Andrew Carter The Charlotte Observer
Three games into the 2016 season, the third at Appalachian State after moving to FBS, the Mountaineers hosted what was later considered the most important football game in their history. Forecasts are built for weeks. A crowd of nearly 35,000 spectators, then a school record, filled Boone’s Kidd Brewer Stadium.
Then the App State suffered a crushing 45-10 defeat to Miami. For a program still acclimating to a higher level of competition, the defeat provided evidence – worth 35 points – of how far he must go before he can compete with richer and more talented teams.
“We weren’t ready for that,” said Sean Clark, App State’s technical director who was in charge of the Mountaineers’ offensive line. He recently thought about that defeat, and the distance the app has come since then. “Now, we are ready to receive these opportunities,” he continued.
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This is one way to put it. Fifteen years after the Mountaineers provided college football with one of its most indelible moments, they once again find themselves darlings of the sport at the start of the season. Only this time, their 17-14 victory in sixth place at Texas A&M last Saturday was not quite as stunning as the memorable victory in fifth in Michigan in 2007, when the application was a national strength for the FCS.
Now, mountaineers expect this kind of thing. Perhaps they failed to convert two points away from the season opener with a win over North Carolina. They actually defeated the United Nations University in Chapel Hill, South Carolina in Columbia, in 2019. And over the years, there have been other victories—in Tennessee, in Pennsylvania—that have proven the power of application.
However, the question also remains: How exactly did the Appalachian state do this?
How did the Sun Belt School in small town Boone become the most consistently excellent program for this state, and how did it manage to not only compete with schools with much greater resources, but also defeat them? Consider the financial and non-financial disparities that App State overcame this past weekend in College Station, Texas.
To start, Aggies had a huge advantage in talent, at least according to recruitment experts. Texas A&M University finished the nation’s top employment category earlier this year, according to 247sports.com, and its previous three categories are all ranked among the top 10. As for the application? She finished her classes between 2017 and 21 with a national average rating of 98.
Then there is the money. The budget for A&M’s athletics division during the 2020-21 fiscal year was approximately $142 million, according to the Knight-Newhouse College athletics database. Meanwhile, the app has spent $33.4 million — or about $3 million less than Texas A&M spent on football alone. The amount the Aggies spent on football coaching salaries ($16.5 million) in 2021 was almost double the app’s total budget for the sport ($9.8 million).
But then there were these numbers, on the scoreboards at Kyle Field, after the teams played for 60 minutes last weekend: App State 17, Texas A&M 14. I was reminded of what Clark, now in his third season as head coach for the Mountaineers, said in Earlier this month in the days leading up to his team’s match against UNC, which became the most anticipated event in Boone history:
“We are who we are. I’m not Mac Brown. I’m not Dabo Sweeney. I’m Sean Clark and we’re going to get our tails off and put together the best product we can use on the football field and it’ll work.”
He nearly made it against the Tar Heels, against whom the Mountaineers scored 40 points during a frantic fourth quarter. Her success at all in the App State at Texas A&M was highly unlikely, though perhaps it shouldn’t have been given the Mountaineers’ tendency to do more with so little. On paper, at least, the app has become a college football model for maximizing potential, and for beating the tangible — whether it’s through utilities or piles of cash — with the intangible, those characteristics that are hard to measure except on scoreboards.
Clark and his players know all about their supposed flaws, but “our guys are very confident,” he said. “They think they can beat the Dallas Cowboys week after week. That is their beauty.”
This past Saturday was the second in a row the Mountaineers have played with an opponent who has not recruited any App State players. Against UNC, the mountaineers set out to tear apart the Tar Heels defense, particularly in that memorable fourth quarter.
And in the College Station app, he was entered, won, and left $1.5 million richer, thanks to checking out his Aggies app for his so-called escrow game. Not only did the App State win the win and the money, but it also got an upcoming visit from ESPN’s “College GameDay,” which chose to display Boone – and App’s game against Troy on Saturday – over Miami at Texas A&M.
Find “buddies apps”
Saturday’s “GameDay” will undoubtedly dedicate some significant airtime to App State culture, which Clark embodies perhaps more these days than anyone else. He grew up in Charleston, West Virginia, and found a home in Boone when he got there to be part of the Appalachian State offensive line in 1994. After graduation he aspired to be in the FBI but “I hurt my back,” he said, and missed the date. Finalist for the FBI Academy.
