By Jim Buchanan
Last week we took a look at the 1972 state 2-A championship Sylva-Webster squad, a team that went 13-0-1 and is still talked about in these parts.
A few miles up N.C. 107, there was another awfully good team in the county, and it’s a team that, unjustly, isn’t seared into memory at the level the Golden Eagles enjoy.
We’re talking about the 1972 Western Carolina Catamounts.
The ’72 Cats were loaded with talent. Center Mark Ferguson was named a first-team All-American the following year. Linebacker Steve Yates was All-American in 1972 and also in 1974. Yates was the school’s career leader in sacks, total tackles and tackles for losses.
If you got by Yates and fellow linebacker Joe Hunter, waiting in the defensive backfield was David Rathburn, who over his career was credited with 23 interceptions and 12 fumble recoveries.
The defense was fierce, recording 23 fumble recoveries and 19 pass interceptions in 1972.
The offensive ground attack was led by tailback David Hackett and a pair of talented receivers, the diminutive Eagle Moss (5’4”, 144 pounds) and Jerry Gaines.
Gaines is widely regarded as the most talented all-around athlete to ever set foot in Cullowhee. Western has had All-Americans in football. They’ve had them in baseball. They’ve had them in track.
Gaines was an All-American in all three sports.
With that talented group WCU was expected to have a good year on the field, but the schedule was a bear, rated as the most difficult in the college division in 1972.
When the dust had settled, the Catamounts had faced four different teams ranked in the top 10 in the nation.
They were 3-0-1 in those games.
Early in the season they blew out a Tennessee Tech squad that was ranked No. 1 at the time. That squad included future NFL stars Jim Youngblood and Mike Henningan.
“We wore ’em out,” said former WCU Sports Information Director Steve White, an unofficial historian of all things Cullowhee. “It was the only game they lost in the regular season, and they went on to the Division II finals.”
The Cats defeated a top 10 Presbyterian Squad and downed No. 5 Jacksonville State as well. A showdown against Livingston State (now West Alabama) ended in a tie when Hackett was tackled at the Livingston 1-yard line and time expired before WCU could set a play for the win.
“It was one of the biggest crowds we ever had in Cullowhee,” says White. “We sold every available ticket – 8,500 – and had a large standing-room-only crowd. There were probably another 2,000 on the library, the hillsides and up toward Buzzard’s Roost. There had to be over 10,000 people on hand.”
Western defeated the three future Southern Conference foes on its slate.
One of those, Appalachian State, was expected to be the last game to be held in 25-year-old Memorial Stadium. Carrying a 6-2-1 record into the match, fans turned out in throngs hoping to see WCU’s first home win over their hated mountain rivals since 1958.
The final score: Western Carolina 35, Appalachian State 21.
The crowd surged on the field and ripped down the goal posts, parading them around campus.
The ’72 Cats might have gone on to greater things, but they couldn’t. White explained that year was when WCU was transitioning from NAIA to NCAA Division II. “We were a provisional independent member of NCAA II, meaning we couldn’t qualify for any championship playoffs” in any sport.
Still, the Cats got their share of recognition, in no small part because of White’s efforts. “This was before the internet and social media,” White said. “All we had were telephones and the U.S. mail. Every Sunday I made up postcards to all the Associated Press poll voters – I think there were 24 of them – and I’d mail them postcards. One week I singed the edges and wrote THE CATS ARE HOT and another I poured perfume on them with THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS – just anything to get their attention, as we were sort of unknown.”
It must have worked, as the Cats got as high as No. 3 in the national small college polls, and finished the season at No. 8.
The ’72 squad was honored at WCU’s game with The Citadel in October. White said about 22 members of the team were on hand, as well as a contingent of friends and family members.
As to Memorial Stadium, it turned out the Appalachian game wasn’t its last hurrah. “We were supposed to move into Whitmire Stadium the next year,” White said, but it turned out there were some issues with the site.
“About March we found out it wouldn’t be ready.
“We had to go retrieve the goalpost from KA Hill; we couldn’t afford a new one.”