Cajuns look up to Mountaineers: 'We know that can be us'
Appalachian State is living high on the hill these days.
“Rarified air” is what App State athletic director Doug Gillin calls it.
The 11-1 Mountaineers head into Saturday’s Sun Belt Conference championship game against 10-2 UL ranked No. 20 in the USA TODAY Top 25 coaches’ and AP writers’ polls, No. 21 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings.
They have won or shared three straight Sun Belt championships, winning it outright last year after beating the Ragin’ Cajuns in the league’s inaugural title game.
They’ve won four straight bowl games since becoming bowl-eligible in 2015 — the Camellia Bowl at Montgomery, Alabama, twice; the then-Dollar General Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, in 2017; and the New Orleans Bowl last year.
And the Mountaineers have averaged more than 25,000 and led the league in announced home attendance three of the last four years including this one.
It’s the sort of success, and then some, that UL grew accustomed to during the first four years of the Mark Hudspeth coaching era — and that the Ragin’ Cajuns seek themselves now.
“When you hear about and watch App State’s success, it’s hard not to want to model that,” UL athletic director Bryan Maggard said. “But … we know that can be us.
“There’s no doubt in our mind that being a nationally ranked football program is within reach.
“But, more than that, our aspiration — we want to be the highest-ranked Group of Five program out there,” Maggard added. “We want to play in a New Year’s Day Six bowl. That’s our aspiration.”
'THEY DESERVE IT'
For Appalachian State, the reality of that is within a whisker of happening this year.
The only blemish on the Mountaineers’ record is an upset loss to rival Georgia Southern. They have beaten two Power 5 programs — North Carolina and South Carolina — this season. They’re currently the fourth-highest-rated Group of Five program, trailing only Memphis, Boise State and Cincinnati.
It’s an impressive resume that even has Cajun players tipping their hats during the days before the title game.
“I think they deserve it,” UL senior offensive guard Kevin Dotson said of Appalachian State’s national ranking.
“They’re a good team. They’ve been winning. They’ve beaten good opponents. They deserve everything they’re getting.”
For some at UL, it serves to motivate.
“I can’t speak for everybody, but it (does) for me,” senior receiver Bam Jackson said. “And don’t get me wrong: Those guys, that’s a great team.
“Those guys are good, so for them to have that ranking, that’s big for me, because it serves as a challenge. … Why not us? Why not the Ragin’ Cajuns, because we’re putting in the same work?”
'HISTORY AND TRADITION OF SUCCESS'
The Mountaineers are reaping the benefits of all they’ve done so far, from cash in the coffers to priceless national exposure.
“We’ve seen interest grow,” Gillin said. “We’ve seen giving grow. We’ve seen ticket sales grow.”
But the windfall hasn’t come overnight.
Consistency has been critical to Appalachian State’s prolonged prosperity since making the jump from the FCS, where it won three straight national championships from 2005-07, to the FBS level of NCAA Division I play and joining UL and others in the Sun Belt Conference in 2014.
“We had the history and tradition of success, whether it’s FCS or now certainly FBS,” said Gillin, who was hired by the Mountaineers in 2015 and who was a colleague of Maggard’s at Missouri before both took their current positions.
“So trying to keep some continuity — I think certainly that that history and tradition is key. I think the passionate fan base is key. I think the folks that continue to invest in our program are key.”
So too is football staff continuity.
Until Scott Satterfield left for Louisville after last season, Appalachian State had just two head coaches — Satterfield and predecessor Jerry Moore — for 30 years.
Satterfield played quarterback at App State under Moore. Before succeeding him, Satterfield was the Mountaineers’ offensive coordinator for a season and — after a couple short stops elsewhere — an assistant coach there for 11 seasons prior to that.
During that same 30-year span, UL has had five head coaches: Nelson Stokely, Jerry Baldwin, Rickey Bustle, Hudspeth and current head coach Billy Napier.
THE SECRET INGREDIENT
The coaching staff toils at Appalachian State, winning lately more seasons than not.
