Football, Game 6: The Citadel vs. Western Carolina

Like a lot of other college football fans, I’ve been following the current situation with Bobby Bowden and Florida State with some interest, wondering how it will end.  At this point, it does not look like it will end well, because it’s obvious that A) Bowden clearly does not want to retire, and B) FSU higher-ups desperately want him to do so. 

Bowden is Florida State football, at least as we know it today.  How do you cast off a legend?  It’s not easy.  It’s something Western Carolina had to do 20 years ago, though, under circumstances much more tragic.

Bob Waters was a star quarterback at Presbyterian in the late 1950s who wound up playing for five years for the San Francisco 49ers.  He started several games at quarterback in 1961 in Red Hickey’s then-novel “shotgun” offense. 

After three years as a college assistant coach (at PC and Stanford), Waters would become the head coach at Western Carolina in 1969.  In 20 seasons in Cullowhee, he would not only become the Catamounts’ winningest coach, he would win more games than all his predecessors did combined.  Waters is the only coach in the history of the program to finish his career at the school with a winning record.

Western Carolina would make the Division II playoffs in 1974, a prelude to joining the Southern Conference (and Division I) in 1976.  Waters was a key part of the move up the NCAA ladder, as he by this time was also director of athletics at WCU.  In 1983 Waters and the Catamounts would win 11 games and go all the way to the I-AA championship game (played at Johnson Hagood Stadium!), losing in the final to Southern Illinois. 

Then in 1985, Waters was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).  He would lead the Catamounts to a 4-6-1 record that year; the following season WCU would go 6-5.  

In April of 1987 he would be profiled in Sports Illustrated.  The piece noted that Waters was one of three players from the 1965 49ers squad to suffer from ALS, a coincidence (or perhaps not a coincidence) that drew considerable scrutiny. 

In 1987, the Catamounts would slip to 4-7, and then in 1988 WCU would lose its last five games and finish 2-9, the worst season of Waters’ career.  It would also be the last season of his career.

During spring practice in 1989, Waters was “reassigned” by Western Carolina administrators, a decision made more difficult because Waters had wanted one more year.  He didn’t get it.  Waters died in late May of that year.

That had to have been a very trying time for the WCU administration, which was faced with trying to decide how best to ease the best coach it ever had out of the position he had held for so long.  Waters had made WCU football a success, but it appeared that success was drifting away as Waters’ body continued to fail him.  He wouldn’t quit, so he was removed.

Then the folks at WCU made a mistake, bringing in an “outsider”, Dale Strahm, to coach the team.  Strahm was in Cullowhee for one year, and then decided to get out of town following a 3-7-1 season.  Four coaches have followed, none establishing any pattern of success. 

Steve Hodgin, who had been an assistant at the school for seven years prior to becoming head coach, did have a respectable run, with three straight winning seasons in the mid-1990s, but after a 1-7 SoCon record in 1996, he was done.  Bill Bleil was actually 7-4 in his fifth season in Cullowhee, but was then fired after a series of off-the-field problems. Kent Briggs spent six seasons at WCU; he would finish his career at the school with 15 consecutive conference losses.

The current coach of the Catamounts is Dennis Wagner.  WCU was 3-9 in his first season; this year, the Catamounts are 0-5 entering Saturday afternoon’s contest.

Western Carolina is 79-135 since the reassignment of Bob Waters.  Replacing a legend is not easy.

It’s also not easy to win while dealing with budget restraints, a historic problem at Western Carolina.  WCU’s budget for athletics is the league’s smallest (just under $8.5 million in FY2008).  Western Carolina has fewer athletic donors than any school in the league save UT-Chattanooga (The Citadel has more than seven times as many boosters as does WCU). 

The school is situated in a population area that is one of the league’s smallest (Elon, by comparison, has a population base surrounding it three times as large), which perhaps partly explains the less-than-stellar home attendance (less than 7,000 per game last season).  Western Carolina also does not have a large local corporate presence from which to solicit donations, and the general population is not particularly affluent (average household income:  just over $34,000).    

It’s a tough sell.

Tangent:  Appalachian State and Western Carolina are rivals, or at least are supposed to be rivals.  The two schools have met on the gridiron 73 times, which means they’ve met almost every year WCU has had a football program.  App State leads the series, 54-18-1.  It has to be tough when your biggest game of the year is against a team that has beaten you 75% of the time.  The Mountaineers have won 22 of the last 24 meetings.

Western Carolina’s cumulative statistics in the current campaign are not pretty, which is not surprising for an 0-5 team.  Opponents are outscoring the Catamounts 30 to 8; have more than twice as many first downs; have intercepted WCU passers seven times (with the Catamounts yet to pick off a pass on defense); and are averaging almost twice as many yards of total offense.

In five games, Western has a total of 3 first-half points.  WCU has scored 4 touchdowns in those five games.

In short, this is a game The Citadel should win.  Of course, that was the feeling before the 43-7 embarassment at Elon.  Now, will doubt creep in?  Kevin Higgins has to convince his team it isn’t as bad as last week’s game and prepare them to fight a desperate team which needs a victory just as badly (if not more so) as do the Bulldogs.  Other potential x-factors:  Whitmire Stadium’s playing surface is artificial turf, and the game is WCU’s Homecoming. 

The Citadel has defeated Western Carolina five times in a row, and historically has had more success against the Catamounts than any other Southern Conference school (19-13-1).  I am hopeful that both of those trends will continue on Saturday.  However, if they don’t, The Citadel may be in for a very long season.

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