Greeted by a sea of orange and white, thousands of University of Tennessee fans streamed towards Neyland Stadium for their sacred Saturday ritual — football. Between sorority girls in short skirts darting across the street and families carrying seemingly everything but the kitchen sink with them into game, the crowd was antsy and eager, and for good reason. After a recent heartbreaking seven-point loss to No. 19 ranked Oklahoma University, Volunteer Nation was in need of redemption. In their crosshairs this past weekend sat the Western Carolina University Catamounts.
Throwing down the tailgate of my truck in a nearby parking garage, I cracked a lukewarm beer (forgetting to buy ice) and leaned back into the chaos of the moment. Folks scattering to and fro in search of tickets, folks aimlessly walking in every direction in search of their friend’s cornhole and corn dog extravaganza.
Across from my truck a pair of young couples swung into an open spot. Before they could even get their SUV in park, two of them already hopped out, yanked the cooler from the back and lit the portable grill that magically appeared before I could even blink twice. Real tailgate professionals. Within minutes, they had fresh charbroiled burgers and sausages.
“Hey, don’t sit over there by yourself, brother — you hungry?” one of them yelled to me.
Grabbing my camping chair, I parked myself in their circle, with food as hearty as the conversation itself. All Tennessee fans, all Southeastern Conference (SEC) football freaks — my kind of people. And yet, as much as I am a devoted UT fan, I found myself bragging about just what makes Catamount football special. WCU is my backyard team, who we — all of us in Western North Carolina — find ourselves also rooting for, no matter who we ultimately follow in the SEC.
You see, for years, WCU was in the basement of Southern Conference (SoCon) football. Each year, with their motto, “The legacy starts now,” the word “now” would quickly be changed to “next year” with their 0-8 (conference)/1-10 (overall) performance in 2012 and 1-7/2-10 in 2013 (only win consistently being against Mars Hill College). But, 2014 was a different story, a 7-5 season, tied for 2nd in the SoCon when all was said and done.
At the center of this turnaround is Coach Mark Speir. In his fourth season, Speir took a laughingstock team and made them competitive. He believes so deeply in the potential of the Catamounts, a notion the players and greater Southern Appalachia have also bought into. Back in the day, you couldn’t give away tickets to Cullowhee games, with attendance seemingly less than a show at the 2,431-seat Thomas Wolfe Auditorium in Asheville. And now? You’d be hard pressed to find room to sit in the 13,742-seat E.J. Whitmire Stadium.
Thus, with the eventual 55-10 rout of WCU at the hands of UT (with 102,455 in attendence), the real story became about the Catamounts, and how far they’ve come in such a short period of time. If you were one of the hundreds of fans and alumni standing and cheering at Neyland, all decked out in purple and gold, you felt a sense of pride seeing the boys take the field in Knoxville. It is the same pride I felt when they took the field in Tuscaloosa against the University of Alabama (the eventual NCAA champions) in 2012, and when they will take the field against Texas A&M in November in College Station.
Way up high in the press box, I found myself rooting for WCU. With every touchdown UT threw up on the scoreboard, the Catamounts got back up, back to the line of scrimmage, and readied themselves for another chance at greatness. It’s that heart and determination that will ultimately lead Speir and Co. into the scenario of success he’s plotted out since day one.
“Like in life, nothing will always go the way you want,” Speir told me following the Alabama loss in 2012. “You want to be the best, you have to play the best. If you want to get to that level in this program, it takes that commitment. This challenged them to go play and that showed me where the heart of this team is. They fought to the very end.”
Even three years later, that exact sentiment still echoes in my mind, and still resonates within the hearts of the WCU faithful — each season when the leaves change color, the air gets cooler and the football gets tossed in Jackson County.
Let the games begin.
1 Bluegrass legend Claire Lynch will perform at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 4, at Cataloochee Ranch in Maggie Valley.
2 The 42th annual John C. Campbell Folk School’s Fall Festival will be from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 3-4 in Brasstown.
3 ColorFest: Dillsboro Fine Arts & Crafts Fair will be held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 3, in downtown Dillsboro.
4 Balsam Range (bluegrass) will perform during a benefit for the Scott Page family at 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 27, at Haywood Community College in Clyde.
5 The Taste of Sylva culinary tour will run from 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 3, in downtown Sylva restaurants and in the pavilion at McGuire Gardens on West Main Street.