Sports

WKU-UK nice step on ladder for Toppers

What are now the universities of Kentucky and Western Kentucky have shared the same state for some 133 years.

In all that time, they have never shared a football field.

On Saturday night, they will. Desperation, it turns out, can be the mother of scheduling inspiration.

Last winter, the UK football schedule found itself under a big MAC attack. Mid-American Conference schools Akron and Temple pulled out of 2008 games in Commonwealth Stadium at the figurative last second.

"The MAC left us in a really tough spot," said Rob Mullens, the number two man in Kentucky's athletics administration who oversees much of UK's scheduling. "We were really scrambling."

Because it already had a 2008 game with Norfolk State of the Football Championship Subdivision, Kentucky needed contests against major college foes.

In its second year of transition from the old 1-AA to the old 1-A, Western fit that bill.

Suddenly, UK realized they do take in-coming phone calls in Bowling Green.

"It was a totally last-minute thing, like February, when UK started calling us," Wood Selig, the WKU Athletics Director, said Monday.

Offered a chance to play Kentucky, Western got itself out of a previously scheduled road game at Arkansas State.

The schools signed the contract to play on Feb. 29. Until that news was released to the public on March 11, Selig said he didn't realize that UK and WKU had never played football.

In addition to a $540,000 guarantee to come to Commonwealth Stadium, WKU negotiated for 4,000 tickets it could sell to its fans for the game.

This week, the buzz building in Bowling Green is a testament to how much WKU benefits from this game.

"Having never played Kentucky and going there to play, is really exciting," said Western Coach David Elson.

There is no greater in-state platform Western could get to publicize its move up the college football food chain than the news coverage that comes from playing Kentucky.

"You can't be in this state without realizing what's going on at Kentucky pretty much on a daily basis," Selig said. "This gives us a week to be in that discussion."

When it first announced its intention to move to major college football, Western was adamant that it would play no more than one big-money guarantee game a year.

This year, WKU has three, having already played at Alabama with contests remaining at UK and Virginia Tech.

The money from the trip to Lexington will allow Western to dramatically spruce up its football complex, Selig said, with amenities that honor WKU's football past.

Cash (some $800,000) that Western will get for traveling to Virginia Tech will put a new playing surface on the renovated Houchens Industries-L.T. Smith Stadium.

"Our core philosophy is still to only play one of those a year," Selig said of guarantee games. "But this year we were able to fund specific enhancements to our program by playing these extra games. Long term, it's not the way we plan to run our program."

UK also benefits from Saturday's matchup. If Kentucky is going to play three teams from lower-ranked conferences each year, it should try to at least schedule foes that are interesting for its fan base.

A game against Western is a lot more appealing in the commonwealth than a matchup with Akron, Temple or Louisiana-Monroe.

If UK is going to pay big money to attract foes that do not expect a return game, why not help out other Kentucky schools by keeping that money in state?

Which is not to say there is no risk to UK in playing Western. For an SEC school, a home-field loss to an in-state foe making the transition to 1-A would be an acute embarrassment.

Middle Tennessee State literally took the Cats to the last play before succumbing 20-14 in Kentucky's last game. That's the same Middle that WKU beat last season in Murfreesboro.

In scheduling Western, Rich Brooks said he did consider that he was giving the Hilltoppers a massive everything-to-gain opportunity.

"I did and I didn't," Brooks said. "We had to find somebody to get in here to give us a home game. Under these circumstances, I'm very pleased to be playing them."

Even if it took a marriage of convenience, the sight of red towels waving in Commonwealth Stadium should be a fun moment for college football in Kentucky.

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