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App State-UNC matchup will double Boone’s population. It’s more than a football game for lots of fans.

Published on: 09/01/2022

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Down on King Street and up in the High Country, in the first days of a new semester, Bill Corriher was preparing for something the likes of which he has never seen in 40 years living in this college town, known for its views and for being the home of Appalachian State University. Corriher wasn’t alone. No one here has ever experienced what’s coming.

“I feel bad for all the people who are gonna be driving into town,” Corriher said, drawl thicker than a hedge of rhododendron, while he stocked the tables inside Mountaineer Mania. Inside, an endless supply of App State Mountaineer everything stretched on in every direction, and freshmen were still making their way in for Polaroids with the larger-than-life version of Yosef, the university’s mascot, painted on the wall — half-man and the rest a combination of beard, plaid and rifle.

Now it was Tuesday, four days out, and even still Corriher almost couldn’t believe it. Back when he arrived at App State in 1975 for his freshman year, the Mountaineers’ home football game everybody most anticipated came against Lenoir-Rhyne. And now this, on Saturday, with the Tar Heels of the University of North Carolina making their way up the mountain? To play here, in Boone? Against App State, of the Sun Belt Conference, at Kidd Brewer Stadium?

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Corriher never thought he’d live to see the day. For a long time, nobody around here did.

“No, not even close,” he said with a laugh, and around town “it’s been abuzz since back in the spring. ‘Cause everybody was afraid that UNC might back out of it. But they didn’t, so we’re ready to take on the Tar Heels.”

Who knows where the traffic jams will start on Saturday, or when — 9 a.m.? 8? Who knows if those traffic delays will start way down on U.S. 421, maybe around the old speedway hanging over the highway near North Wilkesboro, or perhaps closer to town, a whole world of cars bunched up and bounding over the hills and up the mountain, on the way to the rare college football game that really does represent something larger.

The population of Boone is around 20,000. By noon Saturday, officials here anticipate more than twice that many people will be packed into Kidd Brewer, replete with temporary bleachers to handle the influx, to attend what the locals are saying is the biggest event this place has ever seen. Bigger than any other App State football game, including ones against Wake Forest or Miami, to be sure. Bigger even than the Luke Combs concert that came through town last year.

“Which was wall-to-wall people,” Corriher said, but not like this is supposed to be.

The calm before the game

Corriher opened Mountaineer Mania in 1981 and ran it for 39 years. His sales went up five-fold after App State beat Michigan in 2007, people buying up shirts with the score on it, anything they could. He and the new owner have already collaborated on some shirt designs should the Mountaineers prove victorious Saturday. The store’s going to open early, hours before kickoff, and stay open until there’s reason to close, no set time. King Street itself, like the rest of Boone, is sure to be a “madhouse,” as Corriher, App State Class of ‘79, put it.

Now, though, it was mostly quiet. Quiet in the shops lining King Street and quiet at nearby Macado’s — where the bartender said he’d have to work Saturday and, besides, he’d heard tickets were going for $400, anyway. There was an early-week calm and in that calm an anticipation, from downtown and on out to Booneshine, the brewery where App State head football coach Shawn Clark likes to go for a beer every now and then. There and everywhere, all anyone could talk about was Saturday.

Meanwhile, Kevin Barbay, the Appalachian State offensive coordinator was talking about today. He stood in front of a few dozen players in a large meeting room in App State’s still-new football facility, his laser pointer tracing over plays on the projector screen in front of him, while he tried to find words of inspiration, ones that would carry his guys through the next few hours.

“The game is not til Saturday,” he told them at the end of a meeting. “Live in the moment. Let’s have the best Tuesday practice that we have ever, ever had. You got me? Let’s be a better football team when we come back off the field than we are sitting here.

“Everybody cool? All right, here we go!”

And with that another day of preparation began.

A long-awaited matchup

In one way, App State has been preparing for this moment for the past five and a half years, ever since its three-game series against UNC was announced in February 2017. In another, App has been preparing for this, or at least waiting for it, for much longer. The Mountaineers began playing football in 1928. It took 12 years to have a chance to play against UNC, the state’s flagship university. It took another 69 years for it to happen again.

The Mountaineers’ 34-31 victory in Chapel Hill in 2019 might have represented something of a program arrival, had it not already arrived long before. There was the triumph at Michigan in ‘07, in the middle of App State’s three consecutive Division I-AA national championships. There was the successful transition to the Football Bowl Subdivision in 2014. There was the time App took top-10 Penn State to overtime in ‘18 and, in ‘19, victories at the two Carolinas — both South and North.

