By Todd Vinyard • Special to The Smoky Mountain News
Western Carolina University head basketball coach Larry Hunter’s team had beaten Samford 88-71 on Feb. 3 for a significant Southern Conference victory, and he had become one of only 40 other NCAA men’s basketball coaches with 700 career wins. Despite the milestone, Hunter followed his postgame routine of 46 years in coaching — finish the work of game day and prepare for the next game.
Pride-filled pandemonium reigned in Cherokee Saturday night, Dec. 8, as the victorious Cherokee Braves football team returned to town. Police cars and fire trucks from the Cherokee Police Department and Jackson County Sheriff’s Department flashed their lights and blared their horns in an escort that had met the buses all the way back at Balsam, and fireworks filled the air as fans already tired from the five-hour drive back from Raleigh cheered till they were hoarse.
Budget cuts impacting assistant coaches at the middle and high school level will likely be restored in Haywood County Schools following public outcry from the youth athletics community.
All he heard was the sound of an engine.
“I came over the rise, a place I’d ridden hundreds of times before,” Kevin FitzGerald recalled. “I remember seeing a flash of brown, the roar of a truck and…boom…lights out.”
A new plaque coming soon to the Jackson County Sports of Hall Fame will no doubt raise some eyebrows of those who pass it in the entry foyer of the justice center.
From paved 5K routes to epic trail runs and triathlons, Western North Carolina is rife with outdoor races of all types. But a peek at the history shows that the bulk of these events are new arrivals on the landscape, most founded in the past decade or so with new ones popping up each year.
“Sporting events seem to be growing across the nation, and people are interested in taking their families on these trips,” said CeCe Hipps, executive director of the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce. “What better place to be in the great outdoors than Haywood County?”
Pushing through 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 of biking and 26.2 of running, it was all Jennifer Jacobson could do to keep moving toward the finish line of Ironman Louisville in Kentucky last summer. But she did make it, earning an achievement to boost her mood for years to come.
“That was basically an ultimate bucket list goal for me, and if I don’t ever do another one again, I’m OK with that,” said Jacobson, 33. “But just having that experience was something I’ll never forget for sure.”
Randy Eaton has been selected Western Carolina University’s new athletics director and the man designated with rescuing the school’s floundering football program.
He was greeted last week by a throng of Western Carolina University coaches, administrators, faculty and staff. Some students also turned out to meet and greet Eaton.
Abraham Faison, a freshman from Burlington and a member of WCU’s track team, was among those Dec. 14 in the standing-room only crowd in the Ramsey’s Center homecoming room. Faison said he hopes Eaton can turn around a football program that has experienced a decided losing streak. This year, the team won one game, and the last winning season was 2005, when WCU’s football team went 5-4.
Eaton promised the crowd to hire a new football coach by Christmas.
“I came because I wanted to show my support,” Faison said, adding that he also wanted to meet the man chosen to lead all of WCU’s sports programs, including track and field.
Eaton, 50, most recently served as senior associate director of athletics at the University of Maryland.
Eaton’s first job is to replace former Football Coach Dennis Wagner, who posted an 8-36 record in his four-year career at WCU. Wagner was forced out last month, sent on his way with a $300,000 settlement for having his contract terminated. WCU, trying to find the key to a competitive football team, has now bought out the contracts of three football coaches in a row.
A football coach could be named as early as this week, with the university Board of Trustees meeting Wednesday to consider a name.
Eaton replaces Athletic Director Chip Smith who was fired in October, paving the way for Chancellor David Belcher to hire Eaton.
The new athletics director will receive $160,000 a year under the terms of a contract that runs through June 30, 2016.
“What impresses me most about Randy is his unwavering commitment to the student-athlete and the fact that he understands that the word ‘student’ is the most important part of that hyphenated term,” Belcher said. “He is totally committed to the concept that these young people who come to our university are students first, and athletes second. That’s not to say that Randy does not want success on the fields and courts of play, because he shares the same expectations of excellence that I have for all of our sports teams.”
Belcher touted Eaton’s “passion for winning.”
Shawn Dholakia, a student manager for the WCU men’s basketball team, said he attended the meet and greet because he’s excited about a possible new and positive direction for WCU athletics.
“I’m interested in athletics, and I’m involved in it,” Dholakia said. “I wanted to hear what he had to say.”
