Folks in the hill country of western North Carolina are partial to squirrel hunting, clog dancing and old-time religion. Of late they have also come to fancy football the way it is played at Western Carolina University, a cluster of red brick buildings nestled like a secret military installation in the Blue Ridge Mountains 55 miles southwest of Asheville. The Catamounts rely on small, feisty players passed over by more illustrious schools, and, while the little guys don't always win, their wide-open style draws fans aplenty out of the surrounding hills.
Excitement ran even higher than usual last Saturday during Western Carolina's season-ending 44-14 win over the Appalachian State Mountaineers, who hail from up the road in Boone, N.C. For the Catamounts, who started slowly this season, the victory in what is known thereabouts as Hillbilly Bowl was their fifth straight and enabled them to wind up the season with a 6-4-1 record. For their followers, a record 12,015 of whom packed into E. J. Whitmire Stadium, it was also a fitting farewell to Tailback Darrell Lipford and Split End Wayne Tolleson, two typically minuscule Cats who entered the game and ended their careers as the nation's leading major-college scorer and pass receiver, respectively. Which is scarcely any more astounding, of course, than the news that Western Carolina is a major college.
Lipford, a 5'8", 178-pound study in forward motion, scored 16 touchdowns in Western Carolina's first 10 games and he tallied two more against Appalachian State despite fracturing a toe early in the game. Tolleson, all of 5'8" and 165 pounds, had 62 receptions in the first 10 games and last Saturday he darted through the Appalachian secondary to grab 11 more passes. Because some Division I schools still have at least one game remaining on their schedules, there is a remote chance Lipford and Tolleson could be overtaken in the national rankings. But who would have expected them to be there in the first place?
Though its enrollment has grown to 7,000 Western Carolina retains much of the flavor of the backcountry teachers' college it used to be. It is located in Cullowhee, a crossroads consisting of a post office and a couple of stores. The nearest picture show is seven miles away in the slightly bigger (pop. 1,900) hamlet of Sylva. When the weather is right, students amuse themselves by floating on inner tubes on the Tuckasegee River, and all year round by chewing Beech-Nut or Red Man.
November 28, 1977
One of Western Carolina's few links to the big time is Bob Waters, the coach and athletic director. A soft-spoken Georgia farm boy who starred at quarterback for South Carolina's Presbyterian College, Waters spent six seasons with the San Francisco 49ers in the 1960s. When he arrived at Western Carolina in 1969 he set out to upgrade what was until then strictly a small-college program—and a determinedly mediocre one at that. Waters oversaw the planning and construction of E. J. Whitmire Stadium, which opened in 1974 atop what was once a frog pond, and he replaced the Elons and Carson-Newmans on the schedule with somewhat more ambitious rivals like Furman and The Citadel. This season the upstart Cats joined the Southern Conference—and the NCAA's Division I—and won the same number of games they did last year.
As one might expect of an ex-NFL quarterback, Waters has emphasized a passing attack. As one might not expect, over the years he has fielded such novelties as a 5'4" cornerback and a 189-pound middle guard. Only one player on this year's squad weighs more than 225. "I feel that quickness is more important than size," Waters explains. "Small kids play hard. Of course, it's also true that they're sometimes the only kids we can get."
Lipford certainly proves Waters' point. A native of Lenoir, N.C., he came to Western Carolina when he realized that it was "one of the few places I'd be able to play right away." He now wears ensembles of purple and gold—the school colors—and drives a "Catamount purple" 1971 Dodge Dart. Adept at wriggling through the slightest openings in a line, Lipford rushed for 983, 714 and 1,074 yards his first three years. NFL scouts have nevertheless stayed away in droves, and Lipford is of the heartfelt opinion that they have missed something. "I can play in the pros," he insists. "My strength is that I'm a sensitive runner. I can feel people coming at me ever when I can't see them."
This makes Lipford hardly any more wondrous than Tolleson, who plays golf in the mid-70s and was heavily recruited by college baseball coaches during his high school days in Spartanburg, S.C. But he wanted to play football and baseball, which he has been able to do at Western Carolina. A slick-fielding shortstop, he also stole 28 bases in 32 games last season and was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates, who offered him an exceedingly modest contract. Tolleson turned it down and hopes to "venture back into the draft this year." His decision kept Tolleson available to catch passes again this fall, an endeavor to which he brings quick moves, sure hands and what Waters calls "all-round toughness."
That Lipford and Tolleson are leading the U.S. in two statistical categories (Lipford is also 12th in rushing) is improbable enough. What makes it more so is the fact that they were playing for a team that staggered to a 1-4-1 start. But the Catamounts began getting increasingly inspired play from sophomore Quarterback Mike Pusey, whose crisp passes put Tolleson in contention for the national pass-catching title (Pusey is also the 16th leading passer in the nation). Then, as defenses began keying on Tolleson, Lipford went into gear, scoring 11 touchdowns as the Cats won four straight. A rare note of failure was struck during this spree by a sky diver who was supposed to parachute into E.J. Whitmire Stadium before Western Carolina's homecoming game with Wofford, which the Cats won 41-7. The pilot of the sky diver's plane scoured the hills and hollows for miles around but never could find the campus.
Against Appalachian State Lipford scored on runs of six and one yards in the first half but was otherwise bottled up by Appalachian's swarming linebackers, especially after he injured his toe in the first quarter. Still, history will record that Darrell Lipford gained 1,318 yards this season and 4,089 during his splendid career.
Appalachian State's preoccupation with Lipford gave Tolleson room to maneuver. Pusey and reserve Quarterback Keith Scoggins completed 24 of 30 passes, and the 11 that Tolleson caught, most of them screens and quick-outs, netted 126 yards. Six other passes, two of them for the final touchdowns, were hauled in by freshman Flanker Gerald Harp, a burner from Red Oak, Ga. Big guy? Nope, Harp is 5'7" and 152 pounds.
All of which further bears out what the man for whom Western Carolina's stadium was named said during a visit the other afternoon to Coach Waters' office. E.J. Whitmire, politico, university benefactor, construction man and farmer, had driven up from Franklin in his Jeep, his ancient dog Speck by his side. "We're just country people here," confided Whitmire, whose red flannel shirt and overalls might have given him away anyhow. "To us, seeing little fellows play football is mighty entertainin'."