News Headlines

SMN: The $300,000 to the football coach represents at least three professors’ salaries. Is this cost worth trying to have a winning football program? Why pump this kind of money into athletics compared to academics in this day and age of massive economic constraints?

Chancellor David Belcher: “As I’ve said many times in my visits across Western North Carolina communities in recent months, I view athletics as a very important part of the university, for several reasons.

First, athletics plays a role in the development of student-athletes who participate in sports, providing them with leadership skills and helping instill in them foundations of teamwork and discipline that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. Thus, athletics experiences are part of their educational pursuits.

Second, athletics is a critical component of the overall student life experience by helping ground students in the campus community and keeping them engaged in the university outside of the classroom. Third, athletics also helps keep alumni and friends connected to the institution, giving them something around which they can rally.

And fourth, athletics, just like the arts and cultural events, serves as a front door to the university, offering an entry point for folk in the community and the region who might not otherwise have a reason to set foot on our campus.”

The price tag of transforming Western Carolina University’s losing football team into a winner — or anything less than a total embarrassment to Catamount fans — keeps rising, leaving students, alumni, faculty and staff at odds about whether the cost is just too high.

So how much is too much?

WCU recently paid $300,000 to buy out the latest head football coach deemed a loser. Dennis Wagner is the third straight coach WCU has bought out since 2001. And now, WCU wants to kick more than $1 million into the salaries of a new athletic director and for a replacement football coach.

Punt already, some students said this week: It’s just not worth it, particularly when students are facing a just announced, almost certain to be implemented $399-a-year increase in annual tuition and fees.

Other students, however, are calling for a push toward the end zone: a winning football team, they argued, is an integral part of a student’s university experience.

Chancellor David Belcher makes that argument, too.

“I feel that a successful athletics program is critical to a university,” he said in an email interview with The Smoky Mountain News. “And football, while just one part of an overall athletics program, is an important and visible component. In our region, it is fair to say that football is the most visible sport.”

 

High costs keep escalating

A typical WCU undergraduate student living on-campus and eating at the cafeteria can expect to pay $11,775 next year. Of that amount, $688 from each student will help fund the university’s athletic programs — a $71 increase when compared to last year.

By comparison, Wagner received $940,000 via WCU’s coffers for the four years he was on the job, including the $300,000 contract termination settlement.

“I just don’t think the football coaches should get paid what they’re paid,” Joshuah Gross, a WCU student said bluntly, shaking his head over the amount of money Wagner pulled down.

Gross ran out of money to attend WCU and is headed to a local community college to continue his education. He works at Rolling Stone Burrito on campus to earn his living.

“The team is terrible, and here they are planning to sink even more money into a failing program,” Gross said one day last week. “The professors are suffering — they need to redirect that money into other areas, like into the engineering department.”

WCU administrators have seen cash-strapped North Carolina cut the university’s budget $32 million since the 2008-2009 year.

Senior T.J. Eaves, the student body president at WCU and a former high school football player, views the situation differently than Gross, his former university classmate.

“To the student body a good team is very important. It directly contributes to the student experience,” Eaves said, adding that he believes most students “were excited for a change in the program.”

And, Eaves emphasized, most students supported Chancellor Belcher’s decision to make changes, including paying a failed football coach that $300,000 buyout fee.

Belcher didn’t shy from confirming that he was hired by WCU with certain expectations when it comes to the football team.

“In my conversations with the search committee, and later with the Board of Trustees, it became clear that improving the performance of the athletics program would, indeed, be an expectation of the next chancellor,” Belcher said. “And that expectation meshes perfectly with my expectations. I expect excellence in athletics, including football, just like I expect excellence in academics, in our Honors College, in our marching band, in everything we do at Western Carolina.”

 

Making tough decisions

WCU’s football program has been on a decided losing streak, winning only two or three games a year and garnering some nine losses. This year it won only one game. The team’s last winning season was 2005, when WCU went 5-4.

“My roommate and I went every time they were home playing this season,” said graduate student Tim Willis. “And the football team was really bad. That’s not an opinion, that’s a fact. Nobody at Western gives a (expletive) about the football team — we are all there for the marching band. They are just great.”

Willis wants to see WCU pump money back into academics, not sports.

But it just isn’t that simple, Faculty Senate Chair Erin McNelis said. Prior to joining the Faculty Senate, McNelis said she hadn’t really understood the budgeting formulas universities labor under.

There’s different pots of money, and “that’s not money we (academics) could have had anyway,” said McNelis, a math and computer science professor. “And, while my interest is predominantly academics, I recognize that students’ educations include more than that — we have an engagement component.”

Academics are funded primarily through the state and tuition. But athletics have their own funding stream, including ticket sales, sponsorships and donations.

The lion’s share — $5 million of the $8.4 million athletics budget — comes from the $688 fee assessed to each student to pay for sports.

The university also kicks in $1.2 million, justified as institutional support because it goes toward scholarships for student athletes and to pay the salaries of coaches who also teach academic courses. The university plans to phase out this funding over the next four years, however, making athletics self-sustaining.

Jason Lavigne is chair of WCU’s Staff Senate and a database administrator for the university. He’s also a WCU alumnus, and a fervent believer in building the university’s football program.

“Like it or not, the football team is a big face of the university,” Lavigne said.

 

Alumni pride means big bucks

Coach Wagner’s exit followed an undistinguished 8-36 record, including a recent 51-7 shellacking during homecoming by the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team. That horror led to outcries from alumni, which helped in the forced exodus of Athletic Director Chip Smith, who had previously extended Wagner’s contract. The WCU Board of Trustees, it should be noted, had endorsed the contract extension.

Fred Cantler, WCU’s longtime senior associate athletics director for internal operations, came out of retirement to serve as interim director of athletics. WCU is expected to name a new athletics director Wednesday, Dec. 12.

“Not all of a student’s collegiate experience is inside the classroom,” Cantler said. “It’s very important that the university’s programs are successful.”

One huge reason is financial, university leaders acknowledged. Happy alumni make more frequent, and substantially larger, donations.

“Obviously, the more success that teams are having on the fields and courts of play, the more likely alumni and other donors are to contribute toward those programs,” Belcher said. “It’s human nature to want to rally around a winner. But more important than winning, I think, is being sure that we are able to field teams that are competitive … (that) translates into both a larger number of donors and into higher amounts of donations over time.”

Laura Leatherwood of Haywood County has three degrees from WCU. She served on the search committee tasked with picking the university’s replacement athletics director.

Asked whether WCU had difficulty finding anyone willing to take the job, Leatherwood laughed and replied “no” — there were many eager candidates, she said, adding that the selection they made should prove an excellent one.

Leatherwood said athletics, along with other university programs, help students with “professional development, personal development and their networking” abilities. It helps build “good character,” she said. And, like so many others, Leatherwood emphasized that the university experience isn’t isolated to academics.

Betty Jo Allen, president of the WCU Alumni Association, could have been singing a duet with Leatherwood. Allen lives in Lincolnton and drove here to WNC to attend every home game played in Cullowhee this season.

“I’m a big supporter of the team,” said Allen, who attended WCU from 1964 through 1968. “I love athletics, and I love football.”

Allen taught in North Carolina’s public school system for 37 years. She emphasized that what is often lost in the argument about football at WCU is that the arguing is about kids — the football players are students, too. They might be losing games, but they are still just young adults trying to find their ways in the world, Allen said.

She added that it should be noted that the cumulative grade point average of WCU’s football team for spring semester 2010 (2011 fall semester still being under way), was the highest in recent memory.

That said, Allen still wants a winning football team as much as anyone associated with WCU.

“I want us to be competitive,” she said. “In everything. I want it all.”

Asked if the price tag is simply too high when academics at WCU are suffering from what Belcher himself has described as “staggering cuts,” Allen hesitated, then said: “I’m just really glad I’m not the one who has to make those kinds of decisions.”

 

WCU athletics by the numbers

• $8.4 million Total athletic budget

• $1.4 million Athletic Departent deficit over four years

• $400,000 projected deficit for this year

• $1.275 million Amount contributed by university

• $5 million Amount raised through student fees

• $688 Student fee assessed this year

• $71 Increase in per student fee over last year

• $252,000 Amount from ticket sales

• $55,000 Decrease in ticket sales compared to last year

• $19,000 Decrease in sponsorships/royalties compared to last year

• $4,500 Decrease in novelty/program sales compared to last year

• $2.46 million Amount spent on athletic scholarships

Western Carolina University hired a new athletic director this week who will face the daunting challenge of turning the college’s losing football team around.

The official announcement will be made on campus Wednesday morning with an appearance by the new AD.

The new AD will face the tall order of rebuilding the football program — something that his predecessor failed to do and by all accounts is the reason he isn’t there anymore.

Sports has seen a renewed emphasis under Chancellor David Belcher, who pledged to improve the athletic department when he took over this summer.

“Athletics is a front door or front porch to the institution,” Belcher said last month during a kick-off for the athletic director search. “Athletics provides visibility for the university, it grounds students in the institution, and it is a way to keep in contact with donors and alumni.”

Belcher called the hiring an “important decision.”

A 15-member search committee culled through 75 applications for the athletic director position during the month of November, a recruitment process aided by the hired consulting firm Collegiate Sports Associates.

The search committee narrowed the field to seven candidates for interviews. Their top two finalists were passed along to Belcher last week, who made the final pick. While names have not been released by the university, the Asheville Citizen-Times and WLOS have reported that Tom Kleinlein, the deputy athletic director at Kent State, and Randy Eaton, Maryland’s senior associate athletics director for new revenue, facilities and operations, were finalists.

Belcher then held a conference call meeting of the WCU Board of Trustees Monday morning to get approval for the salary, benefits and contract being offered for the new AD. While the choice of who to hire is Belcher’s, the contract terms must be approved by the trustees. The salary will be $160,000 with a five-year contract until June 2016.

After the meeting, Belcher formally extended the offer, and it was accepted.

 

Game on

Job No. 1 for the new athletic director will be hiring a new football coach. It might not be as easy as it sounds. Since 2001, WCU has sent three football coaches packing before their contracts ended for losing too many games.

The most recent causality was former coach Dennis Wagner, forced out just before the last game of the season. The assistant head coach met a similar fate.

In four years, Wagner won only eight of the 36 games the team played. This season was the worst, however. Wagner won just one game this year — a statistic that ultimately brought the athletic director down as well.

Former Athletic Director Chip Smith was blamed at least in part for the football coaches’ failures — or at the very least for keeping the coaches around despite their poor showings. In his seven years at WCU, Smith twice supported extending the contracts for coaches who were later fired. And in both cases it cost the university, which had to pay out settlements for terminating the coaches’ contracts.

While WCU is paying Wagner $300,000 for the two years left on his contract, the negotiated settlement is less than the full amount his contract called for — a compromise both sides felt was in their best interest.

During the athletic director search process, Belcher said he wanted someone who could “hire, retain and mentor excellent coaches.” But it will also take financial savvy and a good PR face.

WCU is running a $400,000 deficit in its athletic program this year, fueled in part by declining attendance at games, declining sponsorships and even fewer sales of programs and souvenirs.

“We need someone who can build a strategically designed budget, who can manage very carefully the limited resources we do have while also playing a major role in bringing new resources to the table,” Belcher said. “We must grow our resources, in partnership with others, through fundraising, increased ticket sales and additional sponsorships.”

 

A timeline of  WCU sports turmoil

• Oct. 25: Athletic Director Chip Smith is fired after eight years in the position.

• Oct. 31: Assistant Head Football Coach Matt Pawlowsk is fired.

• Nov. 13: Head Football Coach Dennis Wagner is forced out, getting a $300,000 settlement for time left on his contract.

• Dec. 14 New athletic director is named.

• TBA: New head football coach named.

 

Stay tuned

A press conference announcing the new WCU athletic director will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday, Dec. 14, in the Hospitality Room of the Ramsey Center. Check www.smokymountainnews.com starting at 11 a.m. for updates. A community meet-and-greet session will be held at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 14, at O’Malley’s of Sylva.

Swain County High School’s football players and coaches on Monday were in a different sort of huddle than usual. Instead of planning the next play, they were picking out a design for their championship rings following Saturday’s 20-14 win over Ayden-Grifton.

They also were trying to absorb certain key facts, such as emerging from a hard-fought football season as the state’s 1-AA champions. And becoming the only Swain County team ever to win more than 15 games in a season.

That’s saying a lot — this is Swain County’s eighth state football championship title, though it represents the school’s first since 2004.

Player Lee Pattillo and Quarterback Colby Hyatt — Hyatt was named the game’s most valuable player for rushing 70 yards and passing for 48 more — looked a bit like deer in headlights. They admitted feeling sort of like deer in headlights, too.

“It’s awesome, unbelievable,” said Pattillo, whose father is head coach Sam Pattillo. Lee Pattillo led the team in tackles this year.

After helping to pick out the ring design, the football players returned to classes. Though it’s doubtful they were able to focus much on this day — or any of their excited classmates, for that matter — on assigned school material.

 

Opportunity called, Swain answered

Coach Pattillo is a soft-spoken, seemingly unassuming man. He’s answered a lot of questions lately about Swain football, and patiently answers each reporter’s version no matter how repetitive they must, by now, truly seem.

What does a state championship mean to you, the team, the school, the community?

“It’s a big accomplishment,” Pattillo said. “… winning a championship is something special.”

What was different about this team; did luck play a part?

“I don’t believe in luck,” Pattillo said in reply. “I believe in opportunities.”

