Western Story Started With Mr. Diddle

For my faithful readers who may have been surprised by Kentucky’s defeat at the hands of upstart Western Kentucky, let’s take a gander back at ol’ Gander himself. And we’ll diddle around a little with the greatest Diddle of them all.

Let’s take them one at a time.

W.L. “Gander” Terry coached Western Kentucky State Teachers College to a four-season record of 25-9-3 from 1938 to 1941.

But what may surprise you even more are these paragraphs about Edgar Allen Diddle, a strongboy from Adair County who played in the first football game he ever saw! Yes, he’s THAT Mr. Diddle, the colorful Hall of Fame basketball coach whose Hilltoppers were so crowd-pleasing that they had an automatic bid to play in Madison Square Garden anytime Mr. Diddle thought his team was good enough.

Even though Mr. Diddle never saw a football game because his little high school was so small that it didn’t play football.

But when Diddle enrolled at Centre College in Danville, the Colonels’ coach took one look at the husky Diddle and told him that he wanted him to be on his football team.

They Beat Harvard!

It turned out to be not just an ordinary college team, but one that pulled off the biggest upset in the history of football. All the Praying Colonels did was upset mighty Harvard! Don’t laugh, Harvard was the beast of the East in 1923 when little Centre College made headlines all over America.

The first coaching job Mr. Diddle had was at Western and he turned out to be a winning football coach! His Hilltoppers had a seven-year record of 38-24-2.

Jack Clayton (whose nine-year record was  50-33-2) was the first of four long-tenured  successful coaches.

Denes Colorful Too

The most colorful (other than Mr. Diddle) was Nick Denes, who moved from Louisville Male High school to Western for 11 seasons and a record of 57-39-7. Denes was unique in the Commonwealth  coaching annals. He coached Corbin High School to the state basketball championship, Male High to the mythical state football title and Western to the 1963 Ohio Valley Conference and Tangerine Bowl championships.

Jimmy Feix, an all-time great WKU quarterback, was the university’s winningest coach with a 16-year record of 106-56-6. He coached six OVC title teams.

Jack Harbaugh coached 14 seasons and posted a 91-68 record. Harbaugh and all of the others before him, had to make do with what little money Western could afford. Thanks to his two pro football sons (now head coaches in the NFL), the Toppers got some equipment and shoes.

Now for the big question: How did WKU fund its entry into the ranks of big-time football and to where it was capable of beating Kentucky, a member of the mighty Southeastern Conference?

Very simple. All one has to do is look at the name of WKU’s stadium: Houchens Industries, a tremendously successful and varied  company, is the major reason for the Toppers’ success. That and a former Topper who is now the head coach, Willie Taggart.

Houchens is a major owner of Louisville’s venerable Hilliard Lyons Co., an investment company.

Not The Biggest

Western’s victory over Kentucky has been referred to as the biggest win in WKU’s athletic history. Big, but not quite the biggest.

The Western victory for the ages was coach John Oldham’s Jim McDaniels-led Toppers who thrashed  Adolph Rupp’s UK Wildcats 107-83 in the 1971 NCAA Mideast Regional final at Georgia. Western advanced to the Final Four in Houston’s Astrodome, but the NCAA voided WKU’s finals because McDaniels had taken money from a pro team.

Rupp, to his credit, praised all of Western’s regulars to the high heavens and helped them to NBA contracts.

The Colonnade

Back to football: The most beautiful football stadium in Kentucky’s history is Western’s old colonnade field on the Hill.

Perhaps the most beloved Western president was Kelly Thompson, who got his start as Mr. Diddle’s public relations man. It’s called “sports information director” now and Kelly was the best.

When the Western presidency was open, Diddle traveled many miles promoting Kelly for the job, which he eventually got. Kentucky’s governor at the time told the late Earl Ruby, sports editor of The Courier-Journal, that it was the hardest thing he ever accomplished. Why? Because Kelly was Catholic.

During the early days, Mr. Diddle coached everything, including baseball and women’s basketball. And he married one of his basketball players!

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