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Follow us at  Become a fan at the Facebook Page State of North Carolina columnist Stephen Cheek looks at the Southern Conference football in the state.

By Stephen Cheek, aka SoPines Heel State of North Carolina Columnist State of North Carolina columnist Stephen Cheek looks at the Southern Conference football in the state.


Old North State Pigskin is a blog focused on the North Carolina schools in the ACC and Southern Conference.  It is written from a fan perspective, nothing more, nothing less. I am not a current or former coach, administrator or player of any university. I am not a professional journalist. While I am an alumnus of the University of North Carolina, I am also the son of a lifelong Duke football fan (believe it or not,) the son-in-law of an NC State alum, a great admirer of the Wake Forest program and I grew up following the Southern Conference. I just make observations as I see them…and have fun doing so. Comments, criticism, suggestions and corrections are all welcome at [email protected]. I hope you enjoy.


In North Carolina, the shadow of the ACC looms large.  But the ACC is not the only Division I conference with multiple members playing football in the state.  The Southern Conference is presently home to three football playing NC schools: Appalachian State, Elon and Western Carolina.  At one time though, the Southern Conference was comprised of most of the schools of the ACC and the SEC.  This grand old organization has seen a lot of gridiron success over the decades, and has been described by some as “The SEC of 1-AA football.”  Having grown up in Charleston, SC I was fortunate enough to attend more than a few Southern Conference games at The Citadel.  I can attest that the passion and pagentry is enough to rival most any BCS school, albeit on a drastically reduced scale and with a fraction of the media attention.  As a result, it is high time to give some attention to the patriarch of southern football.  Best yet, it is the only place that fans in the state of North Carolina have seen any championship football in a long time.   

Formed on February 25, 1921 at a meeting in Atlanta, the Southern Conference is the fifth-oldest NCAA Division I collegiate athletic association.  Only the Big Ten (1896), the Missouri Valley (1907), the Pacific 10 (1915) and the Southwestern Athletic (1920) conferences are older.  The Southern Conference charter members were Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi State, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Tennessee, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Washington & Lee.  In 1922, Florida, Louisiana State, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tulane and Vanderbilt joined the fold.  By 1929, the University of the South, VMI and Duke had all joined.  The Southern Conference had grown into an unwieldy giant however, one that stretched from the Mississippi River in the west to north of Washington, D.C. in the east.  This at a time when interstate highways did not exist and air travel was in its infancy.  By 1932, the 13 schools south and west of the Appalachian mountains decided the travel costs were too much and broke away to form the Southeastern Conference.  To replace them, the Southern Conference invited The Citadel, William & Mary, Davidson, Furman, Richmond and Wake Forest to join.  The conference continued on in this configuration for another 15 years.  As the 1950s dawned though, there was a dispute between the larger schools and conference leadership about the ability to attend bowl games and a general desire to de-emphasize certain influences that were creeping into collegiate athletics.  In 1953 the dispute led to Clemson, Duke, Maryland, North Carolina, North Carolina State, South Carolina and Wake Forest officially withdrawing from the league to form the Atlantic Coast Conference.  Virginia would follow a year later.  While membership has changed several more times over the years, the SoCon currently has nine football playing members who compete in the Football Championship Subdivision of Division I: Appalachian St, the Citadel, Elon, Furman, Georgia Southern, Samford, Tennessee-Chattanooga, Western Carolina and Wofford.  Several more schools are members in other sports outside of football.  Now though, let’s take a look at the football playing schools located in North Carolina.

Certified by the NC legislature as Appalachian State Teachers College in 1929, App State has grown into a 14,600 student university that is riding a wave of unprecedented success under former Texas Tech Coach Jerry Moore.  How can one argue with three straight national championships and last year’s victory over Michigan in the Big House.  Like Wake Forest, App State is presently enjoying their glory years. This is not to say there hasn’t been some strong football played up in Boone in days past.  Former App coaches include Mack Brown, former South Carolina Head Coach Sparky Woods, Air Force head coach Fisher DeBerry, current Texas Tech defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeal and current Kansas State coach Ron Prince.  Linebacker Dexter Coakley is probably the most famous current NFL player to have worn the Appalachian uniform.  Others include former Chiefs LB Dino Hackett and Falcons RB John Settle.  The football program has steadily progressed from membership in the small school North State Conference from the 40s-60s before moving to the Carolinas conference until finally landing in the SoCon in 1972.  While always known as the Mountaineers, the school did not acquire the mountain man Yosef until school yearbook editors invented him in the mid 1940s.  Yosef and the Mountaineers presently play their home games on artificial turf at 17,000 seat Kidd Brewer Stadium.  Named after a former coach who had success in the days before the SoCon membership, the school somehow squeezes almost 25,000 fans in each home date.