WCU’s new athletic director Randy Eaton until last week was serving as the senior associate director of athletics at the University of Maryland. He joined the Terrapins’ athletics program in 2003 as associate director in charge of business operations. At Maryland, he was the No. 2 administrator in the athletics department and oversaw a $60 million annual operating budget. He served as interim director in 2010 and recently assumed additional responsibility for new revenues, facilities and operations.
Eaton, in addition to his stint at Maryland, also has held positions at the University of Houston, Texas A&M University, East Tennessee State University, Ohio State University and the University of Texas at San Antonio, and with the Ohio Glory of World League Football.
The price tag of transforming Western Carolina University’s losing football team into a winner — or anything less than a total embarrassment to Catamount fans — keeps rising, leaving students, alumni, faculty and staff at odds about whether the cost is just too high.
So how much is too much?
WCU recently paid $300,000 to buy out the latest head football coach deemed a loser. Dennis Wagner is the third straight coach WCU has bought out since 2001. And now, WCU wants to kick more than $1 million into the salaries of a new athletic director and for a replacement football coach.
Punt already, some students said this week: It’s just not worth it, particularly when students are facing a just announced, almost certain to be implemented $399-a-year increase in annual tuition and fees.
Other students, however, are calling for a push toward the end zone: a winning football team, they argued, is an integral part of a student’s university experience.
Chancellor David Belcher makes that argument, too.
“I feel that a successful athletics program is critical to a university,” he said in an email interview with The Smoky Mountain News. “And football, while just one part of an overall athletics program, is an important and visible component. In our region, it is fair to say that football is the most visible sport.”
A typical WCU undergraduate student living on-campus and eating at the cafeteria can expect to pay $11,775 next year. Of that amount, $688 from each student will help fund the university’s athletic programs — a $71 increase when compared to last year.
By comparison, Wagner received $940,000 via WCU’s coffers for the four years he was on the job, including the $300,000 contract termination settlement.
“I just don’t think the football coaches should get paid what they’re paid,” Joshuah Gross, a WCU student said bluntly, shaking his head over the amount of money Wagner pulled down.
Gross ran out of money to attend WCU and is headed to a local community college to continue his education. He works at Rolling Stone Burrito on campus to earn his living.
“The team is terrible, and here they are planning to sink even more money into a failing program,” Gross said one day last week. “The professors are suffering — they need to redirect that money into other areas, like into the engineering department.”
WCU administrators have seen cash-strapped North Carolina cut the university’s budget $32 million since the 2008-2009 year.
Senior T.J. Eaves, the student body president at WCU and a former high school football player, views the situation differently than Gross, his former university classmate.
“To the student body a good team is very important. It directly contributes to the student experience,” Eaves said, adding that he believes most students “were excited for a change in the program.”
And, Eaves emphasized, most students supported Chancellor Belcher’s decision to make changes, including paying a failed football coach that $300,000 buyout fee.
Belcher didn’t shy from confirming that he was hired by WCU with certain expectations when it comes to the football team.
“In my conversations with the search committee, and later with the Board of Trustees, it became clear that improving the performance of the athletics program would, indeed, be an expectation of the next chancellor,” Belcher said. “And that expectation meshes perfectly with my expectations. I expect excellence in athletics, including football, just like I expect excellence in academics, in our Honors College, in our marching band, in everything we do at Western Carolina.”
WCU’s football program has been on a decided losing streak, winning only two or three games a year and garnering some nine losses. This year it won only one game. The team’s last winning season was 2005, when WCU went 5-4.
“My roommate and I went every time they were home playing this season,” said graduate student Tim Willis. “And the football team was really bad. That’s not an opinion, that’s a fact. Nobody at Western gives a (expletive) about the football team — we are all there for the marching band. They are just great.”
Willis wants to see WCU pump money back into academics, not sports.
But it just isn’t that simple, Faculty Senate Chair Erin McNelis said. Prior to joining the Faculty Senate, McNelis said she hadn’t really understood the budgeting formulas universities labor under.
There’s different pots of money, and “that’s not money we (academics) could have had anyway,” said McNelis, a math and computer science professor. “And, while my interest is predominantly academics, I recognize that students’ educations include more than that — we have an engagement component.”
Academics are funded primarily through the state and tuition. But athletics have their own funding stream, including ticket sales, sponsorships and donations.
The lion’s share — $5 million of the $8.4 million athletics budget — comes from the $688 fee assessed to each student to pay for sports.
The university also kicks in $1.2 million, justified as institutional support because it goes toward scholarships for student athletes and to pay the salaries of coaches who also teach academic courses. The university plans to phase out this funding over the next four years, however, making athletics self-sustaining.
