Thanksgiving has many traditions. One of them is football, with three NFL games on the holiday and a long list of heated college rivalry games this weekend. Western Carolina isn’t playing, as the Catamounts finished out their season last weekend. They did it in a big way though, traveling to the University of Alabama to play the Crimson Tide. While the game may have been a loss on the field, it was a big win for the Catamounts in terms of exposure, experience, and more.
When a NCAA Division I FCS football team like Western Carolina University steps up a division to take on a perennially top-ranked powerhouse like the Crimson Tide of Alabama, the first question that usually pops up is, why? There’s one obvious answer, according to Western Carolina Athletic Director Randy Eaton.
“I think this year’s contract is five and a quarter,” Eaton said.
That’s right, Western Carolina got paid $525,000 for a single game. The school itself operates on a budget of about $220 million, the athletics department $13 million and the football team about $2 million, so that money represents a quarter of the football program’s yearly revenue. Given that some of it goes towards scholarships, games like this are important, says Western Carolina Head Coach Mark Speir. “I tell everybody that that game alone will fund about approximately 30 players get to go to school here at Western Carolina because of the paycheck we do get from that ballgame,” said Speir.
In fact, while much of the sporting world calls games like these money games, Speir looks at them in a different way. “We don't call it a money game, we call it an opportunity game,” he said. “It's an opportunity for our program to be in the national spotlight. When you play a Michigan or in our case, Alabama, everybody in the country wants to know who Alabama's playing that week. It's an opportunity to showcase your school, and to showcase your program and your players.”
Speir’s been part of these games before, and as much of a mismatch as they can be, they’re not always.
In 2007, Speir was the defensive line coach at Appalachian State when the then-FCS school went up to Ann Arbor and stunned No. 5 Michigan before 110,000 fans – the first time a school from the lower division had beaten a ranked team in the higher one. Western Carolina’s Associate Head Coach John Holt happened to be the Mountaineers starting right guard that day – a day that nobody expected to turn out the way it did. “Except us,“ Holt said. “The biggest thing is, just play the next play. Make it simple, don’t make it about a big game. You know, you’re playing yourself. Every game, every practice, every play. Don’t focus on what we’re gonna do in the fourth quarter, focus on what you’re going to do right now.”
Caleb Ferguson is a sophomore running back, and like many Western Carolina players, he graduated from a small Western North Carolina high school, Tuscola in Haywood County. “I think any football player can agree with me on this, that once you get the first play in, once you get that first hit in, then it's just game time,” said Ferguson. “Like, you're nervous up until that first hit. And then once that’s over, then you're fully locked into the game. You're not worried about extra stuff.”
The extra stuff, like national exposure on ESPN, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for programs like Western Carolina and players like Ferguson. “I’m really excited,” he said. “I mean, it’s Alabama. You can’t overlook that it’s one of the top teams in the nation but I’m very excited, very excited to play in that big of a crowd. I know it’s gonna be loud, I mean everything about the atmosphere of game day, that’s what I’m excited about.”
Loud, and rowdy – Alabama’s Bryant Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa holds just over 100,000 people. That’s more than double the population of the Catamounts home of Jackson County. But a number of fans did make the trip to Tuscaloosa, including Western Carolina University Chancellor Kelli Brown, who took in the game from a skybox next to Gary Ayers and the WCU radio crew.
“We’ve got fans here from all over, they’ve driven in from Nashville, Tennessee, from Georgia, from North Carolina to be able to be here to see our Catamounts play University of Alabama,” Brown said.
Despite a final score of 66 to 3, it was positive experience, according to cheerleader Liz Liner, herself a graduate of Haywood County’s Pisgah High School. From the sidelines, Ferguson had this to say after the game. “We need to prepare each game like we’re going to play Alabama,” he said. “If we do that, then I don’t see why we couldn’t beat anybody that we have scheduled next year.”
One thing missing from the experience was Western Carolina’s band, which was off in New York City preparing for a national appearance of their own, at Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.