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Leadership: Lesson from Appalachian State

I was there. In section 12, row 67 for the biggest upset in collegiate football history. A Division 1-AA school, Appalachian State, beat the No. 5 ranked team, Michigan, in the nation. One for the ages certainly, but also one to remember as a lesson in poise, confidence, and execution.

I was there. In section 12, row 67 for the biggest upset in collegiate football history. A Division 1-AA school, Appalachian State, beat the No. 5 ranked team, Michigan, in the nation. One for the ages certainly, but also one to remember as a lesson in poise, confidence, and execution.

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First off, let me put my cards on the table. I am a Michigan football season ticket holder. I am part of a three-generation family of Michigan graduates. And my wife works for the University. To say I bleed Maize and Blue is an understatement. All this summer I moaned to all who would listen that it was “beneath” Michigan to play a Division 1-AA football team. I was wrong.

Appalachian State came into the vaunted Big House, so called because it seats more fans than any other football stadium, with a mission in mind: to shock the world. They came not to play, but to beat them. And they did. Straight up 34-32. Shock indeed. For days afterward, their upset made headlines in all the media, even the New York Times carried a front page story on the game on Monday – two days later.

Appalachian State hails from Boone, North Carolina, right in the heart of well Appalachia. Their mascot is Yusef, a bearded mountaineer. Total student body is 15,000 or so, and the town isn’t much bigger. Their stadium seats 14,000 but can fit in 20,000 if people sit in the end zones – on grass slopes, mind you. Last year the team played in front of a total of 290,000 fans, or what Michigan players see in three home games. To call them underdogs is well an understatement. But for the players on the team, that’s nothing new.

Playing football in Division 1-AA means that someone told you that you were not (pick one) big enough, fast enough, smart enough or quick enough to play with the big boys in Division 1-A. You were an all-star in high school but your dreams of playing for a big-time college were not requited. At least two of the kids on the current team were offered scholarships by Division 1-A schools. As Jim Carty, a columnist for the Ann Arbor News commented, one player had his scholarship revoked because the school that recruited him, Mississippi State, “discovered” he was not 6’3 but only 5’ 11”. Another was offered a ride at Clemson at the last minute, but he said no. Appalachian State had put its trust in him and he was returning the sentiment. That kind of loyalty is endemic at this school and from what sports insiders say at other Division 1-AA schools. Kids in this division are grateful for their opportunities.

Appalachian State knows, as its coach Jerry Moore told the media, what it is like to play in big games. They are the two-time defending champions in Division I-AA. And so they realized that if they played their game, kept mistakes to a minimum, and executed their game plan, they would be competitive and might just win. Moore said later that he had only played 29 of his kids in the game. Not since the days of two-platoon football began (different teams for offense and defense) do you see so few players actually play. But when you have only 55 scholarships, it makes sense.

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Appalachian State was the better team last Saturday. If the pundits are correct, this victory will ring in the annals of App State football lore for generations. It seems certain that the players will remember it well in to their dotage. What I will remember, I hope, is not the loss, but the class that Appalachian State fans who were outnumbered by 90,000 or more showed before, during and after the game. No taunts. No jeers. Just plenty of lusty cheering for their team.

Michigan fans showed true class, too. Shocked as we were, fans in my section and in others I could see filed out quietly and calmly. Numb for the moment feeling as John F. Kennedy once said, “We are inclined that if we watch a football game or baseball game, we have taken part in it.”

I know I did. I was there.

Sources:
[Comments by Jim Carty were made on “Off the Field” WTKA hosted by John Bacon, Ann Arbor, MI on 9.02.07]

John Baldoni • Leadership Expert: Executive Coach/Author/Speaker • Baldoni Consulting, LLC • www.johnbaldoni.com

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