By Gibbs Knotts • Guest Columnist
Some local sportswriters have expressed bewilderment at a recent ranking by a nationally circulated magazine, The Sporting News, that placed Cullowhee at No. 199 among the United States’ top 399 sports cities.
These pundits seem perplexed that Cullowhee would be ranked 26 spots ahead of Boone, home of archrival Appalachian State University. When comparing Boone and Cullowhee, the sports reporters have focused on the higher attendance at Appalachian State football and men’s basketball games.
In their haste to criticize The Sporting News ranking, some journalists are missing a point that The Sporting News apparently did not miss — Cullowhee is home to a LOT of sporting events, many of them successful by regional and national standards.
Focusing solely on football and men’s basketball overlooks the achievements of at least seven of the other 13 Division I collegiate sports at Western Carolina. Last year, three WCU teams – women’s basketball, women’s soccer, and men’s track and field – won conference championships. Women’s track and field, baseball, men’s golf and women’s golf also have posted notably successful records.
WCU’s women’s basketball and soccer teams have been ranked in the nation’s top 20 academically. The women’s golf team regularly places individuals on the National Golf Coaches Association All-American Scholars list. In the spring 2009 semester, 87 student-athletes made the dean’s list and 18 earned perfect 4.0 grade-point averages. At Western Carolina, athletic victories usually go hand-in-hand with academic successes.
Part of what makes a sports town a sports town is tradition and history, and Western Carolina has its fair share. The first three-point shot in men’s college basketball was made in Cullowhee. Every year at NCAA basketball tournament time, the networks roll out the footage from 1996 when the Catamounts came within a whisker of being the first No. 16 seed to defeat a No. 1 seed. And Asheville’s own Henry Logan opened the door for student-athletes of his race when, in 1964, he joined the WCU basketball team and became the first African-American to play at a predominantly white institution in the South.
Adding to the game-day experience in Cullowhee is WCU’s Pride of the Mountains Marching Band, whose crowd-pleasing halftime shows over the years are being recognized nationally by the John Phillip Sousa Foundation, which has awarded the band the 2009 Sudler Trophy — the Heisman Trophy of collegiate marching bands.
Aside from Catamount athletics, Cullowhee also features outstanding outdoor sporting opportunities. The area is a haven for cyclists, hosting numerous group rides and the annual Tour de Tuck bicycle ride. Anglers flock to Cullowhee for many miles of rivers and streams, and Cullowhee is a world-class boating and kayaking destination. Some Olympic athletes train in the area.
The university engages students in outdoor experiences through its Base Camp Cullowhee, a campus organization that hosts nearly 2,000 people per year on outdoor adventures and supplies students with low-cost outdoor gear and supplies. Base Camp employees serve as a resource to the Cullowhee community, providing trip advice, trail maps, and other outdoor tips to local individuals and families, and to hundreds of the millions of Americans who visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway annually.
Is Cullowhee really the 199th best sports town in the United States? Scientifically, I can’t say, but when you look at the entire picture, why not? What I can do is invite sports fans of all persuasions to come to Cullowhee and find out. Attend a soccer match or a women’s basketball game. Bring your bike and ride the Ring of Fire. Float down the beautiful Tuckasegee River. Or bring your binoculars and watch track or cross country or some other Olympic sport. You may discover that The Sporting News has it right — sporting opportunities are abundant in Cullowhee.
(Gibbs Knotts is faculty athletics representative at Western Carolina University where he teaches political science and public affairs. In his free time, he attends Catamount sporting events and enjoys Cullowhee’s many outdoor opportunities.)