Hilltoppers dismiss Elson in 7th season

Updated: November 9, 2009, 4:19 PM ET
Associated Press

Western Kentucky fired David Elson on Monday, though he will finish out the remainder of a horrific season in which the Hilltoppers have struggled to make the transition to major college football.

The firing came less than 48 hours after the Hilltoppers (0-9, 0-5 Sun Belt Conference) lost 40-20 to Troy to extend their winless streak to 17 games, the longest in the country.

The search for Elson's replacement will begin immediately.

"We looked at stats, looked at attendance, looked at ticket sales almost across the board and by every measure we looked at and evaluated, the situation was worsening," said WKU athletic director Wood Selig. "We were going in a wrong direction from where we truly needed it to be going."

Elson, who is 39-41 in seven seasons as coach with the Hilltoppers and oversaw the move from the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) to the Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly I-A). Elson did not meet with reporters, instead issuing a statement.

"I have had the privilege of coaching at this great university for 14 years, so obviously I am very disappointed and do not agree with this decision," he said.

He will receive a $500,000 buyout.

Elson signed a contract extension through 2016 last January and both he and Selig preached patience over the summer, saying it would take at least three or four seasons for the Hilltoppers to find their footing in the FBS.

Selig, however, felt it was necessary to make a move.

WKU is just 1-23 against FBS schools over the last three seasons and currently ranks last or next to last in the Sun Belt in 16 statistical categories. The Hilltoppers are also last in the country in total defense and scoring defense and next to last in rushing defense.

The Hilltoppers' average attendance at their newly renovated 25,000-seat stadium is 16,000.

It wasn't what Selig was looking for when the Hilltoppers proudly proclaimed they were "No. 120" after becoming full-fledged members of the FBS this season.

"I didn't feel like we were making the necessary steps to put us on track and show the amount of improvement that we'd like to see at the particular juncture," Selig said.

Selig, however, has no regrets about the decision to move to the FBS.

"There's no doubt the transition to [the FBS] is not for the faint of heart," he said. "We're still committed to this and we know the process can't be microwaved."

The move was considered necessary to help make football matter in an area that hardly paid attention after the Hilltoppers won the I-AA title in 2002.

The school spent nearly $50 million to renovate Houchens Industries-L.T. Smith Stadium, a facelift that gave the Hilltoppers the kind of top-notch facility Elson hoped would help recruiting.

The move to the FBS, however, has failed to capture the attention of the fan base. Season ticket sales have lagged, from over 9,000 in 2007 to 7,500 this year.

Selig said the team's inability to be competitive this season hasn't helped. The Hilltoppers have lost their Sun Belt games by an average of 20 points, the kind of backsliding Selig didn't foresee in 2007 when WKU went 1-2 while playing a partial conference schedule.

"It didn't seem like the gap was shrinking between WKU and rest of conference, it felt like it was widening," Selig said.

He stressed it was the competition against conference opponents, not the brutal nonconference schedule, that played a part in the decision. That's good news for WKU's next coach, as the next few years offer few breaks. WKU will play games at Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee.

"If you look at the resources we've put into WKU football, look at the infrastructure in place, this program is built to win championships," Selig said.


Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press