App State years ago ceased being a cuddly college football underdog. The Mountaineers are more vicious, a team full of what Clark describes as OKGs — “our kinda guys” — and a program happy to take hundreds of thousands of dollars in wealthier schools’ guarantee money and leave them with a humbling loss on the way out the door, or least with the kind of scare that ages coaches and makes Big State U. boosters question why their athletic director scheduled this game in the first place.

In 2019, UNC paid App State $300,000 to come on down the mountain. As a thank you the Mountaineers delivered that defeat, which had people here worried the Tar Heels might somehow find a way to dodge coming to Boone. That a UNC visit here has never happened before Saturday is one of the reasons why people here are so energized about it all, but there’s a deeper layer to it, too.

College football has become a sport more and more defined by the haves and have-nots, the divisions growing deeper even among the most powerful conferences. The latest realignment news, with the Big Ten’s impending poaching of the Pac-12 for USC and UCLA, has further reinforced divides. It has underscored the notion that the sport might well be headed toward a two-super conference model, in which the wealthiest schools, and the ones with the largest reach and biggest brand name clout, might separate from the rest.

It has taken long enough, almost 100 years, for UNC to find its way to App State for a football game. In a world of further consolidation in the sport, it’s not unreasonable to think it might not ever happen again. That this is a one-time thing. That the biggest schools, long loath to give schools like App State a shot, as it is, could completely shut them out. It’s something Doug Gillin, the Appalachian State athletic director, finds himself more and more concerned about.

“One-hundred percent,” he said Tuesday, watching from the sideline while the Mountaineers practiced in their bare-bones indoor facility. “You’ve got to have folks that believe that these are good games, right? And so you got to start there. And then you’ve got to have conferences that believe that these are good games.

“And you’ve got to have TV that believes that these are good games.”

This particular game has all of those things — ESPN is broadcasting it nationally — and yet Gillin could see a different scenario. A time when conferences could decide “that their universities should be playing whomever, just because they might be (another) Power Five school from pick-a-state.”

“I think that’s not great for college football in our state,” he said.

To be sure, UNC’s visit here this weekend has made for one of the most anticipated college football games in the state this season. By now, those interested in attending, who haven’t already secured a ticket, are going to need to know someone who knows someone, or be willing to spend hundreds on a site like StubHub, where this week the cheapest among the few listed tickets were going for close to $200.

For App State, this weekend has become a showcase, and an opportunity. Gillin can look into the future and see another tower on the East Side of the stadium, to go along with the one on the West, and he can see more facilities, too, including a larger one to practice indoors. On Tuesday, bad weather forced the Mountaineers inside. Dark storm clouds rolled in over the hills and a downpour echoed off the metal roof while App State made use of a 60-yard field down below.

The building personified the contrast between a place like App and a more wealthy Power Five program like, say, UNC. The Tar Heels in 2019 opened a sparkling indoor football practice facility at a cost of more than $20 million, complete with a Jordan Brand Jumpman logo hanging on one side of the building, an homage to Nike and UNC’s most famous alum. In comparison, App State’s indoor facility more resembles an oversized shed. The place smells like an old locker room. There’s no Jumpman logo but instead three Division I-AA national championship banners.

When the offense finished practicing, Clark, the head coach, stood in the middle of a huddle, addressing half the team. He was an offensive lineman here in the mid-1990s, back when his hair was much longer and wilder, and if someone would’ve told him then that one day App State would host UNC in football, “I’d have laughed,” Clark said. Nobody was laughing now.

‘Our kinda guys’

Clark can still remember what his dad told him when he dropped him off in Boone at the start of Clark’s freshman year, in 1994: that App State was the best-kept secret in college football. And that was long before the victory at Michigan and the three straight national championships. It was even longer before the Mountaineers made the ascent from FCS power to FBS competitor.

The secret escaped a long time ago and now Clark, in his third season as head coach, feels a great responsibility to keep it all going. He feels indebted, especially, to Jerry Moore, the beloved former Mountaineers coach who on Tuesday watched practice from the sideline, often chatting with Gillin or with Clark during a break.

The two are known for their shared fashion sense, their habit of wearing the same sweatshirt day after day after day. Moore was wearing his Tuesday, and Clark, too, as if the worn threads carried special powers. Clark learned a lot of things from Moore, not the least of which was to make the most out of what he had, and to embrace the community and immerse himself in it.

“I’m one of them,” Clark said of his relationship with the people of Boone, and how he finds comfort sometimes in going out to Appalachian Mountain Brewing, or Booneshine, and putting on that sweatshirt and some tennis shoes “and I sit back there and have me an IPA and relax,” a man among the people.

“I like it that way,” said Clark, 47. “I’m just a normal person. It’s awesome.”

