The Appalachian surprise

Artificial divisions hide the excellent work done on the second tier


Special to the Observer

I think Appalachian's astounding defeat of Michigan was in the stars.

The day before the game a colleague said to me he would be happy if we only lost by 20 points. I replied that maybe Michigan would come into the game with a cocky attitude and get surprised.

At a faculty gathering our chancellor told a story of how he recently had been grilled in public by an apparent Michigan fan. He was asked if he was prepared for defeat at the game. Chancellor Peacock had gently replied that Appalachian only prepares for victory, plays the game hard and deals with what happens.

Finally, Observer sports columnist Tom Sorensen took the supposedly safe path with a game-day column about how ASU's players might naively think they were going to pull off a victory in the Big House. How the Wolverines were a baker's two-dozen point favorite. And, how the following weekend Lenoir-Rhyne fans would believe they could beat us.

Physics major, football hero

I listened to the game on the radio as I caught up on chores and was amazed at what unfolded. When Corey Lynch blocked the field goal attempt and almost ran it back for a touchdown, I and most everyone else connected to Appalachian went nuts.Sports reporters nationwide suddenly had something to write about other than a bunch of cupcake teams being devoured by big-leaguers on exhibition weekend. Appalachian spilled out onto page 1A of lots of papers.

Well, we will see about Tom's forecast for the Lenoir-Rhyne game, but I think that most Southern Conference teams are quaking in their boots about playing us now. We just better remember not to get cocky ourselves.

One thing that has been barely mentioned is that Corey is majoring in physics, hardly an area of study you might expect for a typical jock. But such a subject of study is not out of line, since good student-athletes already have to work hard and manage their time to achieve their goals. A physics major is just another challenge. "BJ," a colleague in the chemistry department, says he has had good experiences with football playing students in his chemistry classes. Our coach, Jerry Moore, instills good work habits and ethics that go beyond the playing field.

Of course, I also hope working all those physics problems in combining force vectors has helped Corey in maneuvering down the field and deflecting balls and ball players!

But Corey is humble and would be the last to want to call attention to himself. He is a team player who is part of a great group. Our quarterback, Armanti Edwards, manages to scramble for running yardage when he can't find a receiver. The only NFL quarterback who stands out with this skill recently went to the dogs. Many other ASU players quietly play their positions well.

A fuzzy dividing line

Pundits immediately jumped on every explanation for why Michigan played so badly while ignoring the fact that Appalachian played very well. In fact, we made mistakes, including a dropped pass, an interception and a missed field goal that prevented a wider margin of victory. And Corey could not complete running the ball back all the way to the goal for a game-ending touchdown simply because he was worn out.

The fact is that if you divide up anything into two tiers, the best of the lower division is going to be competitive with many of those in the upper. Especially if you just proved yourself best two years in a row.

The dividing line is somewhat arbitrary, a fuzzy border slapped into a continuum of skill. This division-mentality even punishes the coaches when they recruit their players. Corey and many other players were passed over by big universities because they had amassed their records at small high schools.

It's true for academics too

This scenario is even a metaphor for the universities themselves. ASU is a second-tier school in the state -- a notch down from the flagship schools, UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State.

While the research campuses do and should get additional resources to meet their mandates, the up-and-coming schools like ASU and UNC Charlotte, which also regularly do great things and make the news, get short-shrift when it comes to support. Our schools are at or near the bottom in state funding per student.

Everyone can take lessons from this event and the danger of artificial boundaries -- coaches, players, recruiters and legislators. Check out what is happening at the lower divisions. You will likely be pleasantly surprised.

Don't check it out and you may get shocked

Other Charlotte Observer columns by Caton