Needless to say, there isn't exactly a ton of ink spilled on Western Carolina's football program. They're a struggling 1-AA school that teams like Alabama should not schedule. Regardless of that fact, they are the opponent for opening day and Nick Saban's first test at Alabama. Since most of the information available about the Catamounts comes from their own website, we decided to track down and talk to a local sportswriter that covers Western Carolina football. Keith Jarrett (no, not the pianist) of the Asheville Citizen Times was kind enough to take time out of his schedule to talk with us about this game, Nick Saban's paycheck, Western Carolina football in general and about covering lower division football as a writer. Here is a transcript of our brief discussion:
Roll Bama Roll: With 1-AA teams upsetting several 1-A teams last year (Montana State over Colorado, Portland State over New Mexico, etc), is there a feeling among these teams that they can compete with the 1-A schools or do they look at these match-ups as paycheck games?
Keith Jarrett: Certainly some of the better FCS (formerly I-AA) teams can compete with the lower echelon D-I teams; Southern Conference member Appalachian State, the two-time defending national champion, played N.C. State tough last season before losing 23-10. Another SoCon school, Furman, lost 45-42 at North Carolina last season. But for schools like Western Carolina that really struggle financially and on the field, playing Alabama and Georgia are important fundraisers. WCU is getting $375,000 from Alabama and $315,000 from Ga., and that's a significant portion of the athletic department budget.
RBR: What sort of following does Western Carolina have? Are the students/alumns/area residents sincere in their fandom or are they generally fans of the 1-A in state schools first?
KJ: The school has about 8,000 students and generally draws about 5-7,000 for home games. The fan base is not very big or enthusiastic because the program has not done well in the past 20-25 years. I would guess the majority of their fans are just as or more interested in Tennessee, Clemson or another ACC school, especially North Carolina.
RBR: Does your paper send a reporter to cover away games for Western Carolina or do they print wire reports?
KJ: We rarely cover road games; we use AP reports or beef up the AP story with quotes from the sports information office. We will not send anyone to Alabama or Georgia for budget reasons and because we expect those games to be routs. We do staff their home games.
RBR: Who are the key players Alabama fans should look out for?
KJ: Tailback Mike Malone is a conference champion sprinter who gained 162 yards in limited time as a reserve last season; he's also a pretty good kick returner.
Defensively, cornerback Carlton Bailey and linebacker Kadeem Morgan are potential all-conference type players.
RBR: I've seen tickets for this game being sold for $75 to $100 and even higher. Part of that is due to it being opening weekend and part of that is probably due to it being Nick Saban's first game as head coach of Alabama. What is your reaction to that and to Saban's four million dollar per year salary?
KJ: Living in this area all my life, which is much more into college basketball, it's pretty amazing that Alabama drew 92,000 fans for its spring game. It's interesting that Saban left Miami under such a cloud and took a beating from the media yet will be considered a god in Alabama if he can return the program to national prominence. When fans are that frenzied, I guess you can justify that kind of salary if he packs in 90,000 plus every home game and gets to a BCS bowl. I can't imagine what kind of pressure he will be under if he turns out to be another [Mike] Shula or Mike DuBose.
Saban certainly has the track record for success in college; I think college football is much more interesting when the traditional powers are good.
RBR: If there are any general comments you'd like to make about WC or the game in general, we would welcome those too.
KJ: There's a famous line a reporter at our paper wrote about 30 years ago about an expected rout - he set the betting line as "the temperature at game time."
Even factoring in the recent heat wave, that might be close to accurate for this one. Saban made his debut at LSU against WCU in 2000 and it was 58-0; I doubt this one will be that close.
WCU is coming off a 2-9 season and has lost nine in a row, and a schedule that begins at Alabama, at Eastern Kenytucky and at Georgia couldn't have come at a worst time.
We'd like to thank Keith again for his time and would like to point you all to a story in today's Asheville Citizen Times about tomorrow's game.