[Grits teeth] “Congratulations, Appalachian State!” [Slips into 100 year coma]
In the beginning there was chaos – and mediocrity. The Sun Belt began as a big toe dipped into the rejuvenating waters of growing football revenue. The programs invited were chiefly comprised of misfits and ne’er-do-wells, malcontents and ruffians. The football was mean and gritty and not great. The Sun Belt was conference-building at its most base, its molders heroically working with the imperfect clay it was given.
Flash forward twenty-ish years later. Yesterday, I listened to ESPN radio gushing over the Sun Belt (with only a smidge of condescending rhetoric we generally have to bear). The Sun Belt, we are now being told, was built the right way, focused purely on sportsmanship and rivalries – not media markets and logos. Look at us, Ma! We made the big time.
With our arrival to the scene comes a behind-the-scenes power struggle. The Sun Belt is not perfectly balanced (don’t tell Thanos). The Sun Belt East is clearly stronger than the West, though the Sun Belt’s current champion (Louisiana) is an original-gangsta Westerner. The trophy may lie is the West, but the shine glows onto the East, with Marshall, Old Dominion, Georgia Southern and Appalachian State making headlines.
Defeating Eastern Michigan or beating the spread against Ohio State no longer merits the top of the fold for the Sun Belt. And now, we all must clap in unison as the Appalachian State Mountaineers become the first SBC program to welcome ESPN College GameDay to its campus.
Huzzah, Mountaineers! But also maybe a little kiss-my-ass, too. Where were you when Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee bailed on us? Where were you when we were forced to welcome the likes of Idaho into the fold? Where were you when North Texas ruled the standings? Where were you when we fought for one Bowl game birth? Where were you when our national recognition stemmed from Thursday night games and brutal bodybag beatings from well-resourced programs?
It stings, bruh! Recently, Arkansas State head coach Butch Jones observed that “the Sun Belt has changed.” Sadly, not every program changed with it. The Sun Belt got bigger, faster, and more sophisticated. Not everybody got the memo. The Mountaineers did, and the reward is national exposure for which no amount of gold can measure. You deserve it, Appalachian State. Hats off. Excuse me while I eat mine.
Meanwhile, I invite us all to allow envy to become the fuel that builds our struggling programs. Butch Jones spent 2021 touring the best of the Sun Belt and immediately saw what was necessary to compete. It will take a little time, but the Red Wolves are at last following the guidelines.