Ohio Valley Conference, NCAA Division II
Head Coach: Jimmy Feix
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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