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WCU lines up against the Crimson Tide, for good or ill

coverDown by six touchdowns to the University of Alabama at halftime, Western Carolina University head coach Mark Speir never gave up on his team.

“When you’re getting into an ugly ball game like that, our players didn’t quit playing; they kept fighting,” he said. “At halftime, we were going to play for 30 more minutes and see where our program is at in [its] infant stage.”

Heading down to Tuscaloosa for the Saturday match against the No. 4 nationally ranked Crimson Tide from the powerhouse Southeastern Conference, the Catamounts — who held a 1-9 season record (0-8 in the Southern Conference) coming into the meeting — knew they were outmatched.

But, the only thing that mattered was the experience of playing in a big time game, in front of an infamous crowd, in a legendary stadium.

“You can see what a championship team is really about, what they do here at Alabama with their weight room, and how their coaching staff crosses their ‘T’s’ and dots their ‘I’s’,” Speir said. “We can learn a lot here being a first-year program. If you want to be the best, you have to play them, and see them live and in color.”

Though WCU ultimately lost 49-0, the team is already taking note of its Alabama experience, in hopes of applying it to next season, building upon what is working, what needs to change, and how to properly combine the two sides into a formula for success.

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“They’re an excellent football team that we could not stop. We can take some positives away,” Speir said. “Our players played hard and kept fighting. I’m just proud of them now that our season is done.”


Coming down the mountain

Since 2001, WCU has terminated and bought out the coaching contracts of its previous three coaches, with the last being Dennis Wagner, who compiled a dismal 8-36 record at the helm. Not having a winning season since 2005 (when WCU went 5-4), Speir was brought in to turn the program around after years of uncompetitive football in Cullowhee.

A few days before the Cats left for Alabama, Speir was putting the finishing touches on his plan for the event. The previous week, the Crimson Tide had lost their first game of the season to Texas A&M in a heartbreaking upset. Dropping from the No. 1 spot in the national rankings, the team was still in contention for a national title but couldn’t afford to lose another.

Licking their wounds, ‘Bama was ready to make a statement with their next chance to take the field. With a similar offense to Texas A&M, Speir was keeping his fingers crossed they could hold on against such a powerful foe.

“There’s no magic, no pulling a rabbit out of a hat against Alabama,” he said. “There’s no great illusion of going out there doing what Texas A&M did, but we’re going to try and move it as good as they did, use some of the same things and take advantages of opportunities.”

Spending the last week focusing on fundamentals and getting his team prepared for a “David versus Goliath” scene, Speir looked at the opportunity for his up-and-coming program to play Alabama as one that would be bountiful, no matter the outcome.

“We’re going to go in there like any week, see the defense and run the plays as best we can. They’re going to attack you like anyone else would, and it boils down to players making good plays,” Spier said.

The Crimson Tide has 14 national titles, and the proof is in the pudding, which is motivation and determination for WCU moving forward.

“This is what it takes to become a champion, and we’re going to learn from it,” he said. “We’re going to show that we did some positive things against the best team in the country. We’re going to see what the very best is all about, in preparation and how they approach the ball game.”

Thinking about stepping onto the field at the Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Speir knew what he and his team would be up against. Still, as a coach, you prepare for one play at a time. It’s that attitude that led to one of the greatest upsets in sports history, the 2007 win by Appalachian State University against the nationally ranked University of Michigan in one of the wildest games ever in college football.

As it turns out, Speir was on the sideline that game as the defensive line coach for ASU. Speir wasn’t the only one with a career victory that day. Coincidentally, Alabama head coach Nick Saban recorded his first win that same day with the Crimson Tide as they opened the season with a 52-6 win over none other than WCU.

Besides the $475,000 paycheck WCU receives from Alabama for participating in the game, which goes to funding scholarships for athletes, the exposure of playing on a national stage makes it a win-win for the budding WCU football program.

