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Originally published: 2014-04-10 11:22:03
Last modified: 2014-04-10 17:10:33

Behr: Fox must make Mountaineers relevant

by Steve Behr Sports Editor

Welcome to the High Country, Jim Fox.

Now that you're the head coach of the Appalachian State men's basketball program, your biggest task at hand may sound simple, but it's not.

Make the Appalachian State men's basketball program relevant, not only in the Sun Belt Conference and nationally, but within Appalachian Nation.

That last one may be the hardest.

Several have tried. Few have succeeded. Appalachian State's tradition in football carried the athletic department to a bigger conference and a bigger budget.

Appalachian State's basketball program has little tradition. The Mountaineers have made it to four postseason tournaments, won a handful of Southern Conference North Division titles that didn't materialize into SoCon tournament championships, and little else.

Two of those tournaments were the NCAA, one each coached by Bobby Cremins and Buzz Peterson. Both teams were eliminated in the first round. Peterson's 1999-2000 team was eliminated by Ohio State by halftime.

Houston Fancher took Appalachian State to the NIT in 2007, but lost in the first round at Mississippi. Peterson got the Mountaineers to the CBI semifinals, but lost at home to Pacific.

The NIT season was fun. App State won the San Juan Tournament by beating Virginia, Central Florida and Vanderbilt.

App State also beat Wichita State in the first BracketBusters game the Mountaineers ever played.
The CBI tournament is known more for the fact that Harvard's Jeremy Lin played his final collegiate game against App State in the first round.

That all seems like ancient history today. Appalachian State's basketball team was dismal this past season. There were injuries to key players, such as leading scorer Jay Canty, players being suspended because of disciplinary reasons and just poor play.

It's no surprise that the Mountaineers stumbled to a 9-21 season. The only bright spot was the emergence of former Ashe standout Tommy Spagnolo, who played well in the second half of the season.

Spagnolo applied for a sixth-year redshirt exemption. It would be a plus for Fox if he came back.
Fox needs to do more than get Spagnolo back. He needs to bring a spark to a program that hasn't hit rock bottom, but is not exactly at the top of the tops, either.

Fans stayed away from the Holmes Center the way people avoid skunks. The Mountaineers averaged 1,130 fans per home game. The biggest draw was Western Carolina when 2,041 people packed the Holmes Center to watch the Catamounts take a 74-61 win on Feb. 20.

App State should be able to get 1,130 people a half-hour before tipoff. Then again, who wants to drive through potentially bad weather from the Charlotte and Triad areas to see a team lose to Campbell or play Bluefield State.

Fox has to get the local public interested in basketball. The best way to do that is to win, get into the NCAA Tournament and win a few games there.

Shock the world on a national stage and the world will take notice. Ask the App State football team about its win over Michigan about that.

The Holmes Center needs to be the place to be on a Saturday afternoon, or Tuesday night, or whenever the Mountaineers host a game.

I have not seen the Sun Belt arenas, but my guess is the Holmes Center stacks up with the best of them.

Again, all of that is easier said than done. The 800-pound gorilla Fox is competing against is Tobacco Road, which isn't fair, but a reality. Most App State fans follow an ACC team before the Mountaineers, and it's up to Fox to get fans to the Holmes Center to watch App play South Alabama instead of staying home to watch the ACC.

Fox also has to deal with players, such as Devonte Graham, who sign early letters of intent to play at App State, but then want to back out of them when they have big senior prep seasons and capture the attention of power conference programs.

I feel that's all possible. He has the facility and a full-funded program on his side. There is no reason why Appalachian State can't be a consistent winning program that makes the NCAA tournament every few years.

Fox does not have the big name, but this is his chance to change that. I'm told he has the personality and ability to do it.

So, again, welcome to the High Country, coach Fox. Appalachian Nation awaits your success.