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Schnellenberger: Hilltoppers set for Sun Belt


Schnellenberger: Hilltoppers set for Sun Belt


Schnellenberger: WKU ready
Says Hilltoppers set for Sun Belt

By Michael Grant [email protected]
The Courier-Journal October 16, 2008

When it comes to building a successful college football program, Howard Schnellenberger is an authority.

He did so at the University of Miami, Louisville and Florida Atlantic. Schnellenberger sees what Western Kentucky University is doing and expects the Hilltoppers to be impact players in the Sun Belt Conference when they officially join the league in 2009.

"It's a university whose time has come," said Schnellenberger, whose Florida Atlantic Owls (1-5) will play at WKU (2-5) on Saturday. "They have prepared themselves very well for it. They've been playing football for an awful long time. They have a very mature fan base. There is plenty of room for developing programs. They're going to be successful. They've already given great signals that it's going to be special."

The first-ever meeting between the programs is the start of five straight games against Sun Belt programs for the Hilltoppers, who are in their second and final season of transitioning from the Football Championship Subdivision to the Football Bowl Subdivision. They will become bowl-eligible next year.

Florida Atlantic is the poster child of Sun Belt success. Schnellenberger built the program from scratch, starting it out in NCAA Division I-AA (now FCS) for its first season in 2001. The Owls reached the I-AA playoffs by 2003. They joined the Sun Belt in 2005.

Last season they won a share of the league championship and beat Memphis in the New Orleans Bowl.

Florida Atlantic did so without many of the advantages WKU will have as a new Sun Belt member. The Hilltoppers have tradition: They have been playing football since 1913 and won the 2002 Division I-AA championship. They play in Houchens Industries-L.T. Smith Stadium, which underwent a $49 million renovation and expansion that was completed last month.

The Owls won't have their new stadium until 2010.

"The challenges were monumental when we started," Schnellenberger said. "We had no practice facility. We had no practice fields. We didn't have a nail to hang a jockstrap on."

He also said WKU already has proved it can be competitive. Last season the Hilltoppers played three games against Sun Belt teams, beating Middle Tennessee 20-17 and losing to Troy 21-17 and North Texas 27-26.

This season WKU will play Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Troy, Middle Tennessee and Florida International.

The Sun Belt has existed as a football conference only since 2001. WKU will become the league's fifth program that formerly was in Division I-AA or the FCS, joining Middle Tennessee, Troy, Florida Atlantic and Florida International.

Middle Tennessee won a share of the league title in 2006 and went to the Motor City Bowl. Troy has shared the Sun Belt title the past two seasons and won the New Orleans Bowl in 2006. Florida Atlantic had its breakthrough last year. Florida International (3-3, 2-0 Sun Belt) could finish above .500 for the first time since joining the league in 2005.

Schnellenberger is not alone is expecting great play from WKU. Troy coach Larry Blakeney, Florida International's Mario Cristobal, Middle Tennessee's Rick Stockstill and Arkansas State's Steve Roberts see it being a quick contender.

Troy won an NAIA championship in 1968 and NCAA Division II titles in 1984 and '87. Blakeney said it helps that the Sun Belt pursued the Hilltoppers to be a football member for several years.

"They waited a little long, but I think they did it right," he said. "The conference was waiting on them. They were already in the conference in other sports. We certainly didn't have that luxury when we went from I-AA to I-A. They'll have an immediate impact on the league."

One coach hopes WKU will come to the conference with big dreams.

"Obviously we know it will be some time before we compete for the national championship," Schnellenberger said. "This level is a good level for the growth and development of a team. I don't know what Western's ultimate ambition is, but I hope it's to win the national championship."

Michael Grant can be reached at (502) 582-4069.
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