Short-term success, however, is one thing.
Sustaining it in the long-term is another, and no one — not even the Mountaineers — is sure of the right recipe for that.
What’s the secret ingredient?
“I think that’s the question a lot of us in the Sun Belt have probably asked ourselves,” Gillin said.
“If you look at the history of the Sun Belt over the years, whether it’s Troy or Louisiana, or back in the old days North Texas … there’s been two- or three-year runs, then a dropoff.”
Maybe four years, in the case of some.
North Texas went to the New Orleans Bowl, the league’s premier postseason destination for four straights from its inception in 2001. Troy went for three of five from 2006 through 2010. UL went from 2011 through 2014, and again in 2016, but didn’t go bowling in 2015 or ’17.
Arkansas State has had solid Sun Belt success too, getting bowl-eligible for nine straight seasons including this one and winning and sharing the league championship for five of six years from 2011-16. But the Red Wolves have come up dry the last three years.
Now Appalachian State has it going, and the hope there is that its grip on the fixed rope doesn’t slip like it has for so many others.
“I think nobody has answered from a continuity standpoint what is the key to keeping that going,” Gillin said.
“Every year — we’re three straight champs, four straight bowl games — we’re trying to figure out how to keep it going.”
While coaching staff makeup is one factor, consistently successful recruiting is another, as Gillin sees it.
“For us, a key to us has been the developmental program,” he said. “We’re not big into transfers or big into junior college.”
But the long list of what must go into the mixing bowl doesn’t end there.
“We meet at the end of each year and talk about what we’ve got to do to keep it going,” Gillin said. “For us right now, it’s continuing to invest in facilities.”
Appalachian State currently has a construction project under way in one end zone area of Kidd Brewer Stadium, building a multi-use facility that will include space for athletic training, hydrotherapy, locker rooms, medical offices, coaches and staff offices, dining facilities, a team store, and a ticketing office.
UL is expected to soon release detailed plans for a major renovation of Cajun Field, which has been in use since 1971.
ALL ABOUT THE FANS
So there are all sorts of factors.
But the bottom line seems to be that keeping fans happy helps in the biggest of ways.
At UL, and even Appalachian State, there’s no guarantee they always will come, no matter how things are going.
“(It) was certainly before my time at App,” Gillin said, “but people will remind me that there was a day when there ... when we weren’t sold out.”
The Mountaineers, according to Gillin, have averaged three-to-four sellouts at their 30,000-seat stadium over the last four years.
“So I would probably say when we started winning is when they started coming,” the Appalachian State athletic director said.
“And that was certainly a testament to the good work Jerry Moore did here … and the ’05, ’06, ’07 national championships, and the win over Michigan in ’07.”
Appalachian State famously upset Michigan in 2007.
“All of those really got it rolling,” Gillin said.
“Then you’ve just got to make sure, for us now, to take care of the fan experience and continue to play games that the fans want to come see.”
A fear for Gillin, he agreed when asked, is that one slight slip could instantly put things into reverse.
It’s how avalanches start.
“You know that a losing season here, or a misstep there, absolutely (could trigger it),” he said.
Like UL, Appalachian State — located in the Blueridge Mountains town of Boone, North Carolina — plays in a state whose map is peppered with FBS programs.
In Louisiana, there’s also UL Monroe, Louisiana Tech, Tulane and one big one in the SEC, LSU.
In North Carolina, there’s also Charlotte, East Carolina and four ACC schools, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Duke and Wake Forest.
That creates for Appalachian State what Gillin suggests are some of the same issues with which UL deals — dealing with bigger brothers in the same backyard, in other words.
“We’ve got to carve out a niche and make sure that we sell our niche to our alums and fans,” he said.
“But, yeah, one misstep can absolutely cause some issues. So, for us, we try to make sure we communicate every major decision year in and year out if we’re gonna do anything that might cause some issues.”
For this season, that’s meant re-parking about 2,000 fans due to nearby construction.
The parking issue, coincidentally, is a sensitive one for some Cajuns fans.
