Commentary

No welcoming party in Week 1 for Division I-A's newest member

Originally Published: September 7, 2007
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Kickoff is coming, and the adrenaline coursing through Dusty Bear makes his legs tremble.

"Your piss should be hotter than it's ever been right now, boys," says Bear, a wild child with 14 tattoos and a Western Kentucky football jersey stretched across his 250-pound linebacker frame.

"Now, we got 15 minutes yet," cautions coach David Elson in an even voice. "It should be warm. Very, very warm. We're not to that point yet."

Elson is pacing the visiting locker room at Florida Field, surrounded by more scholarship players, assistant coaches and support personnel than the school has ever had. After 93 years on the sport's lower tiers, Saturday, Sept. 1, is Western Kentucky's birthday as a fully grown football program.

Not that the 90,000 Florida Gators fans outside are impressed. To them, this is just a muscle-flexing walkover against a chump opponent on the way to the real work in the Southeastern Conference.

To the people in the visiting locker room, this is history in real time. Last year, they played in a stadium with bleachers on only one side. Last month, the players went door-to-door selling tickets themselves for a newly renovated venue that will include suites and club seating. Today, they are about to run out into The Swamp and play their first game as a I-A football school. Western Kentucky is the 120th and newest program in the big time, debuting against the defending national champions.

A program is being born, right here and now. And the piss is running pretty hot.

"Technique, technique, technique," Elson says, trying to govern the building emotion in the room. "Pad level. Don't assume anybody has made a tackle -- run to the football. Understand, ol' Tim Tebow is about 240 pounds. You're going to have to hit him right through that midsection.

David Elson
Faye LashCoach David Elson is attempting to lead Western Kentucky into the land of big-time college athletics.

"If we win the toss, we're going to take the football. If we don't, I visualize Chris James kicking it about 7-8 yards deep in the end zone, and we sprint through that goal line. We send a message. This ain't nothin' compared to the heat in Bowling Green, Ky., on Jimmy Feix Field! It's a damn country club!"

The players are getting riled now. The urinary temperature is rising again.

After going over a few more pregame instructions, the fifth-year head coach calls everyone into the center of the room to hear from team chaplain Gregg Farrell and recite the Lord's Prayer. Among other things, Farrell prays for victory.

Piety concluded, it is time to bring the piss to a boil. Elson's voice changes timbre. He's flipped the switch into full-on motivation mode.

"This coaching staff could not be more excited, could not be more proud, of the way you've done everything since last December," he says. "It's the greatest group of people I've ever been around.

"We're gonna show people that WKU football is the real thing. We're not going to be No. 120 out of 120 in the nation very long."

Noise rising around him, Elson now walks to the center of the room and grabs a red-handled sledgehammer sitting on the floor. It's a controversial totem from the 2002 I-AA national championship Western Kentucky team -- a symbol of hard work and hard play and, yes, on-the-edge attitude. The Hilltoppers got it and all potential weaponry banned from the sidelines that season, after one of their players used it on an opponent in a postgame playoff brawl.

"For the first time, we're bringing it back," Elson says of the hammer. "We're bringing the nastiness back."

Elson turns to the players and roars, "I'm gonna bring it! Are you gonna bring it? ARE YOU GONNA BRING IT?"

Surrounded by bedlam, the coach's countenance has been transformed.

His boyish good looks are replaced by temporary insanity. His dark eyes blaze. His features contort. The look on his face would frighten children -- but it galvanizes the stoked young men surrounding him.

Destruction is literally in the air, over Elson's head.

For an instant, the mannerly 36-year-old who keeps a picture of a priest at his office desk has become Jack Nicholson in "The Shining." "Heeeere's Western!" Only he's swinging a sledgehammer, not an axe.

And he's swinging it at an orange Florida helmet on the floor. As Elson brings the hammer down like Thor, it smashes a clean round hole through the top. The headgear winds up skewered on the handle of the sledge. He raises it aloft like a head on a pike and screams, but he's drowned out by the feral roar of 73 Hilltoppers.

Bloodlust permeates the room. And maybe even belief.


Belief spills headlong out of the locker room and runs down the tunnel, then bursts out into the Florida sunshine. It jogs, in new white uniforms and new silver helmets, to the sideline while ignoring the taunts and boos from the stands that rise very close behind the visiting bench.

