How Mark Speir Needs to Remake Western Carolina Football
Just a week and a half ago, Western Carolina University was welcoming in a new Director of Athletics in Randy Eaton. Eaton has hit the ground running, as less than two weeks into the job, he has a new football coach.
Mark Speir, who spent nine seasons as an assistant coach at arch-rival Appalachian State, is now charged with taking over a football program that has an 11-56 overall record since the start of the 2006 season, including a 3-43 record against Southern Conference foes.
The Catamount football program, under the direction of former head coach Dennis Wagner, did not seem to be recruiting as well as it used to, as the WCU football program regularly brought in some of the best recruiting classes in the league under the direction of both Wagner and his predecessor, Kent Briggs.
It's hard to pinpoint exactly where the problems for the Western Carolina football program surfaced, but there are certainly two coaching moves that previous administrations have made that are baffling to say the least.
The first involves Speir's former boss in his previous stint as an assistant coach in Cullowhee.
Steve Hodgin had the Catamount football program on the brink of a Southern Conference championship in the early 1990s, led by his young quarterback, Lonnie Galloway, and a solid corps of receivers that featured names like Craig Aiken and speedster/return specialist Kerry Hayes.
Those Hodgin teams were not just competing, they were beating teams that were among the league's elite.
Hodgin nearly led the Catamounts to the postseason to the playoffs in both the 1992 and '93 seasons.
In fact, the Catamounts were a combined 13 points from the postseason within the playoffs for those two season, and just a field goal from their first postseason in nine years in the '92 season, dropping a heartbreaking 14-12 decision to No. 18 Appalachian State in Boone.
Hodgin was building something in Cullowhee, but was fired after just seven seasons. For his career, Hodgin produced a 31-45 mark at the helm, ranking him fourth in school history in all-time victories.
Dale Strahm was the only coach between the legendary Bob Waters and Hodgin, and Waters led the Catamounts to their only Division I playoff appearance, taking the Catamounts all the way to the 1983 national championship game before eventually dropping a 43-7 decision in that title game.
The reason for Hodgin being shown the door is mysterious, as the Catamounts were quite simply the victims of some hard luck in a couple of seasons and were extremely young in a couple more.
Hodgin had a blueprint, and that blueprint is Hodgin's philosophy on building a program—which was to build from the ground up, one recruiting class at a time.
In an article in the 1991 Greenville News, Hodgin commented that his philosophy was to build upon recruiting classes year-by-year, but not have to rely on those recruiting classes the first year, saying his philosophy for building this way was based on that of then three-time defending Southern Conference Champion Furman.
He remarked that teams shouldn't have to rely on a recruiting class the first season, but that they should be ready to play extensively as juniors and seniors.
Somewhere along the way, that philosophy has evaporated, as the Catamounts rarely have encountered any sustainability as a program.
After Hodgin, Bill Bleil took the reins of the WCU football program from 1997-2001, getting fired abruptly after some "off-the-field issues" concerning his team. One of his players, Toren Gordon, even faced a second-degree murder charge.
That was the final straw for Bleil, who appeared to have the program on the mend, having led the Catamounts to a 7-4 record and garnering SoCon Coach of the Year honors in '01.
Speirnow will be charged with remaking a program that is clearly on life support.
Things really didn't go south until after the 2005 season, which saw the Catamounts post a memorable 41-21 win over No. 2 Furman on a night that the goalposts came down in Cullowhee. Many would agree that was the last big moment for the program.
Since that win, the Catamounts have won just six of their last 49 conference games, with three of those six wins coming down the stretch in 2005.
The Catamounts, who finished 4-3 in SoCon play in 2005, would go on to lose 14 straight league games in 2006 and '07, including a 79-35 loss in Boone on Nov. 10, which might have been the "lowest" of lows for a program that has seen few bright spots over the last six seasons.
So, if WCU recruits well and has the athletes to compete, where has the disconnect been? Well, for one, it has not been the skill position players where the recruiting has suffered, it has been in the trenches.
If Speir wants to make the Catamounts a factor again, he has to be able to bring in players like Michale Spicer (2000-'03), Nick McNeil (2000-'03) and Felipe Foster (2003-'06) on the defensive line, while being able to bring players on the offensive line like Dan Best (1995-'98) and Todd Harkins (1989-'92) on the offensive line.
Since 2006, the Catamounts have not have an offensive lineman garner postseason all-conference honors and have had only two running backs eclipse the 1,000-yard plateau (Derek Fudge '06 and Fred Boateng '01) since Brad Hoover rushed for 1,025 as a senior in 1999.
The two other element Speir must improve will be bringing the Catamount football tradition of the past in touch with today's players. He talked about that very thing in his press conference on Thursday. The best football programs are formed through that bond sometimes, as much as talent and hard work.
Speir will need to show these players why it is important to be a Catamount and what it meant to players of the past, like linebacker Tom Bodine (1991-'94) or Melvin Dorsey (1981-'93).
Regaining an identity is sometimes the first step to remaking a program.
Western Carolina biggest issue hasn't been as much talent, but more forgetting who it once was. The problems didn't start overnight, and maybe they ball started rolling with Hodgin's dismissal in 1996.
Whatever the case might be, Speir has a challenge ahead of him. He not only has to get this team better fundamentally and working harder, but maybe the most difficult coaching he has to do is mentally, where he must somehow undo the damaging effects of losing most of the players inherits have known since they have arrived in Cullowhee.
However, that might actually be why Speir works in Cullowhee.
He'll build them into good men before he makes them a good football team. That is sometimes the easiest way to address many problems at once.
If you build character and discipline based on hard work, the rest will take care of itself.
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