When Willis Pooler was a men’s soccer player at Lindsey Wilson College in the early 1990s, the school had two vans to transport its sports teams.
“The big thing was to get the one with the FM radio,” Pooler said Thursday. “The other one just had AM; nobody wanted it.”
Those days are a stark contrast from where Lindsey Wilson athletics found itself this week. In a moment of Kentucky sports history, Lindsey Wilson won the Learfield Directors’ Cup as the best all-around athletics department in the NAIA for the 2015-16 school year.
In so doing, LWC became the first school from the commonwealth at any level to win the award since it was initiated in 1993-94. Sponsored by the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics, the Directors’ Cup recognizes the colleges that have the most all-around sports success in NCAA Division I, II, III and the NAIA.
“It’s a pretty neat deal,” said Pooler, the Lindsey Wilson athletics director since 2003. “Basically, a tribute to our athletes and our coaches and how hard they’ve worked to get to this.”
At the NAIA level, the Directors’ Cup is chosen based on the postseason results of each school’s top 12 performing sports — six men’s teams, six women’s.
In 2015-16, Lindsey Wilson had so much across-the-board success that three of its teams that made national NAIA tournaments/playoffs — football, men’s soccer and women’s track and field — were not even counted toward the Blue Raiders’ Directors’ Cup scoring.
LWC had so much balance that it outscored runner-up Oklahoma City decisively (852.75 to 777) even though no Lindsey Wilson team won a national championship in 2015-16.
Instead, LWC got national runner-up finishes in women’s tennis and women’s soccer; and third-place finishes in volleyball (tied) and men’s tennis. The Blue Raiders also logged top-20 performances in baseball (tied for fifth), women’s basketball (tied for fifth), women’s swimming (sixth), men’s swimming (eighth), men’s wrestling (eighth), softball (tied for 11th), men’s outdoor track and field (tied for 11th), and men’s indoor track (20th).
“We love to win national championships; obviously, we wish we’d won some,” Pooler said. “But I don’t think (not doing so) detracts (from winning the Directors’ Cup). In a way, I think it shows even more so how strong our all-around athletics department has become.”
For most of its modern sports history, Lindsey Wilson has been known as “a soccer school.” Under longtime head coach Ray Wells, LWC has won nine NAIA national championships in men’s soccer. The school has also claimed four women’s soccer national crowns under coach Drew Burwash.
“They’re not a ‘soccer school’ anymore,” Mid-South Conference Commissioner Eric Ward said. “They’ve built a lot of programs that are capable of competing at the national level. At this point, they are not reliant on one or two sports carrying their success.”
Pooler says Lindsey Wilson’s drive to achieve all-sports excellence reflects the overall ethos at the college set by its president, William T. Luckey Jr.
“It’s a culture. The administration here is committed to trying to be the best at everything,” Pooler said. “We want to have the best choir, the best band, the best singers, the best everything. And that carries over to what we’ve tried to do with our sports.”
A liberal arts college affiliated with the United Methodist Church, Lindsey Wilson has used its athletics program to help the overall college grow. The school in Columbia (Adair County) had an enrollment of some 260 in 1977. It now has roughly 2,650 students.
“Counting our JV teams, we’ve got over 700 athletes, 27 programs, 36 teams,” Pooler said of the LWC athletics department. “It’s a big operation.”
In this year’s final Directors’ Cup tally, Campbellsville was 13th and Cumberlands 20th (out of 190), giving the state of Kentucky and the Mid-South Conference three teams in the top 20 of the NAIA standings.
“We’re excited for Lindsey Wilson, but people shouldn’t lose sight of what Campbellsville and Cumberlands did, too,” said Ward, the MSC commissioner. “To have three of the top 20 tells you something about how deep a conference we have.”
Lindsey Wilson’s sports teams had been building toward a Directors’ Cup crown. The school had finished second, third and second in the three school years before this one.
Long removed from its days as a “two-van” operation, Lindsey Wilson athletics will always have the cachet of having been the first Kentucky school to win the Directors’ Cup.
“It was big for us anyway,” Pooler says, “but to be the first school from Kentucky to do it definitely makes it a little more special.”
Kentucky schools in the 2015-16 Directors’ Cup standings
NCAA Division I (289 schools)
125. Western Kentucky
139. Murray State
159. Eastern Kentucky
(Final results for Division I will not be available until the conclusion of the baseball College World Series; Stanford has already clinched the title, however)
NCAA Division II (263 schools)
218. Kentucky State
245. Kentucky Wesleyan
NCAA Division III (323 schools)
59. Thomas More
NAIA (190 schools)
1. Lindsey Wilson