Inside Appalachian State’s meteoric rise from FCS to power player


BOONE, N.C. — These are good days to be in Boone, North Carolina. Evenings are cool but not cold, the days warm but not hot. The Blue Ridge Mountains aren’t blue at all. They are in peak autumn Technicolor, splattered with orange, red and even a little purple.

But during these finest days of the northwestern North Carolina calendar, the only colors that matter are the black and gold of Appalachian State. Because no one in college football is living a better stretch of days than the Mountaineers.

“Yes sir, this is fun time to come to work,” confesses first-year head coach Eliah Drinkwitz, sitting in his office at Kidd-Brewer Stadium on a Monday morning, the windows behind him framing up a painting-like view of the fall foliage and the playing field where his team will defend its 7-0 record and No. 20 ranking against rival Georgia Southern on Halloween night (8 PM ET, ESPNU). He is a first-year, first-time head coach. He has a staff packed with experience (see: defensive coordinator and former Duke head coach Ted Roof) and youthful exuberance (see: running backs coach Garrett Riley, little brother of Lincoln). Plus, he has a roster full of experienced players on all sorts of awards watch lists and NFL Draft boards (see: QB Zac Thomas and DE Demetrius Taylor).

Drinkwitz is well-spoken, well-prepared and well-caffeinated.

“There’s nothing better than when you’re having some success and you can feel the whole campus and the whole town experiencing that with you,” Drinkwitz says. “These folks around here, they know football and they love football and they have for a long time. There’s a lot of national attention starting to come our way. Those supporters and this team deserve that. Now it’s up to us to keep it going.”

The 36-year-old — the sixth-youngest FBS head coach in the nation — grins, takes a sip of Diet Mountain Dew (he really likes Diet Mountain Dew) and winks.

“It’s great to have a national sportswriter here today and a national TV crew coming in for Thursday night. It would be even greater to give y’all a bunch reasons to be up here all the time.”

There are going to be plenty of opportunities to produce those reasons over the coming weeks as the 2019 season hits the homestretch. App State is one of only nine remaining undefeated FBS teams and one of only two unbeaten squads from the Group of Five conferences, along with 15th-ranked SMU. They are riding a 13-game winning streak, the third-longest in FBS (Clemson 23, Ohio State 14) and the second-longest run in school history. They are bowl eligible for the fifth straight year — also their first five years at the FBS level. This is only the second time they have been ranked in the AP Top 25 and the first time they have been ranked in consecutive weeks, but they have received votes for that poll in 13 straight weeks.

The Mountaineers have already knocked off one Power Five opponent, winning at North Carolina in Week 2, and they will have a chance at another when they travel to South Carolina on November 9. All the while, whether they will admit or not, they will have one eye on the scoreboard, watching fellow ranked Group of Five schools SMU and Cincinnati from the American Athletic Conference, Boise State and San Diego State from the Mountain West, and the currently unranked combatants for the MAC and Conference USA titles.

Should Appalachian State continue on its current trajectory, finishing undefeated with a fourth straight Sun Belt title and remain nationally ranked, they will be in the fight for the biggest prize available to a non-Power Five program: a New Year’s Six invitation to play in the Cotton Bowl Classic pre-CFP semifinals appetizer on December 28. This is a program that has only played in four bowl games. Ever. Well okay, technically 13, but the first nine were played between 1937-1955 and those included trips to the Elks Bowl in Newberry, S.C. and something called the Doll and Toy Charity Game, so we’re sticking with the bowls of this century. That includes a pair of Camellia Bowl berths, the Dollar General Bowl and last year’s New Orleans Bowl, with wins in all four.

With all due respect to those fine postseason contests, it’s a helluva long jump from those games to the Cotton Bowl.

When presented with the significance of what could be, Drinkwitz shifts into full-on coach-speak mode. He totally knows it, too. “This day is this and that day is that. Our goal is to win the Sun Belt conference championship and a bowl game with integrity and academic excellence. And that’s all we’re trying to do. The only way to do that is be 1-0 this week.”

He reiterates he is not paying attention to any team but his own and the one he’s playing next. But then he also reiterates his familiarity with what had to be done. After winning a BCS title as an assistant at Auburn in 2010, he was on the staffs of Arkansas State and Boise State for two years each, from 2012-2015. He won three conference titles over the first three years, including Boise State’s New Years Six trip and a win over Arizona in the 2014 Fiesta Bowl. He learned at Arkansas State, working under Gus Malzahn and Brian Harsin, that getting to the New Year’s stage from the Sun Belt used to be a laughable goal. But that road seems a little more passable now that it runs through Boone.

“This is not going to be a popular take, but there’s a lot of teams in the conversation right now for the Group of Five New Year’s bowl game,” Drinkwitz says. “I know the criteria. You have to be the conference champion. It’s the highest-ranked Group of Five champion. So, half these teams are going to be eliminated in three weeks. At the end of the day, you have to be one those champions. So, whether or not we beat North Carolina or South Carolina or whoever, the championship matters first.”

