Sunbelt Championship Football

Appalachian State defensive lineman MyQuon Stout (92) celebrates with his teammates after the Mountaineers defeated UL-Lafayette 30-19 in the Sun Belt championship on Dec. 1 in Boone, N.C. 

Appalachian State is no one-hit wonder.

To be sure, the Mountaineers’ 34-32 upset of No. 5 Michigan in 2007 — the first ever by an FCS team over a ranked FBS opponent — put Boone, North Carolina, on the map, or at least the cover of Sports Illustrated.

And it’s still the first thing most people associate with them.

But before, during and after the season of that epic victory, App State, as it’s increasingly called, won three national championships.

And since moving up to the FBS in 2014, the Mountaineers have won or shared the last three Sun Belt Conference championships, are 35-6 against league foes and have won three straight bowls.

That’s an unprecedented record of sudden success for a program making the transition.

The Mountaineers go for bowl victory No. 4 Saturday against Middle Tennessee State in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

App State (10-2) is a 7-point favorite despite the departure of head coach Scott Satterfield, his two coordinators and the strength coach, who left for Louisville last week.

The team is under interim coach Mark Ivey, who has interviewed to replace Satterfield.

Athletic director Doug Gillen is continuing his coaching search while in New Orleans, said he might have a successor named by Saturday. At any rate, he feels he is dealing from strength as indicated by the level of interest being shown.

“This is one of the best five coaching positions in the Group of Five (Sun Belt, American, MAC, Conference USA and Mountain West).” he said. “We have better facilities and fan support than some Power Five schools.

“We really think this is a Top 25 job and that it will be for some time.”

The Mountaineers, who opened the season with an overtime loss at No. 9 Penn State, actually made the Associated Press Top 25 in October — a first for a Sun Belt team — before losing to Georgia Southern the following week. They rebounded by winning their last five games, including a 30-19 victory against UL-Lafayette in the SBC’s first championship game.

“We kind of liked being in the Top 25,” Gillen said. “We expect to be there again. Our goal is to represent the Sun Belt in a New Year’s Six game.”

Small wonder Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson considers App State to have the potential to be to the Sun Belt what Boise State became first to the WAC and now the Mountain West since moving up from I-AA in 1996 — the measuring stick for the rest of the league.

“They’re very similar in culture,” said Benson, himself a Boise graduate and the commissioner of the WAC during the Broncos time there. “They’ve committed to winning in football by making an investment in facilities and salaries, they’ve had excellent continuity of coaches and they’ve got great fan following.

“If you look at the record, it actually took Boise 10 years to get to a comparable level App’s at now. I’ve got no doubt they’re in great position to hire someone who will continue to make them successful.”

Certainly App State has given the Sun Belt a shot in the arm. The conference had lost five of its members of Conference USA in 2012 before adding the Mountaineers along with Georgia Southern, which was making the move from the FCS as well.

It didn’t go unnoticed that this season App State beat Charlotte, a startup program which C-USA opted to invite, 45-9.

How did a school located in a fairly-remote corner of the Blue Ridge Mountains (Boone, with a population of 19,711, is the largest city above 3,000 feet east of the Mississippi) become so successful?

Although the school has played football since 1928, coach Jerry Moore, who led the program from 1989-2012, was the true driving force.

“The school owes him so much,” said Ivey, who played for Moore in the 1990s and became an assistant during Moore’s final season. “He’s responsible for shaping so many lives and the what makes the program so special.”

That shape focused on finding players who were the right athletic, academic and social fit for Boone, a true college town but an hour’s drive from the nearest airport.

Player development is another focus. Only five players on year’s roster started their college careers elsewhere, just one at a junior college.

Winters there also can be a test. Almost 18 inches of snow fell in Boone on Sunday, forcing the coaches to cut short a vital recruiting weekend.

Still, App State manages sign players from Florida (19), Georgia (16), South Carolina (14) and Alabama (6) — hardly ski resort territory, as Boone is.

“I wanted to go someplace different, and I never seen snow or mountains,” said junior safety Desmond Franklin, who is from Inverness, Florida. “You definitely have to adjust to the weather, though.

“My first year, I didn’t bring enough warm stuff. I learned from that.”

The school also benefits from a strong overall academic reputation. App State is rated the No. 2 public university in the state, behind only North Carolina.

Some alums initially fretted about the school leaving the Southern Conference and longtime rivals like Furman and Western Carolina. But Gillen said at last spring’s tour of the state he had only one fan told him he missed the old days.

Gillen acknowledges that this next coaching hire is vital. Satterfield, another App State alum, stayed only for one or maybe two seasons after he had other opportunities, further strengthening the program.

Ivey, who describes himself as “App State, tried and true,” is contender, but he’s never been as much as a coordinator on the college level.

To Franklin, though, whatever decision is made the Mountaineers are here to stay.

“It’s the culture of winning,” he said. “Everybody buys in because there’s commitment to doing things right. They’ve been winning for a long time and will be doing it after I’m gone. It’s what we do up here.”