Belief wins the toss and takes the ball. And for 10 glorious plays, belief owns the joint.

After a 26-yard kickoff return by Rashad Etheridge, the first-ever collegiate play called by new offensive coordinator Kevin Wright, fresh up from the high school ranks, is for David Wolke's first-ever throw as a Western Kentucky quarterback. Wolke fires it crisply into the hands of receiver Jessie Quinn for a 29-yard gain. The Hilltoppers bench erupts. Less than a minute into the game, they're in Florida territory.

Jessie Quinn
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesJessie Quinn and Western Kentucky were held to just three points and 204 yards of total offense.

Next play: Wolke scrambles up the middle for nine yards to the Florida 34, taking a fierce head-to-head hit on the tackle. Wolke, a transfer from Notre Dame who was recruited by Charlie Weis, bounces up from the hit -- but his day would not be the same after it. He has a concussion that won't be discovered until he comes to the bench a few minutes later and cannot recall a thing about the opening drive. "Did we score?" he asks a teammate.

But before the fog settles over him, Wolke leads the Hilltoppers all the way to the Florida 10-yard line. Facing fourth-and-1 in a suddenly nervous stadium, Western sends running back Tyrell Hayden off left tackle. He comes up short, in part thanks to a poor spot by the officials, and the ball goes over to the Gators.

And that would be the burial of belief.

Reaching the Florida 10 on their first drive in Division I-A would be the Pickett's Charge of this game, the high-water mark of Day 1. In retrospect, kicking a field goal and then taking a picture of the scoreboard might have been the better plan.

Because Florida takes six plays to score its first touchdown, and adds six more TDs to the total. Wolke doesn't play another snap, leaving the job to freshman K.J. Black -- and briefly, when Black cramps up, to third-stringer Brandon Smith. When an electrical storm finally forces termination of the game midway through the fourth quarter, the score becomes final: Florida 49, Western Kentucky 3.

As any mother will tell you, giving birth hurts.


Monday evening, Aug. 27, Bowling Green, Ky. -- David Elson is nosing his black Denali across the WKU campus, on his way to Montana Grille for his first radio show of the season. In the cupholder next to his seat sits a cordless shaver. His cherubic looks suggest he doesn't need to use it daily, but the newest I-A coach can't walk around all scruffy.

Elson drives past Western's stadium, awkwardly named Houchens Industries L.T. Smith Stadium at Jimmy Feix Field -- with Houchens signing on for a $5 million donation this year, plus half a million annually to the basketball program. Along with a newly elongated name, the stadium is currently undergoing a two-year, $37.5 million makeover. Stands will rise for the first time on both sides, eventually increasing capacity from 17,500 to 25,000.

Western Kentucky Stadium Renovations
Western Kentucky AthleticsConstruction has already started on the renovations to Western Kentucky's stadium.

To maintain good standing in I-A, a school must have a per-game average of 15,000 fans per home game, and last year Western averaged 9,051. Season-ticket sales for this season have jumped from 1,800 to nearly 8,000, thanks to grass-roots marketing and old-fashioned pricing.

Athletic director Wood Selig rolled back the cost of season tickets to a dirt-cheap $25 for all five home games and made them all general admission -- first come, first served. The plan is to get them in the door, then hope they'll re-up when the prices inevitably increase. And to sell more of the tickets, Selig approached Elson about having his players go door-to-door and make sales themselves.

That doesn't happen at USC, Texas or Florida. But this is the opposite end of I-A.

Elson loved the idea and turned it into a competition, dividing his squad into individual teams and sending them out to ring doorbells. The team that sold the most tickets would get a steak dinner. The result: 300 season tickets sold, including roughly 30 club seats for 2008.

"We'll do it again next year," Elson says eagerly. "Doing it every year is how we'll get this place full."

As the coach drives, he presses his phone to his ear and does an interview with a reporter from the Florida student paper. The kid has done his homework; he asks about Elson's spring skydiving adventure.

Last May, Elson and school president Gary Ransdell were guests on a parachute jump at Fort Knox with members of the WKU ROTC. Looking for a one-liner, the kid asks Elson which is scarier: parachuting or opening the season at Florida?

Elson isn't playing along.

"There is no comparison," he tells the reporter. "Jumping out of an airplane is a lot more scary."

