Two new faces of Catamount athletics made a stop in Franklin last Wednesday as part of the Catamounts Unite Tour. Western Carolina University’s new Director of Athletics Randy Eaton and new Head football coach Mark Speir met with alumni and future catamounts to stir community support during a reception held at the Boiler Room.
Fred Goldsmith, former Franklin High School football coach and former NCAA coach of the year at Rice University, had the honor of introducing Eaton at the event. Goldsmith was placed on the WCU search committee, assembled late last year with the goal of finding a new athletic director. Goldsmith coached at Rice and Duke before taking over head coaching duties at Franklin High School, where he put together a 47-15 career record before stepping down in 2005.
“When narrowing down our list of potential candidates for WCU's next athletic director, one name kept popping back up,” said Goldsmith. “It didn't take long to decide, and Eaton was a unanimous choice.”
Before making the transition to Cullowhee, Eaton had been senior associate director of athletics at the University of Maryland and the athletics department’s chief financial officer since June 2008. He first joined the Terrapins’ athletics program in 2003 as associate director in charge of business operations. At Maryland, he was the No. 2 administrator in the athletics department and oversaw a $60 million annual operating budget. He served as interim director in 2010, and recently assumed additional responsibility for new revenues, facilities and operations.
Speaking to Franklin residents, Eaton noted that the decision to leave the Terrapins and become a Catamount was an easy one. “Big schools are not about the student athlete. They lose sight of what's important and only focus on the win” said Eaton. “The student athlete is the reason why I started working in the first place and all 433 student athletes at WCU are my kids and I want to do what is best for them.”
After serving in the U.S. Air Force, Eaton earned his bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Texas at San Antonio in 1990 and his master’s degree in sports administration from Ohio State in 1992.
Before joining the Terrapins in 2003, Eaton held positions at the University of Houston, Texas A&M University, East Tennessee State University, Ohio State University, the University of Texas at San Antonio, and with the Ohio Glory of World League Football.
Eaton’s strong skills in fiscal management and developing athletics program budgets will certainly prove to be beneficial for WCU during times of financial difficulties. With overwhelming energy and enthusiasm, Eaton addressed guests at the reception and gave cost saving details on how to bring WCU athletics to the forefront of college athletics. “One thing I want to focus on is how our kids are being transported to events,” said Eaton. “To cater to a tightening budget, our kids travel in small vans. They travel to Greensboro for three of four hours, get out and play hard for the Catamounts, then have to climb back in a little van to make the journey home. How do you think that makes other schools like Appalachian look at us?”
According to Eaton, he plans to work on getting safe and comfortable transportation for Catamount sports teams across the board as one of many steps he plans to take to put the student athletes first.
“No student athlete will ever leave WCU with a bad attitude about their experience again,” said Eaton. “We are making changes and its going to keep getting better and people are getting excited. My job is to take their excitement and turn it into passion for the programs.”
The first major responsibility of the new athletics director was the hiring of a new head football coach to replace Dennis Wagner, who resigned from the position November 13 after four years in the post.
Eaton said he came to Western ready to get to work right away on finding the Catamounts’ next football coach and that he came equipped with a list of potential candidates. “I did not just wake up one morning and have some big epiphany on who I thought would be right for the job,” said Eaton. “I had a list of people I thought might work and I had a list of traits I needed for the job.”
Eaton noted that first and foremost, he looked for the next football coach to have the same love and dedication to the student athlete that he had. Second, the next coach must have a desire to build relationships with local coaches and administrators in the region. Third, Eaton sought to find someone who has proven success at the Division-II level, and lastly, he wanted someone who could be a fit for the community.
After a series of interviews, and some advice from his wife, Eaton selected Mark Speir to take over the top spot as Western's next head football coach, making him the 13th head coach for the Catamounts since the program's inception.
Speir, who has spent much of his 21-year coaching career at the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) level, started his coaching career at Western Carolina under former Catamount head coach Steve Hodgin from 1991-96.
“When people asked why I wanted to coach the Catamounts, I just laughed and told them, well they fired me once already and I still want to come back, so I must have like it,” said Speir to an excited crowd last Wednesday night.
This fall, Speir–and most of his coaching staff–will be trading the black and gold they wore while working at Appalachian State University for purple and gold as they step in to lead the Catamounts. Speir spent the past nine seasons at Appalachian State, where he was a part of three-consecutive FCS National Championships from 2005-07, serving as the program’s recruiting coordinator since 2004, and most recently as coach for the inside linebackers. He has also coached the Mountaineers’ running backs (2003-04), defensive line (2005-08) and defensive ends (2009-10).
A native of Kannapolis, N.C., Speir broke into coaching while an undergraduate at Clemson University, working as a student assistant from 1986 through 1989, helping the Tigers to three Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) Championships during his four years. Following his graduation with a bachelor's degree in secondary education in 1990, Speir landed on Hodgin’s staff in Cullowhee, first working with the running backs from 1991- 93, then the linebackers in 1994 before coaching the defensive line and serving as the program’s recruiting coordinator from 1995- 96.
In 2009, Speir was tabbed as the NCAA Division I FCS Assistant Coach of the Year by the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA). The award has been handed out every year since 1997 at the five levels of football including the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), FCS, Division II and III, as well as NAIA levels.
Before suiting up for the Mountaineers, Speir also made coaching stops at both at Presbyterian (1997-99) while the Blue Hose were a NCAA Division II member institution, and at Elon (2000-02) the year after the program made the transition to a NCAA Division I school.
Throughout his collegiate coaching career, Speir has made a name for himself through the recruiting process. He has held the title of recruiting coordinator at three NCAA FCS institutions (WCU, Elon and ASU), most recently organizing the efforts that landed Appalachian State sixconsecutive crops of freshmen that have been widely considered to be among the top in NCAA Division I FCS recruiting classes and that helped the Mountaineers to three-straight national titles.
Jarret Calloway, WCU class of 2005 and his wife, Callie Calloway, a former all-
American Catamount Cheerleader, attended the reception to take advantage of the opportunity to meet WCU’s newest faces. Jarret Calloway asked Speir why he recruited so many quarterbacks (six in total, which includes Seth Curtis, who led Murphy to this past year’s 1A State championship and was named the Asheville Citizen Times Player of the Year) for next year’s team.
“We watched for speed and leadership abilities,” said Speir. “Most coaches put their fastest, most athletics players as quarterback. Out of the ones we recruited, we will pick two or three to play quarterback and the rest of them will find slots as running-backs and linemen. We are going to be a running team this year. We may not win a looks contest, but we will be fast.”
“We are going to have a high powered offense and a stingy defense this fall,” noted Speir.
Speir stated that he took the top slot for the Catamount football team knowing that the odds were stacked against him. “People who say that it is not about winning are full of crap,” he joked. “But it is about winning the right way. And those wins may not always come at the end of a game. We are going to win by building a program that graduates hard-working, dedicated men.”
Through continuous applause and cheers from past and future Catamounts, Speir noted that come football season, fan support can make all the difference to the kids on the football team. “We have all heard the old saying, it takes a village to raise a child,” said Speir. “Well, it takes a Catamount nation to raise a football program, and we need your support.”
The Catamount’s new coach ended the reception by urging the Franklin community to get involved with the football program. “March 12 is are first day of Spring ball,” said Speir. “You guys are just over the mountain, so you have no excuse not to be there. Our practices are always open and the only way to build this program back up is if I have your help. We want you there, we need you there.”