First-year Western Carolina coach facing long odds
HUNTINGTON - Mark Speir helped coach Appalachian State over Michigan in one of the miracle upsets of college football, but he might have an even more daunting task in front of him.
As a former assistant at Western Carolina in the 1990s and a coach at rival Appalachian for much of the last decade, he understands the degree of difficulty in his first year as WCU's main man. He watched from a not-so-distant vantage point as the Catamounts won 11 games over the last six years.
And he knows what he's getting into as he brings his team to Marshall (0-1) this weekend. Kickoff is at 7 p.m. Saturday at Joan C. Edwards Stadium, with the game airing on Fox College Sports Atlantic.
A Clemson alumnus, Speir's first full-time coaching job was at Western under Steve Hodgin from 1991-96. Those were Marshall's final six seasons in Division I-AA and the Southern Conference, where the Herd would face the Catamounts.
"We had some great games with them in the early '90s," he recalled. "We beat them in 1992 when they were No. 2 in the country, down here in Cullowhee [N.C.], which was a big win. We went to triple overtime in 1991 at Marshall.
"I know our last game we played against them, we didn't fare so well [a 56-21 loss]. They had a guy by the name of Randy Moss that had a pretty big night against us in those Dr. Seuss socks, I do remember that. But it's a great place to go play college football, because they're a good football team and are well coached, good players and good fan base."
That Western team finished 4-7 that year. No coach would ever admit it publicly, but Speir probably would love to see four wins this season. It would represent progress.
Now much? The Catamounts (1-0) are riding a 14-game Southern Conference losing streak, and have lost 16 straight to Division I FCS opponents. They haven't beaten Appalachian in the Battle for the Old Mountain Jug since 1998.
As coach of four different position groups and recruiting coordinator at Appalachian, Speir helped inflict nine of those floggings - the 2007 score was 79-35. Since 2000, Western has won 13 road games.
Seeing such carnage up close, why did Speir choose to take his first head coaching job in Cullowhee?
"It was an opportunity for our staff to come to an excellent university with a new chancellor, new athletic director and have an opportunity to come in and try to create change, turn this program around," he said. "Our staff is very excited about coming to Western and doing that.
"With great challenges come great rewards, and that's what we're looking for."
Speir's accomplishments at Appalachian cannot be disputed. He helped lead the Mountaineers to three straight I-AA/FCS championships (2005-07) and was named the FCS assistant coach of the year by the American Football Coaches of America.
As powerful as the Mountaineers are in the FCS, they are best known for engineering that 34-32 upset of Michigan on Sept. 1, 2007. The Wolverines were ranked fifth at the time, and the setback may have accelerated the end of the Lloyd Carr era at Michigan.
Now Speir will try to lead the Catamounts to their first-ever win over a Division I-A/FBS program. Or to get them in the same area code, which hasn't been done since a 7-3 loss at Cincinnati in 2005.
"Coach [Jerry] Moore called that game an opportunity game," Speir said of Appalachian's win at Michigan. "That's what it is for us, it's an opportunity for us to go up and play a tremendous opponent in a hostile environment, and see how far the program has come."
Western has doubters for now, but there's no expressed doubt about this: If anybody can lift this program back to the standards of the Bob Waters era (1969-88), it is Speir.
"Mark was a key member of our staff and big part of the success that we enjoyed as a program over the last nine years," Moore said. "Besides being a good coach, he is a good man and he will be a positive influence for Western Carolina's program on and off the field.
"I don't think of it as a challenge; I think of it as an opportunity and I fully expect Mark and his staff to make the most of the opportunity at Western Carolina."
One Marshall assistant, centers/guards coach Geep Wade, has seen the contrast between Speir's current and former teams up close. Wade played at Tennessee-Chattanooga from 1999-2001, coached there in 2002 and again from 2010-11. He took a job at Western in 2005, but accepted an offer at Midwestern State in Texas just before that season.
"They're bringing somebody back that's a Western guy," Wade said of Speir. "He knows that recruiting in North Carolina is important. In the past they've kind of brought guys in from different parts that aren't Western guys. That's a tight-knit community, and it means a lot more.
"He's got a special investment in the program, so I know he'll do a great job."
"He knows the terrain a little bit," Speir said
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.