By Todd Vinyard
The face of a person fortunate enough to hear Western Carolina Coach Mark Speir explain the game of football goes through some similar stages – ears perk up, eyes widen with anticipation closer to the end and finally a smile or look of determination.
Since he was named WCU coach on Dec. 22, 2011, Speir has worked tirelessly to revitalize Catamount football. He led the team to its first winning record in a decade with a 7-5 mark in 2014.
In 2019 the team looks to bounce back from a year they won the first three games before losing the last eight. Speir accepts the challenge with his typical positive, can-do spirit.
“The direction of the program right now is sort of like I told the team at the end of a disappointing 3-8,” Speir said. “We are an inch away, or we are a mile away, and it is all within us as individuals and collectively as a team. What I mean by that is if you look at our last four FCS opponents we had at least a 14-point lead at some point of the game, but we had such youth, injuries and excuses last year we couldn’t finish it. And that is what it is – excuses. It got to where we were playing not to lose and not playing to win. That is what happens with a young inexperienced team. The talent is here.”
Speir, who was named the 2009 NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Assistant Coach of the Year by the American Football Coaches Association while at Appalachian State, added, “That is why I say it all lies within us. They (preseason Southern Conference media predictions) say we are eighth in the conference. What will we do about that? A play to win mentality is what we are preaching.”
Speir enjoys continuing the journey of Catamount football. WCU players respond to the motivational talks from their coach because of the man they see he is.
“It is fun to play for Coach Speir,” defensive back Devarius Cortner said. “He is a great man. He loves his players, and we love him. Coach Speir gives his all for this program, so it is easy for us to give our all for him.”
And it is not just the football field where players learn from Speir.
“Year after year I have gained respect for Coach Speir,” said senior quarterback Tyrie Adams. “He pushes me to become more of a leader and be mindful about the little things. We will not have cell phones in our meetings. Coach Speir gave us this opportunity. The opportunity to go to college with a scholarship makes things better for our families and us. Not everyone gets that chance. We are fortunate to be here and have this opportunity. He stresses doing the right thing and treating people right. He shows you how to be a better man and successful in life. I am thankful to play for him.”
Part of the many lessons Speir teaches players is doing the right things in the community, like the recent Victory Day WCU hosted on Aug. 11. About 30 cognitively or physically impaired children were matched with football players or cheerleaders. Participants went through a variety of game-day activities, including a pre-game public address introduction. Each participant could score a touchdown and celebrate with players, dance team and band members from WCU.
“That was amazing and humbling to be part of,” said Adams, who has been making several preseason watch lists for top offensive players. “We all had a fun time with those kids. They were amazing. It was so cool to see these kids with what they are dealing with just living free and enjoying the day. It was quite a lesson.”
Speir hopes the lessons on the field lead to a better record this year.
“It has been a real good preseason to this point,” he said. “I feel our defense is in the best physical condition since I’ve been here. You can see it the way they are flying to the ball. It is good to see.”
Along with being happy to see the defensive condition, Speir has been glad to see Adams become more and more of a leader. An adjustment for Adams will be two offensive coordinators. Former offensive coordinator Brad Glenn took a position with Georgia State. Speir promoted two coaches on his staff to co-offensive coordinators – John Holt (offensive line coach) and Tyler Carlton (wide receiver coach). New quarterback coach Phillip Ely joins the staff after being co-offensive coordinator at Tiffin University.
“It has been great,” Adams said of the offensive staff alignment. “With me being in the offense three to four years, Coach Speir told me we weren’t going to change the offense. It helps us because we have three minds to work together. I believe it helps us.”
The Cats will find out quickly where they are as they open the season with a Southern Conference game against Mercer on Saturday, Aug. 31 with the kickoff in Cullowhee at 6 p.m.
“We are opening at home in front of what I believe will be a big crowd, so that is a big positive and if we win it catapults your season,” Speir said. “One of the things we can’t control is Mercer has a brand new offensive and defensive coordinator. We go in with some unknowns. More positives than negatives and I can’t wait to get started. It should be a great atmosphere. I’m ready to get started.”