Western Carolina was also founded as a four year teachers college and finally certified by the state legislature in 1929.  Located in Cullowhee, NC in the Smokey Mountains west of Asheville, the school boasts a student body of over 9,000.  Their mascot is a Catamount, which the school media guide describes as “any of various wildcats, such as a cougar or lynx.”  The sports teams have played under this moniker since 1933.  Former Nebraska assistant and new Head Coach Dennis Wagner has inherited a 1-11 team from last year, and will face a long rebuilding effort to get Western back to the upper echelon of the conference.  The greatest team in school history was their 1983 NCAA Div 1-AA runners up who finished with a record of 11-3-1.  Alumni include kicker Dean Biasucci, the all time leading scorer for the Indianapolis Colts, former Patriot David Patten, Current Carolina Panther FB Brad Hoover and Paul Johnson, new Georgia Tech head coach.  They play in 13,742 seat E.J. Whitmire Stadium and on Bob Waters field which is named after the coach that led the school most successfully, including a trip to the 1983 finals.  Western’s biggest rival is Appalachian State and the two schools play yearly for “The Old Mountain Jug.”  The rivalry was dubbed by Sports Illustrated in the mid-1980s as “the best football rivalry you’ve never heard of.”

The rivalry’s origins stem from the fact that Appalachian State and Western Carolina were the only public colleges in the western mountains of North Carolina for decades.  As time went by, the school’s growth into regional universities mirrored each other, they recruted the same players and their alumni worked together.  The schools first began meeting on the football field back in 1932 with App St winning the first 13 meetings and Appalachian holds a 53-18-1 record all time vs the Catamounts.  Prior to the 1978 match up, dialogue between the two school’s booster clubs lead to the creation of the “Old Mountain Jug” as a way to heighten the rivalry.  The jug, which weighs approximately 25 pounds, is capped with a traditional cork and is a replica of a container that might have used to transport homemade corn whiskey.  The jug is gold with the purple Catamount on one side and a black Mountaineer on the other side.  Excluding minor touchups, the trophy and its logos have not been altered since their creation.  The winner of the annual game retains possession of the jug until the next year’s match-up.  Appalachian State is presently in possession of the jug and has been so for 24 of the 30 years since its creation.

The other SoCon school in North Carolina, Elon, is a relatively new member of the conference.  Despite only joining in 2004, Elon actually has a much older school and football history than its mountain foes.  Founded in 1889 by members of the present day United Church of Christ, Elon has played football since 1909.  Elon has an all-time record of 454-380-18.  With a present student body of around 5,500 members, Elon is actually a bigger school than ACC member Wake Forest.  The school’s high point in football was when they won back to back NAIA championships in 1980 and 81.  Teams at Elon are known as the Phoenix and the school currently plays in 11,500 seat Dusty Rhodes stadium (not named after the wrestler, despite the authors wish that it were true!).  Sports alumni of Elon include Nascar Driver Ward Burton and Wes Durham, the voice of both the Atlanta Falcons and the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets.  Famous coaches include D.C. “Peahead” Walker who would become Wake Forest’s most successful coach and Red Wilson who would later coach at Duke.  Elon finished up 7-4 overall and 4-3 in the SoCon last year to prove that there is strong Southern Conference football being played outside of Northwestern NC.
This column was meant to give a feel for smaller college football in North Carolina.  If you have been reading this, then you are a football fan.  If you are football fan, you are missing out if you have never been to a Southern Conference game.  Take the time this fall and make a drive to see some FCS ball in the South.  They don’t get the attention, coverage or players that the BCS schools get.  They don’t get the bowl invitations or the #1 draft picks or the seven figure coaching contracts.  They do get the passion, history and pageantry that we all love on a fall Saturday though.  Best of all they decide their championship on the field.  After all, Daddies are always the wisest, aren’t they?



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Stories written by columnists are done independently.  Views do not always coincide with those of the remainder of the staff or the ownership of

BJ Bennett – B.J. Bennett is’s founder and publisher. He is the co-host of “Three & Out” with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the “Southern Pigskin Radio Network”. Email: [email protected] / Twitter: @BJBennettSports

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