Since Oct. 9, 2010, Western Carolina University has played 33 football games against fellow Division I opponents. Thirty-three times since that date, Western Carolina been defeated by a fellow Division I team. The only wins the Catamounts have to show for themselves in the last three years are annual triumphs over Division II Mars Hill College. On Oct. 2, 2010, the Catamounts beat The Citadel in Charleston, S.C., 24-13. The win was Western Carolina’s second straight over the Bulldogs, as The Citadel was WCU’s lone conference win in 2009 as well.
In 2008, Western Carolina defeat the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, snapping a 20-game Southern Conference losing streak. Looking further and further back in history, a winning season is finally found: a 5-4 campaign in 2005. That year, the Catamounts only scheduled 10 games, and a road game at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La. was cancelled due to Hurricane Rita. In 2001, when the Catamounts went 7-4, was the last time Western Carolina had a winning season when playing more than 10 games. To put that in perspective, Elon University was still a member of the Big South Conference that season.
Western Carolina has been a member of the Southern Conference since 1976 and does not have a single SoCon football championship in those 37 seasons.
Why is Western Carolina so bad? A few reasons can be cited, including coaching stability, non-conference scheduling and living in Cullowhee, N.C.
The school has become a head coach carousel in recent years. From 1946 to 1988, the Catamounts only had three head coaches. In the 21st century, however, four different men have led Western Carolina’s football program. Bill Bleil, the current tight ends coach at Iowa State University, left Cullowhee after the 2001 campaign with a career record of 23-32 in five seasons. He was replaced by Western Carolina alumnus Kent Briggs, who compiled a 22-42 overall record with a 12-31 SoCon mark in six seasons. While 12 Southern Conference wins seemed like a disappointment at the time, it is 12 more than the Catamounts have had in the last three years. Briggs was “reassigned to the university’s health and physical education department” in 2007 following a game in which WCU surrendered 79 points to Appalachian State University.
From 2008-2011, the Catamounts were led by Dennis Wagner, now the offensive line coach at Liberty University. His four seasons in Cullowhee produced eight wins, with only three in conference play. The most recent hire, former Appalachian State assistant Mark Speir, has inherited the long losing streak that the Catamounts still ride today. Without a foundation in place from a long-term coach, the Catamount football program is suffering.
Another key to Division I Football Championship Subdivision success is a non-conference schedule that allows your team to win games. Western Carolina has scheduled Mars Hill annually in recent years, but the team has also played multiple Division I Football Bowl Subdivision teams per year. This year, Western Carolina has faced Middle Tennessee State University, Virginia Tech and Auburn University. A year ago, the Catamounts visited Marshall University and…gulp…the University of Alabama. Getting blown out to the tune of 62-3 or 49-0 twice per year does not build much team morale.
Lastly, Western Carolina is located in Cullowhee, a mountain town in the far western tip of North Carolina. At the 2010 census, the town had a population of 9,428. Cullowhee might have a university, but it doesn’t have a high school. Cullowhee High School closed in 1988, and high school students have had to go to travel to Sylva, N.C. to attend class ever since. Cullowhee is about two hours and 45 minutes from Atlanta, three hours from Charlotte and an hour from Asheville, N.C. The point in this information is that Cullowhee is not an attractive place to spend four years, especially if you don’t plan to win many games.
Western Carolina will certainly be motivated to try and end their streak on Saturday against Elon, knowing that the Catamounts were the Phoenix’s only SoCon win a year ago. Elon needs a win to get the season back on track, and there is a very good chance it comes on Saturday in Cullowhee — the college town with no high school in the middle of nowhere.