This article was co-published with Business North Carolina magazine.
When Appalachian State’s football team went to College Station, Texas, and beat Texas A&M in September, college football fans, analysts, and bettors were shocked. A&M was ranked sixth in the nation, and App State was a much smaller school in a lower conference. A&M was favored to win by 17 points.
It was a big story for a few days, recalling the even more shocking upset of Michigan in 2007, when App State was in an even less prestigious conference. Making the story even more compelling was that A&M paid App State $1.5 million to entice them to show up; instead of getting an easy win, they paid to lose on their home field.
The sports world moved on. But I was curious. I am a business journalist. Usually, companies with deep pockets win against competitors with fewer resources, unless those competitors have figured something out.
Answering the question of what App State has figured out turns out to be important for much of college football, for these are turbulent times. The richest programs are growing richer with new TV money, threatening to relegate the rest to a sideshow.
College football has been dominated by what’s called the Power Five conferences: the Southeastern Conference (SEC), of which Texas A&M is a member; the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC); the Big Ten; the Pac-12; and the Big 12. (App State is in the Sun Belt Conference, one of the five other athletic conferences that play in college football’s top division.)
In the last 18 months, the tectonic plates of the Power Five have shifted, and the aftershocks have rippled everywhere, especially in North Carolina.
In July 2021, the University of Oklahoma and the University of Texas, two of the nation’s wealthiest athletics programs, announced they were leaving the Big 12 to join the SEC. This past summer, UCLA and Southern Cal, two West Coast powerhouses, announced they were leaving the Pac-12 to join the Big Ten.
In August, the Big Ten signed a new set of television contracts worth more than $1 billion a year. The SEC already had a deal with ESPN worth an estimated $3 billion for 10 years. That will likely get bigger with the addition of Oklahoma and Texas.
The Big Ten and SEC were already taking in hundreds of millions more—primarily from football—than the other three Power Five conferences, and distributing more to their members. The gap will get larger. That means the SEC and the Big Ten will have more cash for coaching salaries and swanky facilities for top recruits. Conferences like the ACC will struggle to keep up.
And that raises the stakes for ACC schools that have national aspirations in football. Can they remain relevant, or do they have to jump to the SEC or Big Ten?
If Clemson, Florida State, or Miami go to the SEC and North Carolina joins the Big Ten, the ACC could be devastated.
This is a dicey time to be an athletics director at UNC-Chapel Hill, North Carolina State, Duke, or Wake Forest, or at any major program that isn’t part of the SEC or Big Ten.
Fans and deep-pocketed boosters expect these football teams to compete for ACC championships, and sometimes be Top 25 or even Top 10 programs. Some ACC programs, like Clemson, are expected to compete for national championships. How do athletic directors say, “Sorry, we don’t have the money to keep up with Alabama”?
A Resort at Texas A&M
But it may not be all about the money.
When App State played Texas A&M, it was playing a much better-funded football program on a much larger campus, with more than 68,000 students to App State’s 20,400. Texas A&M spent $36.6 million on football in the year that ended August 2021, according to federal Department of Education athletic spending and revenue reports. App State spent $8.5 million.
The difference is partly coaching salaries. Jimbo Fisher, the Texas A&M coach, makes around $9 million a year, the sixth-highest-paid football coach (and $2 million behind his mentor and nemesis Nick Saban of Alabama).
Shawn Clark, App State’s head coach, makes around $900,000, plus some incentives, according to the USA Today coaching salary database—pretty good for the Sun Belt.
As of 2021, the assistant coaches at Texas A&M made five times their App State counterparts in total salary, $7.6 million versus around $1.5 million. The App State assistant-coach salaries ranged from around $100,000 to $300,000; the Texas A&M assistants made from around $375,000 to $2.1 million.
App State fans on game day, Nov. 19. (Mike Belleme for The Assembly)
So App State is more frugal in coaching salaries. It hires less pricey assistants who are on the way up, and other coaches who want the Boone lifestyle.
It also keeps a rein on game-day spending—what it takes to get their players suited up, transported, housed, and fed for games. Texas A&M was spending $4.7 million annually, compared with App State’s $1.4 million.
Facilities also matter because they can drive up operating expenses. Based upon what I could see from photos and video on the football program’s web pages, App State has decent but not ornate athletic facilities that look like normal locker rooms and weight rooms—what you would see at a well-equipped fitness center.
