USC Gamecocks Football

How Appalachian State helped build two men who eventually led the Gamecocks

Sparky Woods remembered once driving his team down to Lenoir, North Carolina to prepare for the Gamecocks.

As head coach of Appalachian State in the 1980s, his squads faced South Carolina three times. Each trip to Columbia was in the early part of the season, which meant leaving that cool mountain climate for hot, muggy Columbia.

So the team dropped around 2,000 feet of elevation for a practice one day.

“It was always something we could not duplicate in Boone,” Woods said. “The humidity and heat of that first game was always tough on App State.

“We would play really good the first half and it’s hard to hold on in the second half.”

One year after the teams faced off in 1988, he went from Mountaineers head coach to Gamecocks head man. He took over after Joe Morrison’s death, creating a little bit of a bond between the two schools.

This week, App State will make the trip to the Midlands for the first time since that game, a fact that surprised Woods a bit. A lot has changed since then. The Mountaineers program grew to a powerhouse, a national champion and then made the jump from FCS.

South Carolina grew and changed as well, and even had another head coach with extensive App State background.

More than two decades after Woods’s hiring, Shawn Elliott left a longtime assistant job in Boone, North Carolina to come home to Columbia as offensive line coach. He said he imagined he’d never leave that place up in the mountains, the place he played and met his wife, but the call of home brought the Camden native back. In his sixth year in garnet and black, he was entrusted with the job of interim head coach for the latter half of 2015.

Both men were asked if there were any commonalities between the program, and both had similar answers.

“No, I don’t think so,” Elliott said. “Boone, North Carolina, you were going for the very, very reason, other than education, to play football because for a lot of years wasn’t a whole lot to do In Boone. You go there, you go to class, you go to football practice, there wasn’t anything really outside of football to (do) in Boone and Columbia was so different.

“It was just two totally different football programs built two totally different ways.”

USC is relatively urban. App State mostly rural. The flatter Midlands of South Carolina are a far cry from the mountains. The Gamecocks have all the trappings of an SEC program, a “University of” in Elliott’s words, while the Mountaineers hail from a lesser-known school that built its impressive football reputation outside the spotlight.

That doesn’t necessarily mean there aren’t a few other connections beyond two men who led the Gamecocks at one point.

Longtime USC defensive line coach Brad Lawing cut his teeth on the mountain, first with Mack Brown and then with Woods. Former Gamecocks tight ends coach Pat Washington now works with the Mountaineers receivers (“I’m sure Pat is ready to get back down to Columbia next Saturday night,” Elliott said).

One of App State’s best ever quarterbacks, Taylor Lamb, now works as a graduate assistant with the Gamecocks. USC head strength coach Jeff Dillman played at App. State and ran that team’s strength program for the 2006 and 2007 title seasons.

The teams met each year from 1972-1977 as opponents on the same level before Division I was split. The Mountaineers edged USC once, pulling out a 39-34 win against a Gamecocks team led by QB Jeff Grantz and a pair of 1,000-yard runners.

The three meetings in the Woods years produced a 20-13 game in 1985 and then a pair of more comfortable Gamecocks wins in 1987 and 1988. Morrison’s Gamecocks went 8-4 each of those years, while Woods led his 1987 Mountaineers to a FCS semifinals appearance and No. 2 finish in the polls.

Woods thought he might be considered for a job at N.C. State if then-Wolfpack coach Dick Sheridan took over at South Carolina. Instead, USC athletic director King Dixon gave him a call. He went 25–27–3 across five seasons, taking the team through a steroid scandal, coaching the likes of Robert Brooks, Brandon Bennett and Steve Taneyhill.

Years later, he thanks the man who made it possible.

“King Dixon is a great, great man,” Woods said. “I think he’s the best South Carolina graduate. Phi Beta Kappa, war hero, great player while he was there.”

Woods also saw App State grow into something both through his tenure and long after. When he arrived with Brown, he recalls the program not being seen in the best light between a helmet logo of a man smoking a pipe and jokes about if folks wore shoes up in the mountains.

“Since then, nobody’s making fun,” Woods said. “App’s pretty good.”

Brown got it started, and Woods brought the team to prominence on the then-1-AA level. Off a failed run as Texas Tech head coach and stint at Arkansas, Jerry Moore took the reins from Woods, kept the thing going and in the mid-2000s turned the program into a national power with three titles in a row, the latter two with South Carolina product Armanti Edwards at the helm.

Moore retired in 2012. Scott Satterfield took over, ushered the program into its FBS era, winning 40 games his final four years and passing the program along to Eliah Drinkwitz.

And while Saturday’s game isn’t a rivalry, it’s something else in Woods’ mind.

“It’s a regional game,” Woods said. “So a lot of people are familiar with both schools. I think it’s what college football’s about, you know, to schools that have a lot of pride in each other.”

Woods, now a staffer with Brown at North Carolina, has been in the building this year for South Carolina and Appalachian State games. His Tar Heels held off several Gamecocks drives late to secure the win, and found themselves unable to rally all the way back against the Mountaineers.

Elliott, a longtime Moore assistant, now shares a division with the Mountaineers, and his Georgia State squad will get App one week after South Carolina, with a division title possibly on the line.

The game won’t be an easy one for the Gamecocks. The Mountaineers can claim a level of glory in upending another big-conference team. In Elliott’s time in Columbia, he said there wasn’t a particularly strong desire to face his alma mater.

“I knew exactly what type of football program Appalachian State has and what we had built with coach Jerry Moore with my time there,” Elliott said. “So I knew how good of a football team they were and exactly what went through the minds of those individuals when they did have an opportunity to go play the the power five teams so to speak.”

West Coast raised. Midwest educated. Southern football indoctrinated. Covers most everything Gamecocks, primarily football.
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