And, he added, in hard work, talent and commitment, both on the field and in the classroom.

“If we’d not won, we would have been disappointed, but we still would have done our very best,” Pattillo said. “And I think that’s all you can do.”

Many at this school, at least the guys working here, seem to have played high school football. Swain County High School Principal Mike Treadway, a broad-shouldered, burly man whose physical presence dominates his small administrative office, played on Swain’s 1985 state championship football team.

Though Treadway clearly relishes the team’s accomplishment, he said that the real goal here is achievement in the classroom and in other areas of life. And that goes for all of the various students who attend Swain County High School, no matter whether it’s playing in the band, hitting volleyballs over a net, or even catching touchdowns on the field in pursuit of a state championship.

“We’ve only had one fellow leave and make money off football,” Treadway said pointedly.

That would be U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, a standout football player at Swain County High School and, later, at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville before turning pro with the Washington Redskins.

 

Ties that bind

If there’s been one anchor to give weight to the Swain County football program through each of the school’s eight state titles, it’s Offensive Line Coach and Assistant Principal Billy Jenkins. The players and coaches were crowded into his office selecting the ring design.

Jenkins played on a state football championship team in Robbinsville. He has coached for 32 years in Swain County, making him an integral part of every state football championship the school has won: 1979, 1985, 1988, 1989, 1990, 2001, 2004 and 2011. Jenkins just participated in his final game, however, he’ll retire at the end of the school year.

“It’s just time,” he said in explanation.

The ties that bind this school and team are incredible. Jenkins started his job at Swain County in the spring of 1979 when Coach Pattillo was a quarterback for the Swain team, leading them to the school’s first state championship that year. Jenkins has now helped coach Pattillo’s son, Lee, to the school’s most current championship, and coached Principal Treadway to the one won in 1985.

Jenkins is no less thrilled with, or jaded by, this eighth championship.

“It doesn’t get old at all,” he said. “They’re all great. And, as a coach, you want these kids to win one, because it’s something that you never forget, playing on a state championship team.”

If you want to talk high school football in Swain County there’s plenty of options. But one of the most enjoyable is to head to Smith’s Dry Goods on Everett Street, a Bryson City mainstay since the mid 1970s, and a place that doesn’t just smack of local color — Smith’s Dry Goods is local color personified.

Here in the wooden-floored, unabashedly blue-collar store you’ll often find former player David Smith, sporting his trademark Swain Pride ball cap, bellied up to the welcome heat of a big woodstove. He’ll undoubtedly be talking about the latest game — or the upcoming game, or even Swain County football games played several decades ago — while customers shop for items such as work clothes and work boots.

This was a Friday, game day, in Swain County. Smith, along with everybody else in this small town, was excited. Everyone, practically, seemed intent on being at the game that night. Which in Smith’s book is exactly how it should be, and why Swain County is such a fantastic place to live if you are a local football fan. At least, this is the place to live for those fans supporting Swain County football and who bleed the school’s colors of maroon and white, of course.

“The town could just about burn down, and no one would realize it until after the game,” Smith said, only semi-jokingly.

How important is football here in Swain County, where the population stands just fewer than 14,000 residents? The Chamber of Commerce has changed the annual Christmas parade from Dec. 3 to Dec. 10 so as not to conflict with the upcoming state championship game; and here in Bryson City, even the town’s crosswalks are painted maroon and white.

 

Football unifies community

Last Friday night, the Maroon Devils — cheered on by Smith and hundreds of other screaming Swain County fans — played West Montgomery for the right to vie for a state championship. Swain County ultimately won the game in heart-stopping fashion, off the kicking foot of player Evan Sneed, who saved the day and the hopes of Swain County football fans with his 32-yard kick. There were just 33.6 seconds left in the game at the time.

It took Swain’s players most of the game to rally from a near-fatal thumping in the first quarter.

“It was 28 to nothing at the end of the first quarter. We were wondering where our team was at,” said Teddy Green, a sports photographer in Swain County who has been shooting Swain football games for 35 years.

But in an amazing turnaround, the team closed the gap 28-21 by the end of the second quarter.

“By halftime they had the Maroon Machine hitting on all pistons,” Green said. “It was wonderful. It was so exciting. I tell you the truth, it was down to the wire.”

As for Sneed’s winning kick?

“That boy is a hero,” Green said. It was the first game Swain has won via a field goal in at least 15 years.

Football serves as a unifying force that has long knitted the people of Swain County together — the game is more of a passion than a sport here. This is one of the state’s powerhouse football programs, with a total of seven state championships. The last one was in 2004. Now Swain will play for the 1-AA state championship title Saturday against Ayden-Grifton High School, located in Pitt County.