Texas A&M’s facilities look like a resort. Players have a spacious lounge filled with TVs and video game consoles. There’s a barber shop. A snack bar. A high-tech weight room with dumbbells stamped with a map of Texas. An indoor field with artificial turf to practice lateral movement. A studio for the SEC Network. A studio for photo shoots of recruits. A movie theater. A sneaker display room. Club Aggie doesn’t run itself—all this has to be staffed.
The crowd during a home game at the Kidd Brewer Stadium in Boone. App State beat the Old Dominion Monarchs 27-14. (Mike Belleme for The Assembly)
And then there is Kyle Field, which can hold over 100,000 for big games and boasts one of the largest video displays in Texas.
App State has Kidd Brewer Stadium, which seats 30,000, but can squeeze more on the grass. In September, a crowd of more than 40,000 saw App State lose to UNC, 63-61. (Yes, App State almost beat ACC and SEC teams on successive weekends. UNC-CH spent $30 million on football, according to the latest filing, roughly 3.5 times App State’s football budget.)
Duke University economist Charles Clotfelter wrote a book about big-time college sports. When we talked about the spending differences between Texas A&M and App State, he described the budget-allocation rule that he teaches his students.
The rule suggests that athletic departments should evaluate each category of spending based on what they get from it, not because competing programs spend a certain way.
Crazy Work Ethic
Since it graduated from what used to be called Division I-AA to Division I-A in 2014, App State has been successful in the Sun Belt and beyond. From 2015 to 2021, it went 73-19, with six bowl wins and four Sun Belt titles, making App State the winningest I-A program in North Carolina during those years.
In 2019, App State went 13-1, beat UNC and South Carolina (in Chapel Hill and Columbia, to boot) and finished 19th in the Associated Press poll. Despite the win against Texas A&M and the near-miss against UNC, this season has been middling (App State has six wins and five losses), although that’s deceptive.
The losses have all been close. App State is in a tough conference, with scrappy rivals that get up for the program that beats the big boys.
You run into two narratives about how App State punches above its weight, both of which are true.
The first has to do with culture and tradition, and started with retired Coach Jerry Moore. The App State program is still running on the template he created from 1989 to 2012, with speed, resiliency, and conditioning.
He won 215 games in Boone and three national championships in the Football Championship Subdivision (previously called I-AA), which is the level below where it now plays. There’s a statue of Moore at the stadium.
Conditioning also shouldn’t be overlooked. It doesn’t cost any more to have a team that’s going strong in the fourth quarter. What it takes is a very determined coaching staff and players willing to put in the work because they have large, collective chips on their shoulders about Power Five recruiters.
“I’ve been to enough practices,” said Tommy Bowman, who covered App State for the Winston-Salem Journal during the Moore era. “There were very few, if any, teams that worked any harder than they did. Their work ethic was crazy.”
The classic example of this remains the Wake Forest game in late August heat 22 years ago. The Wake Forest players were exhausted. App State wore them down, winning 20-16 with a substitute quarterback.
The game ball went to the strength and conditioning coach. “There was only one team cramping up at the end, in the fourth quarter, and it wasn’t App State,” said Bowman.
The other narrative is more of a Moneyball explanation. You might recall the Michael Lewis book and the movie about the Oakland Athletics, and how general manager Billy Beane and his number-crunching assistant figured out how to sign undervalued players by focusing on attributes that mattered, as opposed to how players looked. That is how App State has always recruited players.
“Five-star recruits don’t say, ‘I’m going to go to App State over Alabama because I like the mountains,’” said David Jackson, the former associate athletics director and play-by-play announcer who called the Michigan game.
“What schools like App must do is prioritize the diamond in the rough,” said Jackson, now the president and CEO of the Boone Area Chamber of Commerce.
This can mean different things. It often gets simplified to a high-school center who would be on the Power Five radar if he were two inches taller or 30 pounds heavier.
But it is more complicated than that. It can be situational. Power Five schools go certain places and don’t go other places, like corporations that only recruit at elite universities. They also like finished products, rather than projects.
The upside is that prospects who aren’t being pursued by Power Five schools tend to be less concerned about player lounges and the quality of game hotels. Sustaining them is cheaper because they just want to play ball.
And because they just want a shot, they’re more likely to be flexible. When Moore was recruiting Armanti Edwards, one of the heroes of the Michigan game, he wasn’t a lock to play quarterback.
