Outside the window of his office, new Appalachian State head coach Shawn Clark spent the summer watching construction crews hard at work on stadium renovations. There’s fresh turf going in, and a new complex in the end zone that Clark promises will be the class of the Group of 5. He’s pretty sure it will even be a nicer setup than those at many Power Five schools. There are new dorms being built, too, and so even during an offseason dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, there’s been a buzz at App State.
It’s a good time to be “on the mountain,” local lingo for the school perched in the hills of Boone, North Carolina, and Clark would know. There has been a lot of winning in the past three decades, and Clark has been around for most of it — first as a player, then an assistant coach.
“We wanted an App State guy in that chair,” center Noah Hannon said. “I was very vocal about it on social media, vocal with the athletic director.”
In his early coaching days, Clark’s wife would fret over the long hours: Why was he doing this? His answer was always the same: “So one day, I can be head coach at Appalachian State.”
That day came last December. After a 13-win season in which App State beat both North Carolina and South Carolina and won a Sun Belt title, coach Eli Drinkwitz left for Missouri.
Clark got the job — and then the pandemic happened just a few months later.
And so in a summer filled with disappointment in the Big Ten and Pac-12, with massive budgets cuts in places such as Texas and Michigan, and with lingering uncertainty everywhere, App State and other Group of 5 schools have largely suffered outside the spotlight — with budgets busted, players panicked and games canceled.
In the span of a few weeks in August, App State lost all four of its nonconference opponents, including a $1.2 million payday to go to Wisconsin and a chance to best its rival from just down the road at Wake Forest.
“It sucks,” Mountaineers quarterback Zac Thomas said. “Being at App, we still have a lot to prove. At App, you’re not the team everyone talks about. You have to gain your respect. That respect will be missing this year.”
Part of the reason the Mountaineers are on the map is because of games such as their 34-32 win over Michigan in Ann Arbor in 2007 — which marked one of the most momentous upsets in college football history. Back then, App State was still an FCS program. In 2014, it moved up to FBS. A year later, it won a bowl game. The next season, it won the league. Just four years after its first FBS game, App State found itself in the AP Top 25, and last year, a three-point loss on a Thursday night to Georgia Southern was the only thing that kept the Mountaineers from an undefeated season.
And as 2020 was set to begin, Clark could peer out his office window, past the construction and out onto the horizon where App State had built its case as possibly the best team in the Group of 5 and a legitimate contender for a New Year’s Six Bowl.
IN THE AFTERMATH of the decisions by the Big Ten and Pac-12 to cancel their fall football seasons, a tongue-in-cheek prediction started making the rounds on social media — one that gained real traction among UCF fans, for example. Perhaps now that there were just three “power” leagues, a member of the Group of Five might actually have a shot at a playoff berth.
It could be a good question for Terry Mohajir, the athletic director at Arkansas State and the first representative from a Group of 5 school to serve on the playoff committee, but as is the standard for committee members, he is not offering much insight.
“They have a lot of talented and really smart people on the selection committee, and I really believe they’ll pick the best four teams,” Mohajir said.
The tricky part will be convincing anyone that a Group of 5 school is one of those four teams when all the good David vs. Goliath matchups have evaporated. The Big Ten and Pac-12 are out, and the SEC is playing league games only. The ACC and Big 12 will each play one game out of conference, but with reduced or nonexistent capacity for fans, there wasn’t much incentive to schedule a marquee matchup, so most have scheduled Group of 5 bottom-dwellers or FCS teams.
So long App State-Wisconsin, Temple-Miami, UCF-UNC and dozens of other opportunities to prove the little guys can hold their own on the big stage.
“Our guys were excited to go play at Wisconsin in a great environment, and Wake Forest is an hour-and-a-half down the road,” App State AD Doug Gillin said. “Our fan base was super excited. Things change, and we know that. For us, that probably added pressure to rebuild the schedule that our student-athletes would be excited to compete.”
Problem is there aren’t any games to be played in front of 100,000 screaming fans all rooting against you these days. What there might be, however, are more eyeballs at home suddenly interested in watching a Conference USA game because, well, there aren’t many good alternatives in this makeshift college football season.
Mohajir offers the Group of 5 a voice on the committee, but the reduced schedule of games could give the Group of Five an advantage in the court of public opinion, too.
“You can argue there’s more eyeballs on us than there ever has been,” said Memphis AD Laird Veatch. “There’s less competition out there than there ever has been. There’s opportunity that’s unique in some ways. But it depends how the season plays out, how many games can be played and so much that remains to be seen.”
If the landscape for 2020 still seems vague, there’s reason for pessimism further down the road, too. For as much as smaller schools have come to rely on the revenue of guarantee games from the Power 5, those games might start to look awfully pricy for big programs facing their own budget crunches. And while fans everywhere remember App State’s win at Michigan, it’s a moment Michigan fans would love to forget and a perfect reminder that there’s not much upside for the Power 5 in giving the little guys a chance to pull the upset.
So what happens if the 2020 model with more conference games among the Power 5 actually serves those leagues well?
