By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
Editor’s note: David Coulson will be bringing fans an insider’s look throughout the weekend on Appalachian State’s first bowl-game experience, check often for updates and also follow his posts on Twitter @DavidCoulsonFCS.
MONTGOMERY, AL. — After a grueling, eight-hour drive, complete with a couple of traffic jams and some less-than accurate directions, I arrived in this vibrant capitol city to find the town alive with Mountaineer supporters.
During the morning, I began to encounter a steady stream of Appalachian supporters the closer I got to Interstate 85.
From flags flapping in the breeze on this particularly windy day, to Yosef stickers on cars and occupants dressed in black and gold, Mountaineer fans were noticeable through most of the trip.
At one gasoline stop, I spotted an App State fan talking on his cell phone. He was coordinating his arrival in Montgomery with several other family members.
At the same store, I noticed that there were 22 varieties of slushies available. I went for the extra large white cherry flavor and was well-hydrated for the rest of my trip.
As I approached Montgomery, traffic began to creep in the south-bound lanes. The reason for the sudden slowdown became apparent a couple of minutes later.
A truck, transporting a large mobile home, had lost its load, with the trailer blocking all lanes of north-bound traffic. That side of the Interstate was completely closed and caused miles of backed-up traffic all the way through Montgomery.
Later, I learned that there had been a fatality in the accident.
Finally, this weary traveler saw a sight that reminded him of why he was in town.
I took a quick visit to the Alabama State campus to take a look at the Crampton Bowl, where Saturday’s Raycom Media Camellia Bowl will be played on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. local time.
On my arrival, I discovered that I was in the Central Standard time zone and had gained an hour of time back. A small consolation from the hour lost to the perpetually annoying traffic of downtown Atlanta.
But despite arriving at 4 p.m., the sunlight was rapidly fading.
The Crampton Bowl, despite its humble capacity of 24,000, looked impressive despite its age. Built in the 1920s, this venerable facility bordering Interstate 85 and at the edge of the Alabama State campus, has undergone a multi-million dollar renovation in recent years — a shining example of the renaissance that is on-going in the city itself.
I couldn’t help but notice black and gold ASU logos everywhere — a feature that is sure to make Mountaineer fans feel even more at home when they arrive on Saturday.
The only difference is that Alabama State’s mascot is the Hornet, instead of that familiar, bearded mountain man.
The university campus is beautiful in its blend of classic and modern architecture.
From there, I explored the south side of the city before asking for directions to downtown from a convenience store clerk. Her directions led me to the north side of town, which I also observed before doubling back on Interstate 65 and finally following the city’s skyline to the downtown area.
A number of streets were blocked off by police in anticipation of the annual Montgomery Christmas Parade, scheduled for later in the evening.
As I drove on one of the major streets, I noticed a series of busses and one large equipment truck painted in inmistakingly Appalachian colors outside the Montgomery Convention Center.
There was little doubt now that I was in the right place.
After finally finding a parking place, I was ready to find some fans.
Walking down Commerce Street, a familiar voice rang out from the distance.
“Hey Dave,” he called out.
A moment later, I was standing in the presence of Dave Pastusic, one of the offensive linemen from those great Appalachian State teams of the mid-1990s. A couple of seconds later, we were engulfed by more Mountaineer fans.
After spending a few minutes with this group of familiar faces, I ventured towards the sound of music, coming from the Alabama Riverfront. A pep rally was going on, with the Appalachian marching band playing and the Mountaineer cheerleading squad revving up an overflow crowd from the bandstand.
With the pro-ASU supporters worked to a frenzy, one of the cheerleaders grabbed a microphone.
“We have to call it quits for now,” said Khalieb Hnery-Benton. “We have to get some rest for tomorrow.”
Among those in the crowd was senior wide receiver Malachi Jones, who was milking every ounce from his bowl experience.
Nearby was a Mountaineer star from another generation, All-American Avery Hall — the first in a series of great defensive ends to wear the black and gold.
The party gravitated from there back to the Renaissance Hotel, where the lobby was crawling with even more Appalachian fans.
ASU athletic director Doug Gillin was talking on his cell phone with one hand, while shaking hands with Mountaineer supporters with the other.
Associate athletic director John Welch was being badgered by his daughter Madison to take her to the youngster’s new favorite restaurant, an Italian place called Sa Za across the street.
Gerald Adams, an App State player from the early 1950s and the director of the school’s athletic fundraising organization, the Yosef Club, was taking pictures with fans in front of a large Christmas tree in the lobby.
Among the people in the lobby was former Furman and current Mercer coach Bobby Lamb. The one-time protagonist for Appalachian fans was on hand to support his son, ASU starting quarterback Taylor Lamb.
Coach Lamb said he thought that the Mountaineers matched up well with Ohio University, but added “It’s hard to know how different conferences will do against each other, because they never play each other.”
With several friends giving me recommendations for Sa Za (subtitled: Serious Italian Food), I eventually ended up there for dinner, joining a crowd of ASU fans who were flowing out of the front door.
After enjoying my eggplant parmigiana and zit, I met a couple from Waynesboro, the Kellys.
“People are always asking us when we graduated from App,” said Mr. Kelly. “Neither of us went to App. We just decided to come to a game in Boone one day and got hooked.”
In the restaurant bar, patrons watched the Football Championship Subdivision semifinal contest between Richmond and North Dakota State.
Mountaineer fans were quick to remember that it had been the Richmond Spiders who had stopped ASU’s reign as three-time national champions on a snowy day at Kidd Brewer Stadium.
Of course, these same fans were quick to note that Appalachian had dethroned Richmond in the quarterfinals a year later.
Thoughts that Richmond might end North Dakota State’s string of four straight titles quickly evaporated in the first half. Final score, 33-7.
Some of us groaned about the fact that the Friday night game was being played in Fargo, N.D., instead of an hour away at Jacksonville State, where the Gamecocks instead are scheduled to play Sam Houston State in the other FCS semifinal on Saturday afternoon.
“If they’d been playing the game in Jacksonville tonight, I would have been down there with you,” said Welch.
At one point during dinner, a boisterous Appalachian fan started leading the pro-Appalachian crowd in a loud App-State cheer.
Nearby, a woman in Appalachian attire had her cell phone begin to ring.
“Hi Yi Yikes,” the Mountaineer fight song, was playing on her ring tone.
An occasional, green-clad Ohio Bobcat fan ventured into the restaurant, or wandered down the street outside, but it was easy to see that OU was outnumbered by about 20 to 1.
With the crowd at Sa Za dwindling as the clock slipped past 10 p.m., that boisterous fan began to lead cheers again. This time even the bartenders joined in.
The town of Montgomery reminded many of Appalachian State’s takeover of Chattanooga, Tennessee during those three consecutive national championship runs.
And like those salad years, the party in Montgomery on Friday night was destined to last well into Saturday morning.