“When we recruited Armanti, we were recruiting CoCo Hillary at the same time,” Moore, now 83, said. “We told both players we don’t know if you’re going to be a receiver, we don’t know if you’re going to be a defensive back, or if you’re going to be a quarterback. But we want you to come to school at Appalachian State.
“They were both good runners, but we thought Armanti was the better thrower. And it worked out. Hillary was one of the best receivers we had.”
Edwards passed for three touchdowns against Michigan and ran for another. Hillary, playing in his first college game, returned seven kicks for 151 yards and caught four passes for 63 yards. The last one set up the winning field goal.
Another hero of the Michigan game was receiver Brian Quick, who blocked one of Michigan’s field goal attempts in the final minutes. He didn’t get much attention from recruiters because he was a basketball player in high school who decided to try football in his senior year. He played seven seasons in the NFL.
Perhaps the most well-known find in the bargain bin was Dexter Coakley, a defensive star in the 1990s who built himself through the strength and conditioning program into an NFL prospect, despite being 5’10”. He went to the Pro Bowl three times.
“Coakley wouldn’t open his mouth in practice,” said Moore. “He just worked and worked and worked.”
Another find was Jalen Virgil, a receiver who played for a Georgia high school team that ran a lot, so his statistics weren’t impressive. But recruiters who paid attention to him would have noticed that he had scorching speed.
He became one of the best kick-returners in the country at App State, bringing one back 100 yards at Miami in 2021. He went undrafted but was signed as a free agent by the Denver Broncos last April, and made the team. His first NFL catch was a 66-yard touchdown thrown earlier this month by Denver Broncos (and former N.C. State) quarterback Russell Wilson.
In the spirit of Moneyball, analytics in the NFL have also played to the advantage of the App States of college football. NFL teams, perhaps suspecting that Power Five recruiting may be imprecise, are using tools to project how lower-conference players might perform in the league.
Economist Alexandre Olbrecht of Ramapo College in New Jersey, whose research includes sports economics, operates one of these models to forecast quarterback performance.
“The pedigree of what college you graduate from is not as important now to be drafted,” he said. “If you want a real good feel for the NFL and what they think of analytics, look at some of the quarterbacks who have been drafted highly.”
For example, San Francisco drafted Trey Lance of North Dakota State in the first round last year. So not only can App State make the pitch to recruits that they will play, instead of being buried in a Power Five depth chart for four years, but also that the NFL can see them.
Chick-fil-A and Gatorade
I wanted to know more about how a frugal program like App State operates. Charlie Cobb, now athletic director at Georgia State, told me the story of when he first came from N.C. State to be the athletic director in Boone in 2005.
The team buses were headed to a game at Eastern Kentucky. They pulled off the interstate at a rest stop to eat lunch, and pulled coolers out with Chick-fil-A and Gatorades.
“If N.C. State had went on the road, and we were playing [Kentucky], we’d have left RDU, we’d have had three catered meals and flown 35, 40 minutes to get to Lexington to get to go stay at a hotel and ate again,” he said.
That was 17 years ago, but the culture endures. “We talk all the time, ‘Spend it like it’s yours,’” said Doug Gillin, the current App State athletic director.
He needed to upgrade the nutrition program, which was going to cost $100,000 to $150,000. And so they did it through a golf tournament.
“We do a real nice dinner with a nice silent auction, and candidly, that’s how we raised the money to increase our nutrition spend,” Gillin said. Because the program didn’t have the money lying around. Selling more game tickets or hot dogs wasn’t an option.
I talked to Sarah Holder, who is App State’s assistant athletics director for business, which means she knows what it costs to feed a football team and transport the players and their equipment.
A 2006 App State alum, she spent eight years as an accountant in Boone before joining the university controller’s office and then moved over to the athletic department. Every month she holds budget meetings with the department’s programs.
“We’re a public institution,” she said. “We very much have our fingers closely on all our spending.”
The federal reports I’d looked at were her work. Her name was on it. She was putting the finishing touches on the new one before sending it in.
You must go to conferences where spending is discussed among athletic administrators, I said. Surely, there must be ideas kicked around on how to control spending. Do you ever get calls asking how you keep your costs down?
“No,” she replied. “Which is surprising….If someone’s successful at something, you kind of want to know what they’re doing. But I have not gotten any of those phone calls.”
Dan Barkin, former managing editor of The News & Observer, writes for Business North Carolina magazine.