When Western Kentucky returned home after breaking its 26-game losing streak, a sight usually reserved for national champions awaited them.
Folks had gathered at the airport, red Hilltopper towels in hand, and whooped and hollered as the team emerged from the terminal.
Players were shocked. Coaches were shocked. The 54-21 victory over Louisiana meant so much to them, but they had no idea what type of impact it would have on their community.
“A lot of love is being shown around here,” running back Bobby Rainey said.
A lot of love indeed. When the team pulled up to the stadium after the ride from the airport, more fans waited.
When coach Willie Taggart went to get his cup of coffee, folks in the store were beaming. As he walked out, he overheard one woman tell another, “He’s the most popular guy in Bowling Green right now.”
“I was thinking, ‘Geez, that’s just for one victory,’” Taggart said at his news conference earlier this week. “I can’t imagine what it would be like if we win the Sun Belt conference championship.”
Western Kentucky is a proud program that has had success in the past. But it is just in its second year of being a full-time FBS member, and the wins had been excruciatingly slow to come.
When Taggart took over his alma mater for this season, he brought a new energy to the team. But he knew he had a lot of hard work in front of him. Western Kentucky plays a tough nonconference schedule, and making the transition to a higher division takes time and patience.
But he did have some talent here. Chief among those talented players was Rainey, who ran for more than 5,000 yards in high school in Griffin, Ga. Rainey had been a part of a winning program at his high school, one that went to state championships every year.
So it was hard to live through all 26 straight losses.
“Never in my life had I been on a team that hasn’t won,” said Rainey, who leads the Sun Belt in rushing with 120 yards per game. “It was very frustrating. I didn’t know what to do really. I tried a lot of different things and it seemed like nothing worked. That’s when I turned to God and told him to give me the strength.
“I’m considered a leader on the team and everybody looks to me. I had to keep everyone up, keep pushing, telling guys, ‘We’ll get the victory.’”
There were several close calls that nearly ended the streak. In the 2009 finale, the Hilltoppers blew a 20-3 lead late in the third quarter and lost 24-20 to Arkansas State. Two weeks ago, they took a 24-7 lead into the fourth quarter at home against ULM.
Western Kentucky allowed 28 unanswered points and lost 35-30. They were so close, and everybody could sense it. If anything could come from that ULM loss, it was the lesson on how to finish off a game.
The players did that against Louisiana and more, scoring on nine straight offensive possessions for their highest point total since 2007. When the final seconds ticked off the clock, several players cried. In the locker room it was “party like a rock star,” Taggart said.
In all, it had been 763 days since the team last won a game, 50-9 against Murray State on Sept. 20, 2008.
“You could tell a big weight was lifted off their shoulders, especially guys who had been around here for all 26 losses,” Taggart said. “It was good to see those guys happy and ecstatic about the win. They had been working really hard. I forgotten it was my first win as a head coach I was so excited for those guys.”
Now comes perhaps the most difficult part – sustaining success. It’s hard to teach that to players who only know sustained misery.
There could be reason for optimism, though. Western Kentucky hosts North Texas (1-6) this Saturday and FAU (1-5) the following week, so there is a chance for another win this year.
Keeping the momentum going is another lesson players will have to learn.
“We got a victory, yes, but can we sustain the victory?” Rainey said. “Can we keep them coming? That’s going to be our biggest test.”