5 in allowed rushing yards per attempt, #4 in allowed rushing yards per game, among many other national statistics.

Image: Bowling Green Daily News

Mike Sanford Jr.

On December 14, 2016 - nine grueling days after Brohm's departure - WKU Football announced that they had selected their next head coach: Mike Sanford, Jr. If that name sounded familiar, you likely realized that Sanford had once been on the Hill as a quarterback coach in 2010 under Willie Taggart. Fate played its hand once again.

Sanford, a Boise State alumnus, began his coaching career in 2005 as an offensive graduate assistant/specialists/assistant quarterback coach for UNLV where his father, Mike Sanford Sr., was the head coach. Since UNLV, Sanford has coached at Stanford (under Jim Harbaugh, with Willie Taggart), Yale, WKU (under Willie Taggart), Stanford again, Boise State, and Notre Dame.

He is the youngest head coach in college football, but his resume would say otherwise. Not only does Sanford have a twelve-year coaching career, but he has recruited and/or developed some of the nation's best college and professional players including, but not limited to, Deshone Kizer (QB, Notre Dame), Christian McCaffrey (RB, Stanford), Jay Ajayi (RB, Miami Dolphins), Stephan Taylor (RB, Arizona Cardinals), and Kevin Hogan (QB, Cleveland Browns).

Although he has yet to coach a game for the Hilltoppers, Sanford's enthusiasm and goals for the program have fans excited for the upcoming season. Since his hiring, Sanford has articulated his five goals for the program, and they are as follows:

  1. Graduate every player
  2. Serve the community, relentlessly
  3. Win the Conference USA Championship game
  4. Defeat a Power 5 Conference team each and every year
  5. Win a New Year's Six Bowl

During and after his introductory press conference, fans in attendance showed signs of optimism: giving each other thumbs up, whispering "he is a Harbaugh and Taggart rolled into one," and nodding heads in agreement to his statements. Another home run by Todd Stewart in the eyes of Hilltopper Nation.

Sanford hit the ground running with very little time to assemble a new coaching staff and continue the recruiting process before National Signing Day. It became apparent, through his coaching hires, that Sanford knew exactly who he wanted and how to "keep the train rolling." The staff includes the likes of his father, Mike Sanford Sr., WKU Football alumnus Jami DeBerry, Clayton White who coached at WKU in 2010, legendary head football coach Steve Spurrier's son, Steve Spurrier Jr, among the many other talented names added to the coaching roster.

Whether Tweeting #WaveThatTowel with a Red Towel gif for every commit or officiating a children's basketball scrimmage during WKU Basketball's halftime, Sanford has made it clear...he is not conventional. What Hilltopper Nation is witnessing is a coach and his coaching staff completely immersing themselves into all things WKU. They have become the embodiment of a Hilltopper in just two short months.

Not only has the program achieved a tremendous amount during its existence, but players and coaches lives have been deeply and forever impacted by WKU Football: Taggart becoming Oregon's head football coach, Forrest Lamp predicted to be drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft, Taywan Taylor and Ace Wales proving that Kentucky boys can play with the best, Rod "He Hate Me" Smart featured in an ESPN 30 for 30, Jack Doyle becoming the Colts most beloved teammate...the list goes on and on. From one of the FBS's worst, to one of the best Group of Five Conference teams in the nation, WKU Football has reached new and unprecedented heights. However, the journey is far from over.

The pursuit continues...

Created By
Hannah Page
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