Elson swallowed his fear and jumped because he's willing to do anything to promote his football program and further relations between football and the rest of campus. Especially now.

"This was a perfect example where I can show our guys that sometimes in life, you've got to step out of your comfort zone to grow," Elson says. "Let me tell you something: Jumping out of a plane at 13,000 feet is damn uncomfortable."

Jumping out of Division I-AA could be uncomfortable for the Hilltoppers. The lower ranks of I-A are littered with programs that made the same jump and splattered without a parachute -- schools that lose money and lose games in large doses every year. Western was losing money annually in I-AA, but it hasn't experienced a losing season since 1995.

How long can that streak continue?

"The standard is that you're going to struggle," Elson acknowledges. "I told the players, 'I have no intention of struggling.' "


On the muggy deck at Montana Grille, Elson does his radio show in front of a hardy group of roughly 15 regulars. In the audience is the virtual patriarch of the program and field namesake, Jimmy Feix.

Feix was the school's first All-American, as a quarterback in the early 1950s. He was Western's head coach from 1968 to '83, winning a school-record 106 games in that time. One of Feix's teams was co-captained by Romeo Crennel. Two of his teams made the Division II finals.

Seeing Western Kentucky where it is today is dizzying for Feix.

Western Kentucky Stadium Renovations
Western Kentucky AthleticsWhen the renovations are complete, the stadium will be able to hold 25,000.

"It's an accomplishment beyond my wildest dreams," he says. "We were sort of an NAIA program. To see this program grow is just thrilling. I take a lot of pride in it.

"I'm proud of David and the way they've handled it. So many schools make this move and say, 'We're going to play for the money.' We said, 'We're going to play to win.' As an old coach, you like to see them play to win."

The schedule this year affords an immediate chance to do that. As a transitional I-A team, this year's slate is a mishmash of teams from different levels: six from I-A, five from I-AA and one from Division II.

Next year it gets tougher: 10 I-As, two I-AAs. With that in mind, Elson asked eight fourth-year seniors if they wanted to redshirt in '07 and come back for a fifth year in '08.

All eight initially said yes and began spring practice sitting back and watching other guys take their spots. By the time spring had ended and summer started, six of the eight changed their minds and came back to play this season.

"After playing for three years and then sitting out and taking a back seat, it was easier said than done," says safety Bo Smith, one of those who changed his mind.

Either way, the next two crops of seniors at Western Kentucky have no postseason to play for. The Hilltoppers are precluded from playing for the Sun Belt Conference championship or in a bowl their first two years in I-A, and they obviously cannot play in the I-AA playoffs.

"That sucks," says senior safety Marion Rumph, who has started every game since he came to Bowling Green. "My main goal coming to college ball was to win a championship. This takes away from that."

Said Smith: "It's kind of no-man's land. But it's in the best interests of the university and the football program. It's a dream thing for the school. I feel honored to be a part of the first I-A team."

To fill the potential motivational void without a postseason, Western has set two team goals: Win seven games and go undefeated at home. Both will require beating at least one I-A team. If the Hilltoppers win seven, they get rings. If they run the table at home, they get commemorative gear from Russell, which recently signed a multimillion-dollar all-sports deal to outfit the school -- a deal Western officials say would not have been possible at the I-AA level.

"We couldn't buy Nike's best stuff if we wanted to, because we're not a premium account," Ransdell, the school president, says. "Now we're getting gear from Russell for free."

They're also getting paid by Host Communications in a new marketing rights agreement. And they'll be paid handsomely by one I-A powerhouse opponent per year to come play a no-return game. This year that opponent is Florida, for $500,000. Next year Western will get $650,000 from Alabama. In 2010 it will get $800,000 from Nebraska.

But Western Kentucky is refusing to go down the body-bag road paved by its Sun Belt brethren. New league rules call for teams to play a maximum of two guarantee games per year -- down from the four or five that some schools would play in order to fund their entire athletic departments -- but the Hilltoppers have capped it at one.

That was a lesson learned from Selig's in-depth study of the 17 other schools that jumped from I-AA to I-A in the past 20 years. Getting your team routinely annihilated for dollars has not gotten many schools ahead in big-time football.

It's kind of no-man's land. But it's in the best interests of the university and the football program. It's a dream thing for the school. I feel honored to be a part of the first I-A team.