Jason Lavigne is chair of WCU’s Staff Senate and a database administrator for the university. He’s also a WCU alumnus, and a fervent believer in building the university’s football program.
“Like it or not, the football team is a big face of the university,” Lavigne said.
Coach Wagner’s exit followed an undistinguished 8-36 record, including a recent 51-7 shellacking during homecoming by the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team. That horror led to outcries from alumni, which helped in the forced exodus of Athletic Director Chip Smith, who had previously extended Wagner’s contract. The WCU Board of Trustees, it should be noted, had endorsed the contract extension.
Fred Cantler, WCU’s longtime senior associate athletics director for internal operations, came out of retirement to serve as interim director of athletics. WCU is expected to name a new athletics director Wednesday, Dec. 12.
“Not all of a student’s collegiate experience is inside the classroom,” Cantler said. “It’s very important that the university’s programs are successful.”
One huge reason is financial, university leaders acknowledged. Happy alumni make more frequent, and substantially larger, donations.
“Obviously, the more success that teams are having on the fields and courts of play, the more likely alumni and other donors are to contribute toward those programs,” Belcher said. “It’s human nature to want to rally around a winner. But more important than winning, I think, is being sure that we are able to field teams that are competitive … (that) translates into both a larger number of donors and into higher amounts of donations over time.”
Laura Leatherwood of Haywood County has three degrees from WCU. She served on the search committee tasked with picking the university’s replacement athletics director.
Asked whether WCU had difficulty finding anyone willing to take the job, Leatherwood laughed and replied “no” — there were many eager candidates, she said, adding that the selection they made should prove an excellent one.
Leatherwood said athletics, along with other university programs, help students with “professional development, personal development and their networking” abilities. It helps build “good character,” she said. And, like so many others, Leatherwood emphasized that the university experience isn’t isolated to academics.
Betty Jo Allen, president of the WCU Alumni Association, could have been singing a duet with Leatherwood. Allen lives in Lincolnton and drove here to WNC to attend every home game played in Cullowhee this season.
“I’m a big supporter of the team,” said Allen, who attended WCU from 1964 through 1968. “I love athletics, and I love football.”
Allen taught in North Carolina’s public school system for 37 years. She emphasized that what is often lost in the argument about football at WCU is that the arguing is about kids — the football players are students, too. They might be losing games, but they are still just young adults trying to find their ways in the world, Allen said.
She added that it should be noted that the cumulative grade point average of WCU’s football team for spring semester 2010 (2011 fall semester still being under way), was the highest in recent memory.
That said, Allen still wants a winning football team as much as anyone associated with WCU.
“I want us to be competitive,” she said. “In everything. I want it all.”
Asked if the price tag is simply too high when academics at WCU are suffering from what Belcher himself has described as “staggering cuts,” Allen hesitated, then said: “I’m just really glad I’m not the one who has to make those kinds of decisions.”
• $8.4 million Total athletic budget
• $1.4 million Athletic Departent deficit over four years
• $400,000 projected deficit for this year
• $1.275 million Amount contributed by university
• $5 million Amount raised through student fees
• $688 Student fee assessed this year
• $71 Increase in per student fee over last year
• $252,000 Amount from ticket sales
• $55,000 Decrease in ticket sales compared to last year
• $19,000 Decrease in sponsorships/royalties compared to last year
• $4,500 Decrease in novelty/program sales compared to last year
• $2.46 million Amount spent on athletic scholarships
Western Carolina University softball star Mollie Fowler painfully remembers the day her shin broke in half playing shortstop.
She dove for a ball and collided with the second baseman’s cleat.
Drama like this plays out on the athletic fields at WCU almost daily, and with the springs sports season in full gear there is plenty of action to see.
Attending sporting events at Western can be an inexpensive outing during these tough economic times. Spectators have lots of options to choose from including baseball, tennis, track and field and golf.
The Smoky Mountain News spoke with the top athletes in each of the spring sports to learn a little bit about them, and some of them aspire to go pro.
WCU track star Manteo Mitchell started running competitively in high school after he broke his arm playing football the second game of the season of his senior year. Prior to breaking his arm he said he had scholarship offers to play football at some of the top colleges, but was out of the picture after his injury.
The track coach at the high school thought he had a chance to get a scholarship for running. The coach was right, as Mitchell landed a scholarship to run track at WCU.
His track career at Western has been impressive, netting him school records in the 200- and 400-meter dashes.
