Football

Colonels, toppers regret battle's end

All good things do not have to end, but some good things do.

On Saturday night, the final contracted football game between ancient rivals Eastern Kentucky and Western Kentucky will play out in Richmond.

WKU is in the process of moving to college football's highest level. EKU remains in the Football Championship Subdivision (the level formerly known as Division I-AA). A Sun Belt Conference rule prohibits Western from playing road or neutral-site games against schools from lower divisions.

Our state's most enduring college football rivalry — filled with the lore of funny clock work; back-room politics; and a longtime disagreement between the schools over the all-time series record — ends Saturday.

One final time with feeling, let's allow some of the people most associated with The Battle of the Bluegrass to share what made the EKU-WKU rivalry crackle.

EKU's sweetest moment

After five games in 1968, Western Kentucky was not only undefeated. Coach Jimmy Feix's team was unscored upon. The sixth game of the year was to be the official dedication of L.T. Smith Stadium in Bowling Green.

The foe was Coach Roy Kidd's Eastern Colonels.

Jimmy Feix: "There was a huge crowd, had to be 23,000 or so. I've got this big print hanging in my den even now. It's an aerial view of the stadium, with people everywhere. It was amazing."

Roy Kidd: "Our quarterback, Jim Guice, got hurt in that game, got his bell rung. The trainer was walking him back to the locker room. They got down near the end zone, and you could see them stop. They came back. The trainer said 'He can go back in.' We put him back in, and he threw a touchdown pass to tie the game 7-7 at half. We came out and took control in the second half, won 16-7.

"Spoiling that dedication, that was probably my sweetest moment from the rivalry."

Feix: "That print I've got in my den? Now, I never tell anyone who we were playing or what the score was."

WKU's sweetest moment

Ten years after Kidd and EKU spoiled Western's stadium dedication, the Colonels were back in Bowling Green. The 1978 game was of such magnitude, ABC telecast the contest regionally.

With EKU clinging to a 16-14 lead, Western mounted a late drive. With four seconds left in the game, WKU sent out a walk-on freshman placekicker, Kavin McGarth, to attempt a 32-yard field goal.

Kidd: "He missed the kick. All our kids were jumping up and down. Then somebody said 'there's a flag.' They called us for roughing the kicker. (McGarth) got to do it again."

Feix: "He didn't miss it the second time."

Paul Just, the retired long-time WKU sports publicist: "After that season, I was at a convention, and the ABC people told me that was the only game they telecast that entire year that was decided on the final play. And McGarth never hit another field goal in college. That was his only one."

The disputed record

Going into Saturday's game, Western says it leads the all-time series with Eastern 47-34-3. Eastern says WKU holds a 46-34-3 advantage.

It all goes back to what Western claims was a forfeit in 1932 but Eastern claims was a cancellation.

Karl Park, retired longtime EKU sports publicist: "Back in the 1970s, I had a guy go through our university archives. He found a letter that our university president wrote to Western in 1932 saying that we weren't going to play the game we had scheduled with them that year.

"He wrote 'Our boys are too light to compete. We will be unable to engage in our game this season. Sorry for the short notice.'

"After we found it, I sent a copy of that letter to Western; I thought they might want to unify the records."

Just: "I can't say I've done exhaustive research into our records, but we have no record of ever getting such a letter (in 1932). I never saw any reason to take the win off our records. I told Karl, 'If you had this win, you wouldn't take it off, either.' He just laughed."

Never the same

By the early 1980s, Western had become restless as a member of the Ohio Valley Conference.

In 1979, the Hilltoppers lost the OVC basketball tournament to EKU in Richmond in a controversial finish that saw Eastern hit two free throws after a foul was called some 3.5 seconds after the game should have ended (the arena was so loud, no one heard the final horn).

The next year, Western started the football season 9-0 and had secured the OVC title before their season finale at Murray. In what it thought was a meaningless game, WKU got waxed, 49-0.

Even though Western was the league champ, the OVC sent Eastern to the 1980 I-AA football playoffs.

Those two events left a real bad taste in Bowling Green. Western soon left the OVC to join the Sun Belt.

Wes Strader, the retired longtime Western radio play-by-play man: "That was a tremendous blow, a tremendous blow to the rivalry with Eastern. Before, (Western-Eastern) was on a smaller scale what Kentucky-Louisville is now. Except, in a way it was better because you had a much longer history and tradition. After we left the OVC, the rivalry just lost something, it really did."

Park: "When the schools weren't competing for the same championship, some of the edge was lost. It was still a big game, but not like before."

The future

As things stand now, the only way for Eastern and Western to continue playing would be for EKU to visit Bowling Green.

The only way that would make sense, even on an occasional basis, would be for Western to pay Eastern the kind of money schools like Kentucky and Louisville pay schools from the former I-AA.

Eastern Kentucky Athletics Director Mark Sandy: "We've talked about playing Western occasionally. But the fact of the matter is, if you are one of our fans, would you rather see us go to Western to play a Bowl Subdivision team or see us play UK?

"The other thing is money. You schedule these games five, six years out. To get us for that time frame, it's probably going to be $350,000, $400,000. I don't know that Western is likely to be able to afford us."

Is there any chance EKU would ever follow Western to college football's highest level?

Sandy: "We have talked about it on several occasions. But if we were ever to do that, we'd want to do it from a position of strength. We'd like to get back where we are winning the conference championship every year, making deep runs in the playoffs before we even think about moving up."

Saying goodbye

So, for the foreseeable future, Saturday night is it for the Maroon-Red Civil War that has long been Eastern vs. Western.

Greg Stotelmyer, long-time EKU sports play-by-play man: "I hate that the series is ending. It shouldn't end. Alabama should play Auburn. Michigan should play Michigan State. Eastern should play Western."

Feix: "It is sad; there is a sadness about this. But it's exciting, too. I'm proud of what Western is doing with its program. I think there are big things ahead."

Kidd: "I hate to see this end, but I can understand, and I respect Western for trying to move up their program. But Saturday is going to be a sad day, it really is."

Pause.

"But it will brighten up if we can beat them. Beating Western one more time would be great."

Even when so much is changing, some things never will.

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