“So we try to control what we can control,” Gillin said, “then provide our football program what they need to be successful.”
THE CAJUN DESCENT
At UL, Napier knows it takes more than a winning record to sustain success.
“I think if we continue to be in contention to compete for championships, and maybe one day win a championship around here, attendance will come with that," Napier said.
“But you will throw it out if you’re not doing it the right way — if you’re not competing with class, if you don’t have character, if you’re cutting a corner relative to your integrity."
Napier knows it because he's experiencing it.
For four straight seasons from 2011-14, UL went 9-4 and won the New Orleans Bowl. It had a piece of the Sun Belt title only once in that stretch, in 2013, but times were good nonetheless.
But a recruiting-related scandal led to NCAA sanctions, and UL had to vacate several wins including two of those New Orleans Bowls and its shared Sun Belt championship.
In 2015, it went 4-8.
During the 2016 season, multiple Cajuns were caught on video dancing in the team’s locker room and singing the lyrics of the profane rap song "FDT (F--- Donald Trump)."
In 2017, 13 Cajuns were arrested on the same day on a single-incident felony theft charge later reduced and, under conditions, dropped.
And after the conclusion of a 5-7 season in ’17, Hudspeth — who had caught flak for some of his reaction to the video fallout — was fired and replaced by Napier.
Two seasons later, UL still is trying to make up for ground lost at the Cajun Field gate during the end of the Hudspeth era.
The Cajuns have had some attendance successes under Napier, but also some failures, including, despite its current record, announced crowds of less than 15,000 for its last two home games, wins over Troy and UL Monroe.
That was down roughly 7,000 from two prior games, one of them a 17-7 loss to Appalachian State.
Napier, with his Cajuns now riding a six-game victory streak, recently was asked how much he thought winning should count toward improved attendance.
“I think it is what it is, you know,” he said.
“For a certain time around here, I think … the pride around the football program went away. There’s lots of things that contributed to that. But all I can control is what’s happened since I’ve been here, and our staff’s been here.
“We’re gonna focus on the product we put on the field. We’re gonna focus on making an impact on the young people that are in our program,” Napier added. “We’re gonna teach, and coach, and compete at a high level — on the field, in recruiting — and certainly are gonna try to teach a lot more than just football.”
'MORALS AND VALUES'
All are elements that could help UL return to where it once was for multiple seasons, and perhaps even reach the nationally ranked status Appalachian State is enjoying now.
“You know,” Napier said, “we would hope that the young people that are a part of our team learn a lot about life — and I think that we’ve got to focus on those things, and the people will come. ...
“I think this is an area that … certain morals and values come with this place,” Napier added, “and I think that’s part of who we want to be as a program.”
Another part of creating a team that’s nationally respected comes on the field.
The Cajuns have received multiple votes in the same Top 25 coaches’ poll that has App State No. 20.
To keep climbing, and to stay at that level, UL athletic director Maggard feels fan support is imperative.
“We absolutely need consistent support at a high level,” he said.
“If we’re ever going to take that step as an athletics program to become nationally relative, we absolutely need success on the field, but we also need fans in the stands.”
Are the aspirations achievable?
Can the Cajuns become a bona fide Group of Five power year in and year out, something Appalachian State is well on its way toward despite leaving the FCS ranks not long ago? And can UL someday play at a house packed like the Mountaineers pack theirs?
“I’m very confident we can,” Maggard said.
“I just believe where we live — this is football territory. We’re in a geographical location that absolutely adores the sport of football, and so there’s no doubt in my mind that we can and will get our numbers back up.
“What we need is consistency. We need to be consistent as we win on the field. We know that. And I would tell you, and I believe, that our football team has shown that they can do that,” Maggard added. “Now we just need the fan base to remain consistent with us, and support of us regardless of what is going on elsewhere.”
As for Appalachian State’s success and current ranking, it serves only as inspiration for the Cajuns.
“Their moving up helps our cause when we beat them,” guard Dotson said. “If they’re No. 20, I know we’re gonna get more votes when we beat them."