In which we take a more traditional look at a team’s history.
Western Carolina will visit Georgia Tech for the sixth time today, the first meeting between the two teams since 2011. With this being their first meeting in the history of this feature on the site, we’ll be taking a more traditional look at the complete history of our opponents today, given that most may be unfamiliar with it.
We return this week to the historical lens with a team that is new to the historic team spotlight. Unlike many of the opponents on our schedule this year, Western Carolina is not, dare I say, all that regular of a feature on the Tech schedule, though certainly not a completely unfamiliar face, either. We will dive into that, as well as their history in general, as much as the access to information gap between FCS and FBS programs will allow.
Fortunately, this week, my database of digitizing the results, location, attendance, and season scenario of every historic Tech game is complete, so there will at the very least be one new figure included in this week’s edition.
Western Carolina University as a whole, interestingly, is roughly the same age as Georgia Tech, having been founded in 1889. More radically different from Tech’s roots as a trade-centric mechanical engineering one-stop shop, WCU’s origins as an academy high school, named Cullowhee Academy after the town in which it is located, are quite interesting, given that it is certainly a fully-fledged university today.
It didn’t take long for the Cullowhee Academy to evolve, though, as the vision for the school was not only to educate the people of the western part of the state, but also to secure state support for the training of teachers. Those efforts were not in vain, and in 1893, the state legislature made the school the first state-supported normal — the era-specific name for teacher training — school. By the middle of the next decade, the school was absorbed by the state government, and briefly held a few names before transitioning completely to the post-secondary level and settling on the Western Carolina Teachers College. While the school is an integral part of the UNC system today after evolving past the teachers college focus and into a modern university by about 1970, this critical name change in 1929 is likely what can be considered the start of the modern era of the university, as well as where sports, particularly football, come into the picture.
The Western Carolina football team First competed in 1931, led by C.C. Poindexter, the man who essentially served as their John Heisman-lite figure. Much like Tech’s first athletics-related employee, he would go on to coach a bevy of sports and also lead the department as a whole. On the gridiron, neither he nor his two successors found much acclaim on the gridiron, winning just 20 games in eleven season for a .237 winning percentage. After taking a hiatus during the 1942-1944 seasons, the team returned with a short 1-3 1945 campaign. The next season, Tom Young was hired to coach the team, and his .418 winning percentage over ten seasons is tied with Bill Bleil (1997-2001) for third-best in team history. Young stands alone in second, though, when it comes to postseason accolades, as he coached one of the three Catamount teams to make a postseason appearance. His 1949 campaign resulted in an 8-2 showing and the only conference championship (North State Conference) that I can find reference to. Their Smokey Mountain Bowl loss to West Liberty State is the only traditional bowl they have ever made. Young did not make any coaching stops after Western Carolina, as he transitioned to take on the athletic director role on a full-time basis, but it is worth noting that he left the head coach position at North Carolina, his alma mater, where he lettered in two sports, for the team in Cullowhee.
Young’s replacement, Dan Robinson, had played under Young in his first four seasons as head coach, including the bowl game. Robinson only made one stop as a head coach, his alma mater, where he was able to one-up his erstwhile coach and mentor and current boss with a winning percentage of .435, second best in school history, and also owns the second most wins and second longest tenure of any football coach.
Interestingly, after having moved from the North State Conference to Conference Carolinas in the early 1960s, a great deal of transition piled up for the Catamounts all at once at the end of the decade. First, the school left their conference to become an NAIA and later Division II independent in 1967, followed by the retirement of Robinson after the 1968 season. Before the end of 1969, Young was out as athletic director, as well, signaling a completely fresh slate for the football team and department as a whole.
It would be the next man up, Bob Waters, who would preside over the best stretch of football in school history. After spending time in the NFL after graduating from Presbyterian by way of an earlier stint at a now-defunct Stetson program, Waters was an assistant at his alma mater before spending a year in Palo Alto working under John Ralston at Stanford. Waters’ success came quickly, going 9-1 in his first year and reaching the Division II playoffs by 1974, a first round loss to a top ranked Louisiana Tech team. 1976 would be the team’s first year in the Southern Conference, and they steadily moved up the football hierarchy, as well, with a successful 8-2-1 season in 1983 earning them a bid to the Division 1-AA (now FCS) playoffs, where they defeated Colgate, Holy Cross, and Furman — all historic football programs in their own right — before falling to Southern Illinois in the championship. The Catamounts’ 11 wins are their only double-digit win season to date.
Waters would pass away from ALS between the 1988 and 1989 seasons, having already stepped down as athletic director a few years prior. His 116 wins more than double the next closest coach, and his .550 winning percentage makes him the only coach in school history to have won more games than he lost.
Since the tragic passing of Waters, Western Carolina has had seven head football coaches. In that time, their highest win total is 7 games, which has occurred five times. In that span, their highest conference finish has been a second place tie, occurring in 1992 under the leadership of Steve Hodgin and in 2014 under Mark Spier.
Currently, the Catamounts are led by Kerwin Bell, who went 4-7 in his first year directing the program. His previous stops included successful stints at non-scholarship FCS Jacksonville and Division II Valdosta State.
The Jackets have hosted Western Carolina five times in the last four decades. Tech is undefeated in those five games, winning by an average margin of 22.6 points. As seen below in the included tables, Tech has historically had a fairly robust average attendance of 37,797 against Western Carolina, which includes a 42,000 fan showing in their most recent matchup in 2011, and a low of just 28,000 in 1989. That 1989 game was a 34-7 win in early November that would move Tech to 4-4 and be the first of four straight wins (WCU, Wake Forest, Boston College, the school in Athens — all at home) to close the season at 7-4 after a dismal 0-3 start. Tech’s unbeaten streak would eventually stretch sixteen games to the opener of the 1991 season, where they were defeated by Penn State at the Meadowlands in the opening game of their 1990 national championship defense.
By the 1994 matchup, things were much different on the Flats. After losing the opener to Arizona, Tech bounced back with a 45-26 win over WCU that would prove to be the last of Bill Lewis’ career at Tech, as well as overall. Tech would go winless the rest of the way, being outscored 274-126 and next winning the 1995 home opener against Furman, the first of George O’Leary’s many wins at Tech.
Most recently, Tech defeated Western Carolina 63-21 in 2011, as Paul Johnson demonstrated the grueling efficacy of his triple option offense against his own alma mater. That Tech team would go on to win six straight to open the season and rocketing to #13 in the country before a heartbreaking loss in Charlottesville sent them on a 2-5 stretch to close the season. Tech would peak at #12 in the polls the next week and would notch a win over #6 Clemson before falling to top 15 VPISU and Athens teams in the regular season and Utah in the Sun Bowl.
Interestingly, today’s matchup once again features a Western Carolina alumnus, Geoff Collins, at the head of a Tech team facing his alma mater. The Jackets look to maintain their unblemished record against the Catamounts and notch their first win of the season, while their opponents translate a strong opening performance against Charleston Southern under the lights on the Flats.
Saturday night, Georgia Tech and Western Carolina will face off in the sixth meeting between the two programs, and in the first game of the year at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Tune in here at From the Rumble Seat throughout the day for coverage via the gameday thread and the postgame recap, along with live updates via @FTRSBlog on Twitter.