Now his career at Western is coming to an end this semester, and he says he wants to run professionally.
“A lot of people think you can’t make a lot of money on the track professional circuit, but you can if you play your cards right,” Manteo said.
Manteo said his cousin is a professional runner who trains in Atlanta, was signed by Adidas, and ran in the Olympics in Beijing last summer.
He said his cousin was a part of the relay team that dropped the baton in the Olympics. It was not his cousin that dropped the baton though.
Manteo said his ultimate goal is to run in the Olympics. The next one will be in 2012, and he said he will still be young enough to compete.
He is inspired by himself and God to perform the best he can on the track, he said.
If going pro doesn’t work out, Manteo will have his degree in sports management with a concentration in athletic administration to fall back on. Going back to his old high school in Shelby to run the athletic program there might be fun, he said. But eventually he would like to work as an athletics administrator on the college level.
Unlike Manteo, women’s track and field star Janét Carothers does not have ambitions to go pro.
“I’m ready to get into the real world and get a job,” she said, adding her major is recreational therapy and parks and recreation management.
That is not to say she couldn’t make it if she tried. She has set two school records, and the team won the conference title last year.
Hailing from Sweden Desiree Karlsson is one of the top players on the WCU women’s golf team. She has made herself comfortable as a Catamount athlete having been on the golf team for three years. She is one of three Swedish players on the team.
Universities in Sweden don’t have athletic programs for students, she said. So she visited Cullowhee and liked the small size of the university and the natural beauty of the Smokies.
“I liked the southern hospitality,” she said. “I’m not used to that.”
Karlsson, like track and field star Manteo, wants to go pro in her sport after she graduates. Her plan is to get on the Futures Tour or European Tour and try to work her way up to the LPGA, she said.
Playing golf professionally pays well, she said.
“If you’re in the top 20, you’re living good,” she said.
Since she was 14 she has been playing golf, but she joked that her dad had plans for her since birth.
“I took my first step with a plastic golf club,” she said.
The greatest accomplishment of her golf career so far is being named freshman of the year at WCU, she said.
Golf has also afforded her the opportunity to travel to England, Portugal, Spain and Italy to play in tournaments, she said.
To continue her successful career she needs to improve on her biggest weakness — bunker shots, while the best part is putting.
Golf is a mental game, she said, adding that she doesn’t curse much on the course but does play head games with herself. For instance, she has told herself that if she does not play well she will deny herself food, and it works.
As a woman golfer she has no problem admitting that men are better at the sport because they are stronger. But she said, “The women are getting better and showing they can beat male players.”
WCU men’s golf star Dustin Furnari also aspires to play pro golf. Furnari came to WCU from St. Augustine, Fla. and plans to go to South Florida after graduating this semester to play professionally.
But he admits that it will be tough to make it on the pro tour and will get his master’s in business administration to fall back on.
Originally from Miami, where golf is king, Furnari grew up playing with his dad. Golf in the mountains is different compared to courses in Miami that have a lot of wind from the ocean, he said.
The golf courses in this area are nice, he said, noting that Tiger Woods was having a course built near Brevard and Phil Mickelson was having course named after him in Cashiers.
Furnari has hit two hole in ones in his career, and can drive it over 300 yards, but the key to being a strong golfer is having a strong short game, hitting wedges and making putts, he said.
Right fielder J.C. Lyons hopes to join two other WCU grads who are currently playing professional baseball.
Lyons, a senior from Marietta, Ga., is the team captain and spoke with The Smoky Mountain News on Sunday just after a 10-5 loss to Georgia Southern.
“Hopefully I’ll get to play pro ball,” he said. “Hopefully I’ll get a shot at the draft in June.”
Cincinnati Reds pitcher Jared Burton played for WCU from 2000-2002 and Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Mark DiFelice was a Catamount between 1995-98, according to Assistant Athletic Director for Media Relations Daniel Hooker.
A faithful man, Lyons said if it doesn’t work out it wasn’t in God’s plan, and he will apply his sports management degree. And if he doesn’t go pro, it’s not like he doesn’t have his glory days to look back on. The proudest moment of his baseball career to this point is being named team captain.
WCU tennis star Amanda Massey said state budget cuts mean the team doesn’t get new uniforms and travel is limited.
WCU Athletic Director Chip Smith agreed that travel has been cut back and instead of staying over night in hotels, teams are leaving the day of their matches. As the economic decline continues, the goal is to not cut any staff or scholarships, said Smith.
The WCU athletic program has a budget of about $6 million, he said.