We pride ourselves in honesty in this space. So, honestly, I’m sure none of you rushed to submit your App State football season-ticket order form because of the impending gridiron matchup with Campbell that starts the 2014 home slate.
But this space is also reserved for making you look at things from a different angle on occasion. And with that said, honestly, the clash between the Mountaineers and Camels may be one of the most intriguing battles of the entire season.
For starters, this battle has everything that fans (or detractors) of September David-vs.-Goliath clashes crave. You have Appalachian State playing the role of David for the first time in their new FBS stature. Campbell enters just its seventh season of competitive football after reviving the program following a 58-year absence. The Pioneer League’s Camels don’t offer athletic scholarships, so this game gives the Mountaineers a rare opportunity to field a squad with a superior number of scholarship athletes to their opponent.
Excited yet? You should be!
Because just below the surface of this in-state battle, sits a former NFL star that was once a cornerstone in the rise of a franchise to the game’s loftiest stage. He played for just one team in his nine-year professional career, serving as a defensive showstopper of the only Super Bowl run the Carolinas has ever seen.
Now Mike Minter is trying to work the same magic as head coach of the Campbell Camels, only this time his choice weapon is a whistle as he strives to instill his contagious work ethic into a band of relative newcomers to the college football spectrum.
“When I got into coaching, this was my dream,” Minter shared during a phone interview on Tuesday. “My dream was to take on a young program with no tradition, no wins, just really a bad football team, and then get the chance to turn that around. Be careful what you wish and pray for!”
Campbell won just one game in 2012, closing the year on a nine-game losing skid that saw them drop all but one Pioneer League game by 20 points or more. So how did a non-scholarship program that had lost 11-of-12 games snag a nine-year NFL vet and local legend? They asked the right guy.
“Once I got into coaching, the big just hit me,” Minter said. “After starting out as a high school head coach and working at Johnson C Smith and at Liberty, I was walking down the tunnel before a game – about Week 8 at Liberty – and I knew I wanted to be a head coach one day. After the season, Campbell called and within five minutes, I knew I wanted to be there. (Athletic Director) Bob Roller had a vision and knew what it took to win and those things matched up. I flew down with my family and saw nothing that told me this wasn’t the place for me.”
Minter finished his career as a safety for the Carolina Panthers in 2007 and is still one of the organization’s most beloved players, thanks to a strong work ethic, loyalty and that infectious high motor that helped ignite some of the franchise’s best defensive units. In nine seasons, Minter scored four defensive touchdowns, notched 23 career takeaways and finished with just under 800 career tackles. Now, instead of seeking the opposing quarterback, the former Nebraska All-American rushes after players that can fit the mold to make Campbell successful.
“I use a lot of what Coach (Tom) Osborne did,” Minter recalled as he talked about his recruiting philosophy. “Coach Osborne was down to Earth and he meant what he said. That sold me and it sold my Mom on Nebraska. That’s the approach we take at Campbell. I tell a mother that we’ll take care of your son and I tell them I am equipped to answer all of the questions that they might have because I know what it’s like to sit in that seat. I can also tell them that I will send a player from Campbell to the NFL one day. I can tell them that because I was there and I did it and I know what it takes to get there.”
Minter quickly agreed that his recruitment and ultimate star-studded career at Nebraska is far different from the opportunity he can offer players at Campbell.
“I believe tradition is an object. Nebraska has a tradition. You can walk in and feel it,” Minter said. “When you walk into Campbell, you don’t feel anything because we haven’t built a tradition yet. But I can tell our kids that they get to be the ones to build it, to make it what they want.”
Minter has played at the highest level of the football spectrum and he has played on the grandest stage within that level. Yet he’s quick to point out that those goals were attained as part of a process, no different than Campbell’s rise to relevance in the Pioneer League and no different than App State’s goal of playing championship-caliber football on college football’s grandest dance floor.
“Realistically, we can be a .500 team this year,” Minter said when asked about Campbell’s goals for 2014. “We won 3 games last year and they won just one game the year before that, so I think six wins is a realistic goal. I also make sure people know this is part of a process and I explain where we are in that process so people don’t get anxious and lose faith.”
“This team reminds me a lot of our team the year Coach (John) Fox came into Carolina. We went from 1-15 to 7-9 the next year and we learned how to win at the end of that second year. The next year, we went to the Super Bowl because we learned how to win and we learned how to handle winning. We’ve learned to compete at Campbell and now we need to learn how to win. Once we do that, we can learn how to handle winning and ultimately how to become a champion.”
Some head coaches produce schedules made for stat padding, filling non-conference slots with meaningless games lacking competition that are aimed at building a resume, not a program. But Minter and Appalachian State head coach Scott Satterfield share similar views about creating a challenging schedule that can help build with both short-term and long-term benefits.
“If we played just our Pioneer League schedule and then went out and found some winnable games, no one would know Campbell played football,” Minter said when asked about consistent matchups with regionally recognizable teams. “We want to tell kids that we will play in exciting atmospheres. I could schedule down for me to get wins and make my record look good but that doesn’t help us build our program for the future. We have to separate ourselves from other FCS schools around the area and give our kids the opportunity to go out and play against great players. That’s how they will become great players themselves.”
Minter says Campbell has been fortunate to work into a scheduling niche of playing Old Dominion, Charlotte and now Appalachian State during his time. All three schools were in their transitional phase of FBS football when they agreed to play Campbell. The second-year head Camel hopes for more similar matchups.
“Anyone that we can schedule, we will schedule,” Minter boasted. “I really like finding these transitional teams like App State. You guys are FBS, but we can have a shot at being competitive because you don’t have the full allotment of scholarships. We want to find more of these games. If there are teams out there that fit this mold, call Campbell and we’ll play you.”
Minter was a rare breed as a professional in that he played his entire career with one team. He retired at the time when free agency and constant moving was becoming more the norm and now that business model has helped transform the culture of the game of football, just as seen in other professional sports. Minter uses his experience to get his players to see beyond the game of football.
“One of the best things about coaching is the opportunity to teach kids to build toward something beyond themselves,” Minter said. “We live in a me, me, me world where kids think they should start right away and be an All-American right away.We try to teach our kids commitment, loyalty and team. We tell them that looking at things in the long term, rather than short-term glory, will actually help provide stability in their lives.”
Many Appalachian fans cheered on Minter as he blossomed as a member of the Carolina defense. There will be an element of nostalgia that will sweep The Rock when such a celebrated piece of a franchise that’s had too few reasons to celebrate leads his team out from behind the north end-zone bleachers and onto the east sideline.
Just know that’s the same Mike Minter out there. He may have a clipboard instead of shoulder pads, but he’s found a way to fuel his passion for football in a different way, some seven years after he hung up his cleats. His team may not win. In fact, we hope it doesn’t. But this game will be one of the rare times that your football past brushes up against your football present.
“The juices still flow, regardless of whether you are a coach or a player,” Minter said with a chuckle. “My juices flow now as I think about how I can get my team ready and prepared for preseason camp. My June is now about thinking those thoughts so, in July, I’m ready to get them going. I don’t have to worry about getting hit anymore because I’ve just traded by pads for my clicker.”
Minter feels his team is a year away from making their first great championship run. Many Appalachian State fans that swap Black-and-Gold tailgate gear for Silver and Black on Saturday nights will keep a casual eye on the success of the Camels as they move past their date with the Mountaineers. And that notion will come from a game that many may have considered a throwaway.
Instead, this matchup is proof that the world of football is smaller than we think.