Western Kentucky closed its last chapter in the Sun Belt Conference on a high note, and the Hilltoppers hope the success will give them some momentum when they begin play in their new Conference USA home.
The Hilltoppers ended their 32-year tie with the Sun Belt by capturing the Bubas Cup all-sports championship for the first time since 2008, checking off a major goal of athletic director Todd Stewart. Women's basketball was among five programs that won league titles; WKU's men meanwhile posted consecutive 20-win seasons for the first time since 2009-10.
WKU just missed a second consecutive bowl bid but went 8-4 in Bobby Petrino's lone season as football coach before he left in January for a second stint with Louisville. Stewart looks forward to the Hilltoppers in C-USA.
"The Sun Belt was very good to us," Stewart told The Associated Press in a phone interview. "We won 132 championships altogether, so I felt like as a program we represented very well during the time we were there. ...
"It just became apparent to us that as we move forward for the next 30-plus years that Conference USA schools will align us better with where we are and where we hope to go."
If the past year was any indication, WKU is poised to be an immediate contender as C-USA's 14th member.
Especially in women's basketball, which has continued to rise under coach Michelle Clark-Heard. Since taking over a 9-21 team two seasons ago, she is 46-20 and this past spring guided the Hilltoppers to their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2008.
WKU stayed within single digits much of the game against Baylor, but lost 87-74 in the first round. The Hilltoppers retain numerous starters including senior guard and All-American candidate Chastity Gooch and has signed Ivy Brown, Kentucky's Miss Basketball.
Stewart said of Clark-Heard, "She has totally put our program back on an upward trajectory where it had been, though not in quite some time. ... The fact that she's done that in just two years is truly remarkable."
Despite falling short of a third consecutive Sun Belt tournament title, fourth-year men's coach Ray Harper guided WKU (20-12, 12-6) to its best league finish in five seasons. Stewart believes the Hilltoppers' competitive history with many C-USA members can translate into further success -- and hopefully, more postseason opportunities.
"I think Conference USA has a better chance to get multiple teams in," he said. "It helps with your RPI because the teams you play against are better and frankly, that's what our programs deserve. This is the natural next step for us."
The same can be said for Jeff Brohm's elevation to head football coach.
Stewart was prepared for the oft-traveled Petrino's possible departure when it hired him in December 2012, but stressed that the former coach was fully committed to the Hilltoppers until the Cardinals' job opened. At the same time, Stewart felt he had a capable successor in Brohm, a quarterback under Petrino at Louisville.
Things looked rocky with a 4-4 start, but the offense hit stride and the Hilltoppers won their final four. Stewart soon promoted Brohm to his first head coaching job after "a 12-month interview" process that convinced him he could take the Hilltoppers into their next chapter.
"I saw the answers unfold right in front of my eyes," Stewart said, "and certainly I became more comfortable with him as the season went along."