“Everybody wants to know how Alabama will respond to a loss,” Speir said. “And everyone in the country is going to know WCU football on Saturday.”


Roll Tide

Rocketing down Interstate 20/59 South the evening before the big Saturday game, the Dixie sunset was red hot, exploding into an array of orange, pink and WCU purple hues, falling behind the low-lying hills and fields of southwestern Alabama. Those making the pilgrimage from Western North Carolina and surrounding areas had the notion, “red sky at night, sailor’s delight.” Maybe WCU could pull out a win. Could you imagine? Stranger things have happened.

Bellying up to the counter at the Alcove International Tavern in downtown Tuscaloosa, conversation was jovial, as expected for a Friday night. Crimson Tide fans were in full force, sporting their team’s gear in every facet possible. Baseball caps, collared shirts, beer coozies, socks and credit cards were plastered with the logo of Alabama’s finest.

When asked their thoughts on the game, a few locals immediately turn around.

“Oh, we’re going to beat Auburn,” one said, referring to the annual “Iron Bowl” match against rival Auburn University, which isn’t taking place for another two weeks.

Upon clarification — the question referred to tomorrow’s game against WCU — faces smirk and bar patrons shook their heads.

“Who?” a face down the counter laughed.

After explaining where exactly WCU is, who Mark Speir is and what the team is trying to become following a several rough years of losses amid trial and error, the Tuscaloosa crowd relented.

“I give them a lot of credit for coming down here. I mean, I wouldn’t want to be on the other side playing ‘Bama,” a voice popped up from the back of the room.


Game Day

Like a cavalry charging across the Great Plains, Alabama awoke Saturday morning ready to claim victory. Flags were hung proudly off the back of pickup trucks and minivans, waving furiously in the warm breeze heading to the stadium. Tailgates were pulled down, and grills fired up. It’s game day, and in Alabama, that means all eyes are on the Crimson Tide.

With a haphazard lollipop opening kickoff, WCU got off to a bad start immediately. Four minutes later, Alabama’s Eddie Lacy scored his first of three touchdowns for the day. Things didn’t fare much better from there. Like clockwork, every four minutes that disappeared from the game clock resulted in another seven points tacked up to the scoreboard for the home team.

Towards the end of the second quarter, with the score already 35-0, a small group of WCU fans, tucked away in the bottom northeast corner of the stands, remained optimistic. Pulling off his Catamount hat and scratching his head in frustration, Whittier resident Russell Jenkins (WCU Class of 1987) wouldn’t give up on his beloved team.

“I’m a little discouraged, but there’s always hope,” he said. “I like the way the program is going. [Speir] has some great credentials coming in, and I think he’s doing a great job. We’re going to come back in the second half. They’re going to make some changes and be OK.”

A few rows down, Kent Williams, whose son plays for WCU (No. 51, senior linebacker Rock Williams), also supports Speir and his crusade to bring glory back to Cullowhee.

“It’s been an incredible season,” he said. “The team is showing a lot of improvement. I think there’s a great future ahead with this coaching staff.”

Watching his son on the storied Alabama field, Williams was beaming with pride as his own maneuvered around a field that grows winners and only accepts a national championship as justification for a successful season.

“This is a life moment to play one of the top teams in the country. He’s going to do his best, and that’s what they’re going to do, have fun,” he said. “It’s the last game of his career, and he’s going to enjoy it. He’s had a great time at WCU, and they’ve been great to him.”

Cheering on his brother and standing next to his father, Luke Williams was all smiles, for WCU and for being part of a once-in-a-lifetime experience of seeing Alabama live.

“It’s great WCU gets to play against future pro-football players and against such a high quality team as Alabama,” he said. “It’s been a few rough years for Rock, but he wouldn’t trade it for the world. There are a lot of great people [on his team], and they’re real close knit.”

Also a parent of a WCU player (No. 37 freshman defensive back K.P. Hicks), Jill Hicks carefully watched the players, “praying that there are no injuries.”

