July 28, 2020

The Amazing Story of Appalachian State's Rise to College Football Prominence

In the history of college football, there are a lot of great underdog stories. But there aren’t many that can match the tale of the Appalachian State Mountaineers and their rise to prominence.

Over several decades, a school in the sleepy mountain town of Boone, North Carolina, grew from an afterthought at the NAIA level to an FCS dynasty to a Sun Belt powerhouse to a top-25 college football program on the cusp of playing in a New Year’s Six bowl game.

It’s a truly remarkable story that shows that nothing is impossible, even in a college football world that’s been dominated by giants. More importantly, it’s a story that needs to be told.

Starting the Climb 

Technically, the story of Appalachian State football begins in 1928 when the Mountaineers played their first season. However, the real story begins around 1986. At the time, the Mountaineers were just an NAIA program that had long been lost in the shuffle. It wasn’t entirely their fault. Even by college town standards, Boone is rather small and remote. It's not the kind of place that is likely to attract talented football players who have more options.

For a decade after the end of World War II, Appalachian State had a good run at the NAIA level. The Mountaineers won a few conference championships and played in several bowl games. Even then, the Burley Bowl, Pythian Bowl and Lost Elks Bowl weren’t exactly household names. Nevertheless, App State had cultivated a decent football program for a few years. 

But by 1986, it had been over 30 years since the program’s last conference title or bowl game. A move to the 1-AA/FCS level in 1982 had been met with mixed results. Longtime Texas and current North Carolina coach Mack Brown led the 1983 Mountaineers to a 6-5 record. However, before he could start building something special, he was hired as Oklahoma State’s offensive coordinator. 

That was where the Mountaineers stood on the totem pole: being an offensive coordinator at a power-conference school was better than being the head coach at Appalachian State.

Fortunately, Brown’s replacement Sparky Woods decided to stick around for a few years. In 1986, Woods led the Mountaineers to a 9-2-1 record and a Southern Conference championship. Before that, the Mountaineers were an ordinary program just trying to find their way in the always-challenging Southern Conference. At the time, nobody could know that the 1986 SoCon title would be just the first of many steps the Mountaineers would take to unprecedented heights.

The Win We All Remember

In his five seasons at Appalachian State before leaving to become the head coach at South Carolina, Woods led the Mountaineers to two conference titles and two appearances in the FCS Playoffs. Again, unbeknownst to anyone at the time, his successor Jerry Moore would become the most legendary figure in Appalachian State football history and a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.

Moore’s only previous experience as a head coach was two lackluster years at North Texas State and five losing seasons at Texas Tech in the early 80s, compiling a 16-37-2 record with the Red Raiders. There was no reason to expect Moore to do anything of note with the Mountaineers. But the two ended up being a perfect match for one another.

Building off of Woods’ success, Moore continued to make Appalachian State one of the premier teams in the Southern Conference. Between Woods and Moore, the Mountaineers won at least a share of the SoCon championship 12 times and made 20 appearances in the FCS Playoffs between 1984 and 2012.

Of course, Moore’s time at Appalachian State is best known for one magical September afternoon in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The Mountaineers began the 2007 season by visiting the Michigan Wolverines in a game that Michigan scheduled to be an easy win to start the season. At the time, the Wolverines were ranked No. 5 in the country and coming off an 11-2 season that ended in the Rose Bowl. A Michigan win was such a foregone conclusion that oddsmakers didn’t even bother putting a betting line on the game.

However, everybody knows what happened next. The Mountaineers stunned the Wolverines by holding their own. Michigan led 7-0 and then 14-7, but Appalachian State came back to tie both times, ultimately taking a 28-17 lead into the locker room. It was Michigan that had to spend most of the second half playing catch-up, ultimately taking a 32-31 lead on a 54-yard touchdown run by Mike Hart. 

In the final minutes, Appalachian State blocked a field goal to keep the Wolverines from extending their lead. The Mountaineers then put together a 69-yard drive of their own to set up a 24-yard field goal from Julian Rauch to take a 34-32 lead with 26 seconds left. One long pass play gave the Wolverines a chance to win the game with a last-second field goal. But Corey Lynch blocked the field goal for the Mountaineers, giving Appalachian State a 34-32 win that sent shockwaves through the college football world and is still considered one of the greatest upsets in the sport's history.

So, What Changed?

In a way, everything changed for Appalachian State after that game. Moore and the Mountaineers were stormed with media attention. Overnight, everybody suddenly knew that Appalachian State existed and that the Mountaineers could play football. 

It even led to a rule change that allowed voters to include FCS programs in the top 25, a rule known as the Appalachian State Rule.

“Here we are, it’s 2007 and we are a [FCS] team,” recalls former Associate Athletics Director Jay Sutton said. “There were a lot of distractions, it was a different world.”

In a way, everything had changed. But in another way, the win changed nothing. Appalachian State had entered the 2007 opener against Michigan as back-to-back 1-AA National Champions. They were 26-4 over those two seasons with three of those four losses coming against NC State, Kansas and LSU. The Mountaineers finished the 2007 season 13-2, ultimately winning their third straight National Championship. They were the first program to accomplish a three-peat since Army from 1944 to 1946.

Whether they beat Michigan that day or not, Appalachian State was already a national power at the 1-AA level. They were already champions. They were already a program on the rise that was poised to one day make the jump to the 1-A/FBS level. That win was a giant leap toward bigger things. The only thing that beating Michigan changed for the Mountaineers is that now everybody knew their resume.

Reaching New Peaks

Amid all of the added attention the 2007 win over Michigan gave Appalachian State, the Mountaineers rarely missed a step in the years to come. They made the FCS Playoffs in each of the next five seasons, winning at least a share of the Southern Conference title in four of those five campaigns. When Moore retired after the 2012 season, Appalachian State hired Scott Satterfield, who played quarterback for the Mountaineers and spent several years as an assistant on Moore’s staff.

Behind Satterfield, Appalachian State officially made the leap to the FCS level in 2014, joining the Sun Belt Conference. It was a risky move after things had been so good for the Mountaineers for so long. However, it was only natural for Appalachian State to keep climbing the mountain to see how high they could reach.

“It was a big leap, and around here I believe it was a very emotional leap as well,” said current Appalachian State Athletic Director Doug Gillin. "When you have had so much success at the FCS level, winning National Championships and selling out games and producing All-Americans and putting players into the NFL, there are going to be people who say, 'Hey, life is pretty good right now. Why mess with this?' But then there's also that desire to do something bigger. If you really believe in what you're doing, why not take that to the next level and see if you can accomplish what you think you can?"

Any trepidation about the Mountaineers competing at the FBS level went away quickly. In 2015, Satterfield led the Mountaineers to an 11-2 record and the first FBS bowl game in program history. In 2016, Appalachian State won a share of the Sun Belt title, something the Mountaineers have done in every subsequent season. They have also been to a bowl game every year since 2015, going undefeated in those five bowl games.

Even when Satterfield left for Louisville after the 2018 season, Appalachian State kept rolling under Eliah Drinkwitz. In fact, the best was yet to come in 2019. Between the end of the 2018 season and the start of 2019, Appalachian State racked up 13 wins in a row. 

For the first time in program history, the Mountaineers were ranked in the top 25 in consecutive weeks and were ultimately ranked for eight of the final nine weeks of the regular season.

Despite becoming a fixture in the top 25, the 2019 season was highlighted by wins over regional rivals North Carolina and South Carolina, both members of power conferences. Often considered the little brother to schools like UNC and USC, App State and their fan base believed those wins were more important and more satisfying than the 2007 win over Michigan. 

If not for a 24-21 Halloween night loss to rival Georgia Southern, the Mountaineers would have gone undefeated in 2019. Doing so would have made them a lock for the Cotton Bowl, putting them just a few small steps away from the pinnacle of what programs outside the five major conferences are capable of accomplishing. 

Even with a new coach taking over in 2020, Appalachian State is still within reach of the top of the mountain. After all, new coach Shawn Clark played for the Mountaineers under Moore and has been an assistant since 2016 under both Satterfield and Drinkwitz. He is the perfect person to continue to make Appalachian State one of the premier Group of Five programs in the country and perhaps take the Mountaineers to the next level. 

Less than a decade after making the jump to the FBS level, the idea of joining a power conference sometime in the next handful of years isn’t out of the question. The Mountaineers have come a long way in a short period of time and there is no reason why they can’t go even further. Everything the program has accomplished, from its three-peat of FCS national championships to its win over Michigan to its Sun Belt titles to its bowl wins to its upsets of North Carolina and South Carolina, everything is just one more rung on the latter. 

Appalachian State hasn’t stopped moving forward in over 30 years, so why stop now?

“I am in awe watching these guys go out every Saturday,” says Pierre Banks, a senior linebacker on the Appalachian State team that beat Michigan in 2007 who now works for the Mountaineers as the Director of Student-Athlete Development.“I won seven championships total and beat one FBS team. These guys go out and beat FBS teams every week. Our time was our time, but they have taken it and ran with it.”

Photo: Getty Images