Eric Church isn’t the only person with a history in Boone to spend time on the North Carolina sidelines this season.
The country music star, Appalachian State graduate and Tar Heel fanatic is getting the most press ahead of Saturday's matchup between the two programs, but he’s just one of several folks with deep ties to both programs, starting all the way at the top with Coach Mack Brown.
Then the quarterbacks coach at LSU, Brown wanted to follow in the footsteps of his idols, Bill Battle and Steve Sloan, becoming a head coach before the age of 40.
Two options presented themselves, with East Tennessee State first interviewing Brown for its opening before he’d take the winding roads over the Blue Ridge Mountains and past Watauga Lake to visit App State.
“Jim Garner, who was the athletics director at that time, drove across the mountain to pick me up,” Brown said. “I stood out on the street corner and Jim picked me up and he drove me to Boone.”
A native of Cookeville, Tenn., Brown had spent his playing and coaching career in the Midwest and deep south.
“I couldn't believe when I pulled into Boone, it was night, but those mountains were so high and I'd never seen mountains that big,” he said. “The lights in the houses were way up there. And I said, ‘Jim, what is that?’ And he said, ‘That’s a house, they're that far up in the mountains.’”
The program had met occasional success in the past, but coming off two straight losing seasons under Mike Working, it was Brown who helped set the foundation for a program that would begin climbing the college football mountain under Sparky Woods — currently a senior adviser to Brown — before hall of famer Jerry Moore would take App State to the pinnacle.
Climbing the mountain
Several others that will be wearing Carolina Blue on Saturday had a hand in that climb and ultimate summiting of that mountain.
Offensive line coach Stacy Searels got his start in Boone, connecting with Moore when he came down to visit Auburn during an offseason and, quite frankly, Searels needed a job.
Little did he know at the time, he’d spend the first seven years of his career working with a legend in Moore.
“He’s a real man,” Searels said. “He treats people with respect, he gets the most out of his players and his coaches and he established a foundation that they have really built on over the years.”
Searels helped build — and protect — that foundation, too.
His offensive line featured a two-time All-America selection at guard, Shawn Clark, who blocked for a scrappy walk-on quarterback named Scott Satterfield, who led the Mountianeers to 41 wins from 2015-2018. Clark, who returned as offensive line coach in 2016, has helped put together one of the nation’s best rushing attacks.
Searels wasn’t there when the Mountaineers ultimately reached the peak, but current Carolina receivers coach Lonnie Galloway arrived in Boone in 2005, serving as receivers coach for all three of App State’s FCS national titles and the upset of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
“We had a great staff; we were fortunate enough to win three national championships and beat Michigan, so just a great time in my career to be at that place,” Galloway said.
Just as Searels pointed out, the real benefit was working under Moore.
“Just how he approached the day,” he said. “He treated everybody the same, gave us great leadership. It was good to be able to go to work; you enjoyed being able to go to work for Coach Moore.”
Since Brown and his wife, Sally, began building a dream home in 1997, at least part of his summer has been spent in those Appalachian Mountains.
To be honest, though, a part of him never left.
Before he ever coached a game at App State back in 1983, Brown recalls talking with Hugh Morton, the legendary photographer and developer of the Grandfather Mountain Resort.
“So, I was standing on his porch, there's a 40-acre trout lake there,” Brown said. “I was making $38,500 as the head coach at Appalachian State and hadn’t won a game, and I told Mr. Morton, 'If I make some money, I'm going to live on this lake.’”
Unfortunately for Brown, making enough money on that lake meant making a tough decision at the time, leaving App State after one season to go work as Barry Switzer’s offensive coordinator at Oklahoma.
“I was making $38,500 and Oklahoma offered me $125,000 to be the offensive coordinator and I thought, ‘Hmm, I probably should look at this,’” Brown said. “I really hated it because I loved Appalachian State and still live up there, and go up there every chance we get; just love the people in that community and the place and the fact that they gave me a chance.”
Ultimately, Brown was comfortable making the move because Woods could stick around and keep things moving.
“They could keep the same staff and it didn’t hurt the coaches because they could stay and Sparky was going to stay so that made it all work,” he said.
Needing a chance
A chance to be a head coach, that’s all Brown wanted.
Having been at App State, Brown understands what it means to give kids a chance and his coaches understand what it means when the Mountaineers get a chance.
The all-time leading rusher at Rockingham High School in Reidsville, John Settle was viewed as a fullback by the ACC programs that recruited him, but Brown gave him a shot in Boone
All Settle did was set App State’s all-time rushing record and play four years for the Atlanta Falcons, making the Pro Bowl in 1998.
“He wanted to be a tailback, so we were lucky. Appalachian gets a lot of great players like that,” Brown said. “Most of the guys have been turned down by us or State on that team, and they were mistakes, because they ended up being really good players and go to the NFL. They will play hard Saturday.”
Galloway was once one of those talented players, too, overlooked at Rockingham County High before becoming an all-conference quarterback and eventual member of the hall of fame at Western Carolina.
Having coached at App State in similar matchups, he knows the Mountaineers will come out with an edge that can’t be faked or built by any pregame speech.
“You know they’re going to come out and want to win — every game, but especially in this one — being in-state,” Galloway said. “A lot of those kids probably were Carolina fans growing up and not having an opportunity to play here, so they’ll want to come in here fired up and try to beat us.”
A long way from 1983
The App State football program that arrives at Kenan Stadium on Saturday will look a whole lot different from the one Brown inherited back in 1983.
The Michigan win and the national titles gave the Mountaineers a national brand, and the program’s success at the FBS level has only built it. In recent years, they’ve gone to Penn State and Tennessee and taken blueblood programs to overtime.
“When I got there we didn’t have dealer cars,” Brown said. “We were driving state cars that we had to check out, we had to teach class. They only allowed you to take 33 out-of-state players because it was too expensive for an out-of-state scholarship compared to an in-state scholarship. I think our equipment manager was a student. Our trainer was a student or really, really young. I think I was our SID when we got there, because I remember trying to put things together to have a media guide.”
It was hard for Brown to envision what App State football would become back when he was just 30-something, trying to find a way in coaching.
But whether he’s been at Carolina, Texas or Tulane, he’s always had his eye on what’s happening up on the mountain — which is one reason he knows the Tar Heels had better be at their best on Saturday.
“To see what that program has turned into, is just really, really rewarding for me,” he said, continuing with a smile. I used to tell Jerry Moore, who is a dear friend of mine, when he won the three national championships, ‘You know I started that. I am really the reason you won. It was just 20 years later or 15 whatever it was that my and Sparky (Woods) coaching kicked in.’ I am really, really proud of them. It will be a difficult game for us this weekend.”