Editor's note: This is the first in an occasional series this summer looking at college sports in the commonwealth at schools other than Kentucky and Louisville.
In November 2006, Western Kentucky University honchos came to Lexington to talk about their school's transition to what used to be called I-A football.
In making the move up in class, WKU President Gary A. Ransdell said Western was bidding to change the way Kentuckians thought about college sports in our state.
For all of my lifetime, if someone asked you to name the major sports programs in the commonwealth, the answer has been Kentucky and Louisville, period.
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In moving to the highest level of college football, Ransdell said one of Western's aims was to someday be perceived as the third major sports program in Kentucky.
I recalled that moment last Monday night when I noticed on ESPN's sports scroll that WKU had tied Mississippi of the lordly SEC at 1-1 late in a do-or-die regional final in the NCAA baseball tournament.
Ultimately, the Hilltoppers' bid to make the super-regional round of the NCAAs failed, but it motivated me to again think about WKU's sports ambitions.
These are good times for athletics on The Hill. In the last two school years, the Hilltoppers have won a whopping 19 Sun Belt Conference championships.
"It's not just the major sports like basketball and baseball," said Wood Selig, the WKU athletics director, on Wednesday. "It's sports like volleyball and track, too."
WKU's signature program, men's basketball, has won 54 games in the past two seasons, including three NCAA Tournament victories.
At a school that, to its frustration, remains a steppingstone coaching job, WKU has done it with two different head men.
After Darrin Horn parlayed his 2008 run to the NCAA round of 16 into the South Carolina job, Ken McDonald came to Bowling Green and kept the good times going.
Early this past season, Western scored a stunning upset of then-No. 3 U of L. After beating Illinois, the Toppers lost an 83-81 heartbreaker to Gonzaga in the second round of the 2009 NCAA tourney. It was, for my money, the second-most entertaining game (behind the Villanova-Pitt epic) of the entire Dance.
"Our goal is to become more like Gonzaga and Butler," said Selig, of non-BCS schools which have become NCAA basketball tourney perennials.
"We'd like to get to the point where (head) coaches stay in our job, where we become an NCAA regular year-in, year-out, and consistently win games in the tournament."
Selig said that McDonald, a Rick Barnes protege, is scheduling aggressively for the coming season. There will be a return game with (a presumably highly motivated) Louisville in Freedom Hall; WKU will be at South Carolina to face its former coach.
"I think when people see Ken's final schedule released, they'll be like, 'Wow, they're taking it to the next level,'" Selig said.
The Western AD said the school has had talks with Kentucky about playing men's basketball for the first time since the 2001-02 season (a 64-52 WKU upset win in Rupp Arena).
The new coaching regime of John Calipari seems more open to the idea of playing WKU than was Billy Gillispie, Selig said.
The football transition at Western hits a milestone this year when Coach David Elson's Toppers are eligible to compete for the Sun Belt title and a bowl bid for the first time.
A year ago, a horridly overscheduled WKU (Alabama, Virginia Tech, Kentucky, Indiana) went 2-10.
Selig said the money Western made from guarantee games in a year in which it wasn't eligible for post-season play anyway led to significant facility improvements like a new football playing surface.
"We're not going to microwave the process to be competitive in I-A football; it's going to take four, five years," Selig said. "David has the right plan. Recruit high school seniors; redshirt your entire class; let them grow, mature, make the academic adjustment, then, in three, four years, we should have grown a competitive team."
The AD said Western likes its spot (as a big dog) in the Sun Belt. But if WKU aspires to being perceived as a major program, I'd say at some point it has to consider a higher-profile league.
"By being I-A in football, by having a football stadium that could be expanded if we need it, if the opportunity for some kind of conference realignment emerged, we could be a major player in it," Selig said.
So can Western someday move into the gated community that houses UK and U of L and truly give college sports in Kentucky a Big Three?
There's so much — resources, tradition, the barrier of not being in a BCS league — that works against that, I'd still say the answer is almost certainly no.
But after the past couple of years, maybe Western can at least start to see the gate.
Said Selig: "Perception is probably the hardest thing to change. The perception, statewide, might be that WKU has a nice little program, has had a nice little run of success.
"To change that on a permanent basis, really become a major player, we're going to have to sustain the success we've had and be a success in football, go to bowls. Then we'll see."