- Associated Press - Thursday, July 14, 2016

Western Kentucky athletic director Todd Stewart takes pride in the success Hilltoppers programs enjoyed last year and believes WKU is heading in the right direction.

The Hilltoppers won their first Conference USA football championship and capped a 12-2 season with a second straight bowl win. Volleyball won its second straight league title and reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament, and women’s basketball made the WNIT quarterfinals.

Senior sprinter Emmanuel Dasor excelled this spring and will represent the school and his native Ghana in the 200 meters at the Rio Olympics.

Men’s basketball, on the other hand, underwent an overhaul.

Stewart hired former Texas A&M; assistant Rick Stansbury as coach on March 28 to replace Ray Harper, who resigned after a university disciplinary committee suspended three Hilltopper players for an unspecified rules violation. Those players are no longer enrolled at WKU.

Harper guided WKU to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances in 2012 and 2013 but went 18-16 last season and hasn’t made the postseason since 2014.

“It’s always unfortunate at many levels when you have to make a change,” Stewart said in a phone interview with The Associated Press. “When you look at the big picture, we needed energy and we lacked energy, and we had a bit of a fractured fan base.”

Stewart believes the hiring of Stansbury, a Kentucky native with WKU ties, can boost attendance and energy. His successful resume is highlighted by a 293-166 record at Mississippi State from 1999-2012.

The AD’s goal is seeing more postseason success throughout his programs.

“The NCAA (Tournament) is when you have the most eyeballs on you,” Stewart said. “We need that with men’s and women’s basketball. We’ve done it in the past and I’d like to see it again.”

Stewart’s long-term plans include an indoor practice facility football and an upgraded press box. But he’s happy with the current facilities and other areas that have helped WKU succeed athletically and academically: every program achieved a 950-plus score in the most recent Annual Progress Rate, a first for WKU.

Then there were those C-USA trophies WKU collected in its second season of membership.

Record-breaking quarterback Brandon Doughty led WKU’s high-scoring football team to its best season since winning the 2002 Division I-AA (now FCS) title. Besides clinching their first FBS league championship, the ‘Toppers won their second straight postseason game in the Miami Beach Bowl.

Doughty was named conference Player and Male Athlete of the Year before becoming a seventh-round NFL draft pick of the Miami Dolphins this spring. Three Hilltoppers were selected overall.

WKU ranked 24th in the final poll, the program’s first Top 25 finish since 1975. The ‘Toppers’ only losses came at Power Five schools (LSU and Indiana) and they opened the season by rallying to upset Southeastern Conference member Vanderbilt. While WKU will look different on the field with Doughty’s departure, Stewart ensured continuity by signing coach Jeff Brohm to a four-year contract extension in February.

He’s confident that Stansbury make WKU’s men competitive again and foresees continued success for the women’s team that has become postseason regulars in his four-plus years as AD.

“It’s no exact science,” Stewart said of hiring coaches, “but what I feel best about is that every hire we’ve made has ultimately resulted in WKU achieving something that hasn’t been achieved. It’s made us relevant nationally in ways we weren’t.”

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