Stewart, Sanford have faith WKU football is in good standing

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No one at Western Kentucky was content with a 6-7 football season. Especially athletic director Todd Stewart.

“Certainly the success we had in recent years had put us in position where our goals are very high. We obviously didn’t meet any of those goals,” Stewart said Friday. “That was disappointing. Certainly to lose five of our last six games was disappointing. To finish 6-7 was disappointing. Then to lose the bowl game to Georgia State was very disappointing.

“I think we were close to being much better than that. But as Bill Parcells so eloquently said, you are what your record says you are and the 2017 Hilltoppers finished 6-7 and that’s what we were, that’s what we are and we gotta live with that for the next eight months and figure out how we can get better.”

Stewart, approaching six years as WKU’s AD in May, hired Mike Sanford in December to take over a program which has risen from the dead to become a major competitor in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Sanford’s first year in that role did not go smoothly as the Hilltoppers lost five of their final six, including a 27-17 loss to Georgia State in the Cure Bowl.

But Sanford, who signed a four-year contract with a base salary of $800,000 with an initial buyout of $1.5 million that decreases by $300,000 each year, is not in danger of losing his job after one down season – a season considered a disappointment due to reality as much as it was due to the two years that preceded it.

“I definitely believe strongly in (Sanford),” Stewart said. “Am extremely confident that we will win conference championships, we will win bowl games, we will have great seasons under his leadership. I truly believe that. You can’t let one season cloud your judgement. If we did, and I know that some people are frustrated – I think we’re all frustrated. Nobody’s more frustrated than (Sanford) is and our players. I would rather have people be frustrated than not care.

“As I sit here, if we jump the gun based on a disappointing season or disappointing parts of the season, all we do is make coaching changes.”

Sanford is the school’s fifth coach during the FBS era following David Elson, Willie Taggart, Bobby Petrino and Jeff Brohm, respectively. He’s the first of that group to go through a losing season since Taggart’s 2010 team finished 2-10 – Sanford was the quarterback’s coach on that sideline.

The 2017 Tops also lost a bowl game for the first time since 2012 when Western was beaten 24-21 by Central Michigan in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl under interim coach Lance Guidry. Sanford’s first season came on the heels of the Brohm era that saw Western Kentucky go 31-10 over three seasons, win three bowl games and two Conference USA championships.

The 35-year-old Sanford now wants his second WKU teams to refocus on the future when it returns to campus in January.

“The biggest one is let’s just hit the ground running. The 2016, 2015 era is over. The 2017 season is in the books,” he said. “We have a lot of really good pieces coming back to this roster. We were so close to being in such a different position if you look at the games that we played in and how we finished up. Let’s hit the ground running and 2018’s a brand-new chapter. Let’s go to work.

“To have any thought of what we’ve done in the past, good, bad or indifferent, this has gotta be the new season, this has gotta be the 2018 season. Don’t dwell on the past, let’s move directly on to what’s in front of us today and that’s gotta be our message. Let’s hit the ground running, let’s start going back to work.

The ’17 Tops were caught somewhere in between trying to ride the momentum of Brohm Ball and forming a new identity in Sanford’s system. The results seemed to be OK midway through the season with a 5-2 record and a shot at winning the league’s East Division.

But a 42-28 loss at home to Florida Atlantic, in front of just 12,441 people, sent WKU into a tailspin. The team’s only win after that came in triple overtime at home against rival Middle Tennessee and Western scored just 18.5 points per game in its final four defeats.

Having the nation’s worst rushing offense, mounting injuries on defense and allowing 48 sacks (only Idaho allowed more) all caught up to Sanford’s team down the stretch.

Sanford said he met with his entire staff for evaluation meetings Tuesday and said it’s his job moving forward to put the pieces in the right place moving forward. He’ll also be afforded a 10th full-time assistant coach beginning Jan. 9.

“One thing I do really like about where our team’s gonna be, and certainly where I’m gonna be as a head coach and where this staff’s gonna be, is there’s gonna be an edge in the way we do our business. We’re gonna have an edge,” he said. “We got a lot to prove. I got a lot to prove. This team’s got a lot to prove. These players have a lot to prove. There’s no coming off a season where everybody’s patting our back. I’m good with that. I kinda like that. I like being in a place of being a little bit ornery about our football team going forward.”

Western Kentucky won’t be given any breaks in Year Two under Sanford. It opens the season Aug. 31 at Wisconsin (12-1) and travels to Louisville (8-4) on Sept. 15. The Hilltoppers also needed two touchdowns in the final 1:38 to beat a 2-10 Ball State team in September – the rematch of that game is in Muncie, Ind., in 2018.

Conference games against division rivals Middle Tennessee, Marshall, Louisiana Tech, Florida International and Old Dominion all await as well. So does a trip to defending league champion Florida Atlantic (11-3).

“Every year our goal is to do the things Mike Sanford has embraced: To win a conference championship, to beat a Power 5 team, to go to a New Year’s Six bowl. You have to aim high,” Stewart said. “I think if you have, in anything in life, but certainly in athletics, if you have goals and you’re hitting them every year, you’re probably not aiming high enough. You need to have high goals. You need to aim high. Nothing worth achieving is easy. We’ll continue to aim high.

“I’m confident about the overall health of our program as a whole. I’m not happy about 6-7. I wouldn’t even try to spin that. But overall, big picture-wise, I feel good about the leadership we have in place, I feel good about the players that we have returning, I feel good about the players that we’re adding and I’m very confident that we have great days ahead. I really, truly am.”

— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop