Cinderella Stories: Western Kentucky

T.J. Price and the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers are a program full of rich basketball tradition. AP Photo/Cal Sport Media

The 68-team field is set, the bracket is out, and the NCAA tournament soon will begin. Before the final 64 take the court Thursday and Friday, Playbook has chosen a few small schools to examine a bit closer, taking a look at their exploits inside sports -- and far away from the fields of play. Click here for more Cinderella Stories.

With defending NCAA champion Kentucky missing this year’s tournament, there are only two teams from the hoop-crazed state in the field of 68: top-seeded Louisville, a popular pick to win it all, and 16th-seeded Western Kentucky, a successful mid-major in Bowling Green that’s normally overshadowed by the state’s traditional basketball powerhouses.

Well, today is WKU’s day. Let’s take a closer look at the Hilltoppers, making their second consecutive NCAA tournament appearance after losing to Kentucky in the first round last year.

• The first thing you notice when you watch Western Kentucky: The red towels. Red towels everywhere. The fans wave them in the stands, the players use them on the bench, and the school’s logo is simply a hand waving a WKU red towel. It’s a tradition that was started by celebrated WKU coach E.A. Diddle (more on him later), who threw it, chewed on it, waved it at players and covered his face with it while coaching the Hilltoppers from 1922 to ’64. In 1971 it became the school’s official logo and now students are given a red towel at freshman orientation -- and you’re not a true Hilltopper unless you still have a red towel.

• Big Red, the WKU athletic mascot, is perhaps the most unique mascot in all of sports. He’s literally unlike anything else -- and that’s because it’s unclear exactly what he is. Created in 1979, Big Red is an affable, amoeba-like blob that the school describes as “the spirit of Western.” Known for belly sliding and shaking across the floor, Big Red is the reason the school’s motto is, “The Spirit Makes the Master.”

• Just how beloved is Big Red? Mediaset, an Italian TV network, created a mascot that looks almost exactly like Big Red in 1990. The resemblance is so uncanny, in fact, that WKU attempted to sue the network for copyright and trademark infringement. WKU lost the suit in 2007, but come on -- those two could be twins.

• The nickname “Hilltoppers,” while unique, doesn’t have as much eccentricity as the school’s mascot or logo. WKU got its nickname because, well, it sits on top of a hill. The operations of the school are located on an elevated piece of land which summits at 232 feet above the flatlands surrounding it. In 1927, the school officially became known as the Hilltoppers.

• Oh, and you can't forget Diddle, the legendary coach whose statue stands tall in front of E.A. Diddle Arena. He coached the Hilltoppers for 42 years, averaging 25 wins per season and retiring in 1964 as the all-time NCAA wins leader (almost 50 years later, he’s still in the top 10). As successful as he was popular, he caught attention of the national media because of the way he worked that red towel. He’d toss it in the air to express joy, throw it on the floor in a rage, and chew it during pivotal moments. No one’s had a bigger impact on WKU sports than E.A. Diddle.

• Being around so long, Western Kentucky has racked up a substantial number of famous alumni. But just within the sports world, here are some notables: former Cleveland Browns and Kansas City Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel, 2012 NBA slam dunk champion Jeremy Evans, Celtics guard Courtney Lee and the infamous XFL player Rod “He Hate Me” Smart.