“Our challenges are only exacerbated if the Power 5 decides to close ranks further after this season,” said Charlotte AD Mike Hill. “If they get a taste of 10 games or no nonconference, that makes it more difficult for us.”
NO ONE ESCAPED the problems created by the coronavirus, but as Group of 5 programs go, Charlotte is in a pretty good spot. The 49ers lost their big payday game against Tennessee, but Hill managed to find a replacement trip to nearby North Carolina, and a visit to Duke remains on the schedule. The chaos of the summer actually opened up a spot for App State, a rivalry game Hill and Gillin want to play every year, as soon as vacancies on their respective schedules allow for it. As for the budget, as enrollment numbers dip nationally, athletic departments reliant on university transfer funds and student fees are being hit hard. Charlotte’s budget requires less than most.
And still, Hill wakes up each morning and wonders what new problems await.
“It’s been nonstop adjustments,” he said. “It literally changes every day. You wake up and think you know what the world looks like and something changes again.”
Perhaps the silver lining in the Group of 5, if there is one, is ADs such as Hill are used to working on thin budgets and making tough choices. So far this offseason, that’s already translated into pay cuts, furloughs, scaled-back operating costs and, in the case of App State and others, cutting several sports.
So far, Hill has avoided the worst of it, but the future is murkier.
Charlotte’s budget took a hit when Tennessee canceled. In North Carolina, fans won’t be allowed in stadiums until at least Oct. 4, meaning Charlotte now has just three home games that might allow for spectators. That’s been a blow to donors and season tickets. Then there is testing, a routine that has only gotten more rigorous and, as the little guys try to hold to the same standards as the SEC, more expensive.
If test costs stay the same, Hill expects Charlotte could spend between $2 million and $3 million on testing alone during the 2020-21 school year just for athletes. That represents a sizable percentage of the department’s overall budget, even in a good year. There’s hope, he said, that the cost will go down as testing improves, but nothing is guaranteed.
At Memphis, Veatch will have fans in the stands — just not many of them. For now, the Tigers are looking at a cap of about 4,500 fans to allow for proper social distancing as required by the state, which means they’ll be lucky to simply break even on the costs of hosting a game. For Veatch, however, having people at games is bigger than the revenue. It’s about giving his fans and donors a game to enjoy.
Still, those attendance cuts hurt badly. While the SEC can continue to take in huge bundles of cash from TV deals, the AAC, Conference USA and Sun Belt get just a fraction of that return. Season tickets, single-game sales and donations from boosters all account for a bigger slice of the pie.
It’s not that the challenges facing the Group of Five vary wildly from those of the Power Five, but the scale is different and the potential fixes are a little scarcer. The biggest concern is that the power brokers among the Group of Five have never had much leverage in the bigger picture, and that’s been showcased in perfect clarity this summer.
“It’s pretty clear who’s driving the boat,” Hill said, “but we all knew that.”
So what does a year without full venues, payouts for road games against the big boys and a dip in donations and season-ticket sales mean for smaller schools?
“It’s really difficult,” Gillin said. “Even when this started, folks were talking about, ‘This isn’t a one-year deal. It’s three to five.’ We’re used to being proactive, but we’re in a reactive place day to day.”
EARLY THIS SUMMER, before the worst of the pandemic’s impact on the sport was known, Thomas took a moment to imagine the scene. He went to App State in 2017, and since then, he has shaken hands with more Ohio State fans than he can count thanks to the 2007 Michigan game. But what if next year or five years from now or 20 years from now, fans know 2020 App State because he helped the team to something even bigger? What if the Mountaineers played on New Year’s Day in a marquee bowl in front of thousands of fans, and what if they shocked the world again?
“Everyone that knows App State knows about Michigan, but we’ve set a standard,” Thomas said. “I think people still overlook us and talk all about Michigan, but when we graduate, people are going to remember us for what we’ve done.”
And yet, what’s the fun of being David if Goliath refuses to fight? He’s still the same hardened warrior, but without the scowling giant tumbling to the ground, the legend never takes root.
“It’s certainly different,” Gillin said. “You almost have to start over. That changes the season. But we’re trying to recoup, and our student-athletes want to compete. If we play 11 games and compete at a high level, that’s a success. But it’s so different this year, it’s hard to quantify success.”
Success in 2020 might simply about staying afloat.
Gillin said the economic fallout of the pandemic has forced tough decisions but has also showcased some more cost-effective ways to manage the budget moving forward — such as using Zoom for recruiting more and flying coaches to far-off cities for Friday night high school games less.
But the reality is: For the Group of 5, the future will largely be reactive — to the pandemic, to budget challenges, to the whims of the Power Five.
No one playing in the Group of 5 has ever had any illusions about their status. It’s just that, before 2020, there was always a dream that a bigger stage awaits.
That’s still the hope at App State, Hannon said, even if there’s no longer a clear path to that stage.
“In recruiting, we’re the guys who were maybe a couple inches shorter or a couple pounds lighter,” Hannon said. “To go prove to those people what they passed up on is why you come to App State.”