Swain is 14-1 this season, and has won the last 11 games here at home. Swain County Coach Sam Pattillo coaches the team. That Pattillo is homegrown — a former Swain County quarterback now leading the team to victories — makes this team’s run at another state championship all the more sweet in Bryson City.

That’s endeared Teresa Maynard even more tightly to the team, too, though she’s admittedly not a huge fan of the actual sport of football itself. But Swain County football? Now that’s entirely different matter. A horse of a different color — a maroon and white horse — as it were.

“I’ve known Sam all of his life,” Maynard said proudly, taking a brief break from her volunteer job at the Friends of the Library Bookstore to chat. “I keep up with Sam through the newspaper, and with what he’s doing. I would really like to see him go all of the way — we are so proud of him, and of the football team and all of their coaches.”

Maynard, a Swain County native who lived away from the area for a time, knows what a great football community exists here.

“The local people are football people,” Maynard said. “You think Swain County, you think football.”

 

Want fries with that?

If you come to Bryson City on a game day, you might want to stop at Na-Bers Drive-in along the Tuckasegee River. If it’s in the evening, you could find yourself dining with many of Swain County’s football players and cheerleaders. There’s a tradition here of eating at the six-decades old restaurant before each home game.

Eating at Na-Bers is considered good luck.

So what do the football players eat? Practically anything and everything on the menu — and plenty of it, said owner Ronnie Henderson.

“I’ve seen them eat hamburger steak, cheeseburgers, all of it,” Henderson said. “They’ll show up in a wad, three or four at a time in one car.”

These days, Na-Bers stays open only from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. There is more restaurant competition in town than in the old days, when the drive-in would serve its trademark burgers and shakes as late as 1:30 a.m. on game nights. The place would be packed with fans and players, all eager to relive the game play by play, in endless and seemingly down to the smallest detail.

“We don’t stay open like that anymore, but we’ll stay open as late as people are here,” Henderson said.

Lance Holland isn’t exactly a newcomer to Swain County, but the owner of Appalachian Mercantile on Everett Street previously lived in Graham County and his daughter went to Robbinsville High School.

The Black Knights in Graham County, even the most ardent Swain County fan might agree, have played some pretty good football of their own. Between 1969 and 1992, Robbinsville High School’s football program won 12 Class 1A state titles. Holland, a former football player in Georgia, cheered them on. These days, however, Holland has caught the fever for Swain County football.

“I certainly am pulling for them,” Holland said while finishing up a smoke outside his store.

This Swain County team, Holland added, is really a good, fun one to watch.

“If you’re still practicing on Thanksgiving, like this team was, you made it pretty far,” he said.

 

Overwhelming community support

A bicycle shop might not seem like the place to stop and chat about local high school football. But sports are sports, after all, and football in Swain dominates everything anyway, at least during a championship drive — even conversation at the bicycle shop.

Diane Cutler, co-owner of Bryson City Bicycles, has been suitably impressed by football’s uniting power in Swain County since moving here about two-and-a-half years ago. Things were different in her previous hometown, the big city of Raleigh.

“It was hard to have that same concentration of attention there,” Cutler said. “But here, there’s an outpouring of support from the community.”

 

What else but football?

Down the road, at a new consignment shop in a new small strip mall along the river, local lawyer Elizabeth Brigham was overseeing sales. Brigham helped open the store, and agreed to cover business there on this day. She jokes about this being a “one-stop shop” where Swain County’s finest can take care of both their legal and shopping needs.

How important does she believe football is to the people of Swain County?

“Is there anything else here but football?” Brigham responds rhetorically.

Well, yes there is, of course. But not today, game day, with the team headed toward a possible eighth state championship.

Brigham’s boys didn’t play on the team, though one played a bit of league football, she said. That doesn’t prevent her from appreciating what the game does overall for this community.

“It brings the people here together,” Brigham said. “You can be of a different political mind, a different religious mind, but one thing unifies everybody in Swain County: football.”

 

Listen to the game

Swain County’s bid for its eighth state football championship takes place Saturday, Dec. 3, in Winston-Salem. A web broadcast will begin at 10:45 a.m. The pre-game show and kickoff is scheduled for 11 a.m. Listen to this live audio stream by going to www.ustream.tv and typing “maroon devils network” in the search box.

School official will use lottery proceeds to install artifical turf at the Pisgah and Tuscola high school stadiums, it was announced at a county commissioners meeting on Jan. 7.

Page 3 of 3
Go to top