“It’s pretty exciting. It’s an awesome day and great for the guys to be here,” she said. “All of the Alabama fans have been very considerate. This morning at our hotel, we were the only purple there, and everyone was kind.”

With a glimmer of hope, WCU was sniffing at the end zone for the first time that afternoon. There was a little more than a minute on the clock, and they had the ball. Quarterback Eddie Sullivan (No. 9) fumbled the play, however, resulting in Alabama defensive back Deion Belue charging down the field for a 57-yard touchdown to end the first half. It was a demoralizing finish to the first 30 minutes of play.

Taking a break at halftime on the stadium concourse, Alabama alumnus Scott Mcabbe (Class of 2011) knew his team is comfortably ahead. He felt they’ll start putting in their second and third string players for the latter half of the game. When asked if he knew where WCU is located, he paused momentarily.

“I have no idea,” he said. “I mean, I know it’s in one of the Carolinas, but that’s about it. I can’t imagine where they play compared to here. They’ve probably never seen a crowd like this. It’s got to be a culture shock.”

The second half didn’t fare much better. Late in the third quarter, Sullivan made a 15-yard gain. The Catamounts were finally within striking distance of putting their mark on the scoreboard. It was fourth down and inches, with WCU ready and rearing to make it into the “red zone.” The play commenced to no avail. The Crimson Tide iron curtain is triumphant again. The crowd, hovering around 101,000 attendees, roared, while the gigantic building rumbled with an electric fury. This is Alabama territory, and if you didn’t know before, then you do now.

The fourth quarter ticked away to a quiet close. Alabama overtook WCU 49-0. Regardless of the margin of victory, a win is a win when it comes to pursuing a national championship.


Warm up the bus

Alabama fans streamed out of the stadium like a spring flood breaking free from the plugged ice jams of winter. They gathered like bees to the hive around the statue of Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant (who won six national titles at Alabama) on the walkway heading out of the building for photos with their idol and savior.

In the north end media room, Alabama head coach Saban tipped his hat to the Catamounts. No matter the score, what it comes down to is respect and the desire to compete under the most unforgiving conditions college football can offer. With a ‘Bama win, and the eventual losses that night by No. 1 Kansas State and No. 2 Oregon, the Crimson Tide climbed to No. 2 in the national rankings, once again in the hunt for No. 15 in their trophy case.

“I think we went out there and tried to play to a standard and executed fairly well. There are always things that you can clean up, no question,” Saban said. “The Western Carolina guys played hard. They were a little bit outmanned. Our guys played the way we wanted to play.”

In the south end media room of the stadium, Speir gathered his thoughts on the day and took it in stride.

“They’re an excellent football team that we could not stop,” he said. “They are impressively strong. You watch film and both of their lines. Seeing them up front and live in person, I can say they are for real.”

Reflecting on his last game in a WCU jersey, Rock Williams was grateful for the chance to play in front of such a wild and raucous crowd, one that will forever be remembered by him, no matter where the journey of life takes him.

“It was an extraordinary opportunity to come out here and play in such a great stadium, against such talented players. It’s the best team I’ve obviously ever played against in my life, and it’s the best team I will ever play against,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity to see what you have when you’re playing against the best. I am just really happy to be here, and it was a lot of fun.”

And so, the end of the 2012 season marked the beginning of plans for 2013. Speir is wasting no time, with weight room workouts already scheduled for the following Monday. No matter the outcome of this year, hopes are high for the program finally gaining some traction in the Southern Conference. Regardless, Alabama was a special moment in the optimistically bright future for the Catamounts, at least as far as Speir is concerned.

“Like in life, nothing will always go the way you want,” he said. “You want to be the best, you have to play the best. If you want to get to that level in this program, it takes that commitment. This challenged them to go play and that showed me where the heart of this team is. They fought to the very end.”


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