It begins with Thursday’s showdown against the triple option-running Georgia Southern Eagles, a familiar foe and a longtime nail in the Mountaineers’ boots. Their rivalry goes back three decades, to the glory days of the Southern Conference. The period of the late 1980s through the early 2000s in that league might very well be the greatest era in the history of FCS (then I-AA) football. Those two powerhouses traded blows with the likes of Marshall and Furman, in a blur of championship rings and College Football Hall of Famers. But in 1997, Marshall defected to FBS. After winning consecutive FCS national titles in 1999-2000, Georgia Southern started investigating their own move to the higher ranks.

When Appalachian State went on their historic run of 2005-07, winning three straight FCS championships and stunning Michigan at the Big House, the idea of life at the next level started to gain serious traction. But it was not without heated debate, whether it be alumni dining at the Dan’l Boone Inn or the Board of Trustees.

As meteoric as App State’s rise has been, there has remained some pining for the I-AA days. The team’s well-traveled ticket-gobbling fan base (a big help when AD Doug Gillin goes shopping for future Power Five opponents) has made no secret of their desire to go somewhere other than Alabama during bowl season (their four bowl trips have included two Camellia Bowls in Montgomery and a Dollar General Bowl in Mobile) and to play some sexier opponents (Ohio, Middle Tennessee and two games vs. Toledo). When one hits the Boone city limits they are greeted by a sign commemorating those three FCS titles. When one hits the lobby of the football offices at Kidd-Brewer Stadium, they are greeted with the trophies that came with those titles. If you want to see the FBS era bowl and conference championship awards, they’re around the corner, in the case with all of the memorabilia from the Michigan win.

“It was a big leap and around here I believe it was a very emotional leap as well,” Gillin, App State’s athletic director since 2015, says of the FBS move that was made the year before his arrival. “This has always been a very proud fan base. And a fan base with a bit of chip on its shoulder, in a good way. So, when you have had so much success at the FCS level, winning national championships and selling out games and producing All-American and putting players into the NFL, there are going to be people who say, ‘Hey, life is pretty good right now. Why mess with this?’ But then there’s also that desire to do something bigger. If you really believe in what you’re doing, why not take that to the next level and see if you can accomplish what you think you can? Thankfully, they elected to do that. And here we are. With a real chance to take that next level step.”

When asked what that step might be, beyond 2019 and whatever postseason promised land it might deliver, Gillin simply smiles and assures anyone who want to know that, yes, absolutely there is a crystal ball he is staring into, but he’s not ready to share what he might see. In the meantime, he’s working the phones to schedule future Power Five — he calls them “P5” — opponents. Like Drinkwitz, he too has been there and done that when it comes to program-building. As a deputy AD, he was hugely instrumental in Missouri’s transition into the SEC, a quicker-than-expected success story that saw the Tigers win a pair of SEC East titles and nearly pull off an upset of Auburn in the 2013 SEC Championship.

When Missouri started playing the likes of Alabama and Tennessee, Gillin saw firsthand how far behind the Tigers were when it came to facilities and cash. But he also confesses it was fun being the scrappy underdog who crashed the fancy party. That’s why the App State experience now feels very familiar, and just as fun. In 2018, Appalachian State’s athletic budget was $37 million, just on the cusp of the top 80 NCAA programs. North Carolina’s was a shade over $102 million.

But on September 21 in Chapel Hill, the final score was App State 34, Tar Heels 31.

“To a lot of these folks, knocking off big brother down the road, that was bigger to them than the Michigan win.”

App State coach Eliah Drinkwitz

“I think as someone who didn’t grow up around here, I underestimated what that game would mean to our fan base,” admits Drinkwitz, a Norman, Oklahoma native. “But to a lot of these folks, knocking off big brother down the road, that was bigger to them than the Michigan win. I know that because it’s been more than a month and people are still coming up to me all the time thanking me for it.”

“Book big games and win big games,” Gillin explains, pointing to future contests with Wisconsin (2020), Miami (2021), Clemson (2024) and more matchups with North Carolina and South Carolina, scheduled all the way into 2027. “My selling points are pretty easy. We travel well. We sell a lot of tickets. And for teams trying to build a College Football Playoff résumé, hey, we’re a tough out. And for us, it’s a measuring stick of where we are as a program. We lost to Miami big here at home three years ago. Okay, we learned we weren’t there yet. We go to North Carolina this year and win, okay, we’re better now. It’s a climb. It takes steps. And we are making those steps.”

Spoken like a true Mountaineer.

“I know you don’t want a coach to sit here and say to you, ‘We have to take it one game at a time and things will take care of themselves,'” Drinkwitz says. “But it’s the truth. That’s how they have done things around here for a long time, before I got here and they will do it that way after I’m gone. I’d say it’s worked out pretty well so far.”

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