This is how life began in the real world. For six months, Clark traveled around Roanoke, Virginia, selling windows, doors, and walls. He said he set a sales record for the company, but “I was miserable” and that misery led him to football. He became a graduate assistant in Louisville, earning $8,000 in the role and supplementing it with work nights in a beer delivery truck. In 2003, he took a break and got his first full-time training job in Eastern Kentucky, where in addition to training the offensive line, he also held the position of Equipment Manager and Operations Manager.
Making an annual salary of $17,000, Clark said, “I thought I was the richest man in the world.”
Back in the App, where Clark returned in 2016 as a site coach, Clark has built a team in his image. He wants players who are undeterred by the agony – those who actually embrace it.
He said of the program’s ability to identify players suitable for the template, “This is something we’ve done well in Appalachian State, because we don’t recruit against North Carolina State. We don’t recruit against North Carolina State, Wake Forest, those schools. We don’t recruit against Virginia Tech. .”
Instead, they’re trying to find “app guys,” he said, “and if they’re app users, they’re app guys.”
One of those guys is Cooper Hodges, a 6-foot-4, 300-pound offensive tackle who looks a bit like Joseph, the bearded mascot of the Mountaineers who wears plaids and guns. Hodges knew he was an apprentice early on, while recruiting, a process he often despised. He didn’t like the lies and “half-truths” he kept hearing from some college coaches.
“So when I found someone who was honest with me and where I wanted to be, I stuck,” he said, “and I finished,” and so he became a mountaineer. Other schools eventually tried to influence him. As signing day approaches during his last year of high school, he hears from some of them.
“Like Wake Forest, Cincinnati — like those kinds of schools,” he said. “To me, I was like, ‘You didn’t want me a year ago and now you need someone to sign, now you want me.'”
Mountaineers have a list full of those like Hodges—players who were on the fringes of the recruiting radar, or completely off it, before the big schools started realizing they might have made a mistake. App State’s performance in two games this season, and over the past several seasons, suggests that the biggest and most profitable programs have lost some of it.
“Their loss,” Cameron Peoples, one of the top runners, said with a smile, before adding the following:
“Some guys, you can’t measure that dog in them. And some guys put that dog in them and some heart. I grew up in that kind of place.”
Focus on player development
The folks, recruited by hardly anyone from his small hometown of Alabama, averaged about 90 yards during their first two application games. Meanwhile, Hodges was the first All-Sun Belt last year and is the latest in a string of Mountaineers attacking men whose college performances have exceeded the meager expectations that may have surrounded them as secondary prospects.
“What sets the app apart is the development part,” Hodges said. “They take these kids, and we’re not as talented as a lot of these other guys. They don’t have the same physical traits, they don’t run 4.4 and (not) 6-5 and 220 lbs.
“We take 6-2, 200-pound players, and we develop them. We turn them into footballers, and we turn them into App State footballers. So that’s like the most important thing to me.”
When he thinks of a specific example of an App State football player, Hodges thinks of Jalin Moore, a comeback who, out of high school, “didn’t have stars.” Moore then went on to run for over 3,500 yards and average over 6 yards per carry, the best in the school’s history. Clark thinks of affectionate Noah, the former Mountaineers’ Center who started from the moment he arrived on campus. In particular, Clarke is thinking about App’s victory in South Carolina in 2019, when Hannon went head-to-head against Javon Kinlaw, a defensive style promoted by the Gamecocks.
“All he did was take Kinlaw, the whole game, and put him on the sidelines,” Clark said. “I frustrated him, I beat him. Kinlaw was the first-round draft pick. Noah Hanoun doing the stocks for Trust Bank.”
Clark said that after that game, a South Carolina coach approached him and said the Gamecocks didn’t recruit Hannon, a South Carolina native, because he was too two inches tall. Clarke made his point: “In college football, as coaches, I think we get caught up a lot – you’re that tall. What’s their speed? What’s your wing span?”
“If you are a good footballer, you are a good footballer.”
Texas A&M, home to no shortage of coveted prospects and four- and five-star recruits, learned Saturday that, in fact, little-known Mountaineers have some really good football players. Once again, the App State has found its way into the national conversation after an unlikely path win against a highly ranked opponent. But this time, it looks a little different.
Not completely shocking. Not all of this is amazing.
The state of the application was there before, and now it is more ready to survive.