And yet he feels pressure, too, being a homegrown head coach. He knows he has been trusted to carry on a legacy, to build on it.

“That’s my biggest fear,” he said, “is letting this program down.”

On paper, there is no great reason to explain why App State has become as successful as it has been. What worked for Moore, though, also worked for Scott Satterfield, which worked for Eli Drinkwitz, which is working for Clark. The Mountaineers enter Saturday, depending on the source, as either a slight betting favorite or slight underdog against UNC, despite the reality that UNC has an athletic department budget about four times the size of App State’s, and every conceivable advantage.

How many of his players were offered scholarships by UNC?

“Zero,” Clark said, and from there he began a story in which his wife asked him this week how the two teams compared. Well, Clark said, not one of UNC’s players took an official visit to App State — and not one of App State’s players, with the exception of Brendan Harrington, a linebacker who was committed to UNC before Mack Brown became head coach in late 2018, took an official visit to Chapel Hill. And “that’s the beauty of it,” Clark said — the proof that raw talent has limits.

The success went back to what he described as “our kinda guys,” and Clark had developed a knack for finding them because “we do things different on the mountain,” he said.

“We run App ski mountain,” he went on. “We run Howard’s Knob.”

A lot of coaches are keen to emphasize a prospect’s highlight tape. Clark studies the lowlights. He wants to see how a kid reacts to failure. Does he complain? Does he blame others? Clark has crossed prospects off his target list at the sight of behavior he won’t abide by, and if a high school coach indicates a recruit isn’t 100 percent committed to football then that’s it, too. No offer.

The approach has left App State with a roster full of OKGs. They might have arrived in school smaller or a quarter of a second slower; nothing some time with weights or running the mountain can’t address. They’re players, mostly, with something to prove.

“Being here, we always have a chip on our shoulder,” Cooper Hodges, a fourth-year junior offensive guard from outside of Jacksonville, Florida, said after the team meal on Tuesday. “That’s just kind of our mentality. That’s what we’re about.

“Any time you play any Power Five school, for me, it’s like I just want to absolutely manhandle my guy just to show these guys like, hey — you’ve got this guy when I’m over here, like, bullying him.”

Said Camerun Peoples, a former lightly-recruited running back from Alabama who gained more than 1,100 yards a season ago: “We have players who feel like they could have played anywhere. ... And the tradition that we have here, especially when we play against teams like North Carolina and Penn State and all those guys, we bring a whole new energy.

“It’s like, we’re considered giant slayers. Once you step on the field, I don’t care who you are. I don’t care about your logo. I don’t care about your stars. We’ve got to play football at the end of the day.”

‘A reward’ for years of work

Look close enough around here this week and there are subtle signs foreshadowing autumn, the occasional leaf — not many, but a few — already turning yellow. Soon enough it’ll be colder, the conditions harsher. Try to build anything on a mountain, and it needs to be built to last. Moore, now 83, stood off to the side earlier this week and took in everything he’d built.

He’d won 215 football games at App State, and thought back to those days when it would’ve been impossible to convince UNC to come here; impossible, even, to play the Tar Heels “anywhere,” he said. And now history was just days away. Moore couldn’t help but think of UNC’s visit as “a reward” for the years he’d put in — “I spent a third of my life here,” he said, and the ending of his tenure, in 2012, proved difficult when the school essentially forced him into retirement.

That, Moore said, “was a bitter experience for me. But I got over it.” And now he wasn’t about to miss UNC making the trip up here. No one was, if they could help it. It wasn’t as though App State hadn’t won a bigger game before; the Mountaineers certainly had: the three national championships. The victory at Michigan, which remains perhaps the greatest upset in college football history.

Yet up here in Watauga County, and in Wilkes and Caldwell and Ashe and Avery Counties, and all throughout Western North Carolina, there aren’t many people who went to Michigan or who might know, even, that the university is in Ann Arbor. In the 15 years since it happened, nothing has topped beating Michigan, said Corriher, the founder of Mountaineer Mania.

“But this here, is in Boone,” he said.

There’s a significance to Saturday, around here, that’s difficult to articulate. The traffic on Saturday will speak to it, as will the crowd — the more than 40,000 who fill into Kidd Brewer. For the Mountaineers it represents an opportunity, a proving ground, and that’s how it is for folks around here, too. UNC has always been UNC, but App State had to work to reach this point. The programs are meeting at the same intersection, but one traveled a much longer road.

A little before noon Saturday, Clark will walk onto the field at Kidd Brewer Stadium. It’s likely to be a scene unlike anyone around here has ever witnessed. For a few seconds, Clark said, he’ll take it all in. He’ll think about what it took to reach this point. Then it’ll be time.

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