--Bo Smith

"There were a couple common themes," Selig says. "One was to not fall victim to the fool's gold of scheduling too many guarantee games. You'll kill your program doing that.

"The second is funding a stadium upgrade. Do it outside your athletic budget. Don't take away stuff from the football transition, because this is when they need it."

So Western financed its stadium through private donations, an increase in the student activity fee and funds earmarked for a general campus renovation project. Meanwhile, the football budget has been plumped up from $2.2 million to $3.2 million, and by 2009 -- WKU's first year of bowl eligibility -- it will be $5 million.

Despite its annual success in I-AA, the school has perpetually lost money on football. Even winning that 2002 I-AA national title resulted in a bump of only about 60 season tickets sold the next year. So Western Kentucky looked at the situation thusly: We can stay on that level and continue to lose money, or we can move up and spend more -- but potentially make much more.

That's the financial risk-reward. The football risk-reward is whether the state of Kentucky and surrounding areas puts out enough DI-A talent to keep Louisville competitive in the Big East, Kentucky in the SEC and now WKU in the Sun Belt.

"Very few athletic directors or coaches survive the transition," Selig says. "David and I made a pact: We're bound and determined to survive this transition together."

Elson's odds of survival have been enhanced by an immediate upgrade to a full staff of assistants -- I-AA allows six full-timers, I-A nine -- and he's been given a bigger budget to pay them. Every assistant coach also now has his own manager to work with. There are recruiting interns, available to work on mailings to prospects. And the in-house computer and video system has been upgraded.

Most importantly, there are more scholarships to give.

"It's nice to see what it's like to have a little depth," Elson tells his radio audience.


Friday afternoon, Aug. 31, Gainesville, Fla. -- Three buses, complete with police escort, bring the Hilltoppers to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium at Florida Field. The players pile out wearing black sweat pants and red shirts that read on the back, "Bring Your Sledge." They're here for the shortest walk-through in I-A history.

Western has done most of its Friday work back in Bowling Green, walking through plays and formations and situations. The purpose of the stadium visit is strictly mental.

If the players plan to gawk at the 90,000 seats, this is the day to do it -- not Saturday. A few do, pulling out camera phones or digital cameras to click pictures from field level. They have played at Georgia, Auburn and Kansas State in recent years, but these are the defending national champions, and many kids on the Western team are from Florida.

Brandon Spikes
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesBrandon Spikes and the Gators didn't take it easy on the Hilltoppers in Week 1.

After that, they line up in the spots where they'll stretch on Saturday. Then Elson calls them in.

"That concludes our walk-through, OK?" he says. "We've done all the work we need to do today. Now I'd like you to turn around and look [at the stands].

"[The fans] are extremely close to you. You cannot pay attention to anything outside that fence. They're going to start drinking tonight, and they're not going to stop until the game ends, OK? They're going to be saying things about you and me and WKU football. … We're going to tune them out."

Elson has the players turn back to him now.

"I visualize us playing football here tomorrow," he says. "I visualize Curtis Hamilton catching a touchdown pass, and when that happens, what I heard was this."

Elson pauses. There is no noise.

"That's what it'll be like. Then I imagined Marion Rumph intercepting a pass, and I visualized, auditorily, what it would be like."

Silence.

"I visualized screens going up along those white lines, and nothing else mattering in the world but what happens within those white lines.

"Fellas, I looked around and I'm not all that impressed, to be honest with you."

Neither are the Gators, as it turns out. The two teams don't physically intersect, but Florida catches sight of the Western Kentucky players on the field. One Gator sends a text message to a Hilltopper he knows from high school in Tampa, redshirt freshman defensive lineman Neil Harrell.

The message: "Man, y'all are small."


Roughly 24 hours and 49 Florida points later, the small Hilltoppers are impressed by the big time.

The crowd was as huge and loud as advertised. The Florida heat was as withering as advertised. And the Gators were as strong and fast and well-coached as advertised.

This is the top shelf of college football. And it's way over Western's head at the moment.

"This demonstrates the margin we have to cover," Randsell says solemnly. "It illustrates the challenge.

"If you had to pick your opponent for the first game, you might not choose the defending national champ. On the other hand, you might as well jump in with both feet."

And one sledgehammer.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.