When athletics director Doug Gillin got to Appalachian State last year, one of his top priorities was finding a Power Five school willing to play in Boone, N.C., something that never happened when the school was a member of the Football Championship Subdivision.
A handful of months later he had a deal with one of the biggest name brands in college football.
Miami’s visit to Appalachian State on Saturday marks not only the biggest athletics event ever held on campus but also a significant scheduling victory for Gillin in an environment where major programs typically avoid home-and-home series with schools outside the Power Five.
And unless there’s a traditional geographic rivalry such as N.C. State-East Carolina or Ole Miss-Memphis, it’s quite unusual for a school in the so-called Group of Five to draw that kind of respect.
But scheduling is also hard for the Miamis of the world, which explains why Gillin was able to take advantage of a hole on the Hurricanes’ schedule and get a deal done relatively quickly.
“We started calling schools that were close in proximity, east of the Mississippi just to see if anybody would be interested in some type of arrangement,” Gillin said. “It just so happened Miami needed a game in (2016). We had an FCS opponent plugged in (for Saturday), and we weren’t even necessarily looking for 2016. But we knew Miami would be willing to play us and we moved the FCS game and got it all figured out.”
Gillin is expecting a crowd of 35,000-plus on Saturday filling temporary bleachers and a hillside general admission area. Enthusiasm for the program has surged in recent weeks not only because of the opponent but also Appalachian State’s performance on the opening night of the season in a 20-13 overtime loss at Tennessee. The Mountaineers, it would seem, have a legitimate chance to knock off one of college football’s historically elite programs.
The only downside, if it happens, is that it may make other Power Five schools skittish about going to Appalachian State, which made the move from FCS to FBS in 2014. Like Boise State and others have experienced, scheduling gets even harder when your program gets a reputation for being too good.
Wake Forest is coming to Boone next season, and Gillin said he’s had extensive conversations with two other Power Five schools who are interested in playing there. He might want to get those deals done quickly.
“We played really well at Tennessee, but we haven’t seen where people don’t want to schedule us yet,” Gillin said. ”This is a neat area for traveling fans to come. It’s a destination area, a resort area, and part of my sell to other folks is for our level, we travel as well as anybody. Part of my pitch is we’re going to bring fans to your place, and that resonates with some athletic directors knowing we traveled really well to Clemson last year, traveled really well to Tennessee. And our history in the FCS was we would fill it up in Chattanooga for playoff games so we’re somewhat different. There’s a lot of history and tradition here.”
Schools outside the Power Five often have to bend over backward or agree to two-for-one deals to get a big name in their house. One reason is money, as it’s more profitable for a Georgia to bring in Nicholls State for a payday, as it did last weekend, than give up the revenue of 80,000 tickets sold. Plus, every Power Five conference now has a scheduling requirement to play at least one other Power Five opponent in the non-conference as a way to boost strength of schedule metrics for the College Football Playoff.
It doesn’t leave many openings for an Appalachian State to take advantage of, but it’s refreshing to see a school like Miami take the risk. (Appalachian State will play at Miami in 2021.)
“It would be a huge boost (to win),” Gillin said. “We were close (at Tennessee). I was told we were the No. 1 trending brand in America that day. Everybody tuned in as the upset alert was going on so people who didn’t know about Appalachian do now and certainly being on ESPN, the first time the Sun Belt has been on ESPN on a Saturday, there’s a lot of great things going on and being successful would continue to enhance that.”
Copyright 2016 USA TODAY