SoCon Football to this point has been both “trick” and “treat” as we have reached the final day of October of 2021. While there has been more “trick” than “treat” to this point, it’s been nothing short of intriguing and exciting, and for some, especially in the Palmetto State, downright frightening at times.
Yes, I will at some point this week attempt to break down the four teams vying for the title among other titles rumbling around in my mind that involve SoCon Football, but today on this most ‘horrific’ of all holidays–Oct. 31–I want to take a look at a quite grisly scene–at least to this point–Wofford football.
In this article, I want to offer some of my opinions, solutions, and potential problems that I have observed in Wofford’s football program.
Please understand, I grew up in Greenville, S.C., and if I am brutally honest, this info is biased in the way I see it from outside how a Wofford supporter or media member may see it, but as someone who covers this league, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I let extracurriculars and biases I hold away from my keyboard–or at least try to not let the two become enmeshed–if I didn’t offer my opinion on Wofford’s problem.
Heck, I know how it is on the other side when things haven’t gone well for my alma mater Appalachian State (we’ve been so fortunate lately), or for the team I grew up supporting in Greenville–Furman–due to my familial ties to that institution. So I get it.
Every fan, media member, player and coach knows adversity. It comes to us all. In fact, it’s in there with death and taxes in life’s assurances no matter what you do. Personal feelings aside, I am going to try show some empathy and some humor here.
Sports are unique in that…We can be humorous, but have a point. In such serious times with other real world problems plaguing our culture, we need to find that balance and that outlet in sports and that’s what I will try and do here.
Heading into the final month of regular-season, we know that Furman, Samford, Western Carolina (although playing some of the best football in the SoCon), Wofford and The Citadel for all intents and purposes have already turned into pumpkins when it comes to winning a Southern Conference title.
Essentially, the Carolinas and Alabama’s SoCon representatives can’t win the Southern Conference title in the final month of the regular-season. Wofford’s journey through those woods that are haunted is chronicled in a Halloween edition in which facts might as well be the devil because they have be-deviled Wofford fans I’m sure.
Wofford’s ‘Wompus Woods’ Season
Here’s a free advertisement from thespreadfootball.com…According to its website, its the last year to get out and visit ‘Wompus Woods.’
So, what in the hell might that have do do with Wofford football? Well, you could apply 40 years in the wilderness with the Israelites here, but I chose Wompus Woods due to it being Halloween. Wompus Woods has been around for 25 years…who knew? But this one is the last one, according to WSPA News Channel 7, as articulated in this news story below.
Though its not been 40 years–only 35–since 1987, I feel like Wofford’s season has been like paying $30 bucks to take a tour. You’re not quite sure what you’re walking into. It might be worth it…It more than likely will not be…But one thing is probably assured–I can’t speak for Wompus Woods’ production this year or any for that fact, but a trip to Wofford’s version of Wompus Woods known as Gibbs Stadium this fall–at least for Wofford fans–has not been worth the price of admission, and every bit as frightening as watching The first Exorcist movie alone.
If you believed the Wofford Terriers would factor into the Southern Conference race either this past spring or this fall, then you my friend, were in for one of the dirtiest tricks a fan can be openly be exposed to.
But it was reasonable to believe a program that had won or tied for three-straight Southern Conference titles and made four-straight FCS playoff appearances heading into the season would be a safe Treat once again rather than turning out to be the ultimate Trick.
The Terriers had been dominant under former legendary head coach Mike Ayers, and for the first couple of years of the Josh Conklin era, things couldn’t have seemingly gone better. Ten-straight Southern Conference losses later, and a 1-7 start to the 2021 season, which includes an 0-6 mark in Southern Conference play after Saturday’s 41-21 loss to Western Carolina.
Wofford has yet to win a game at Gibbs Stadium (0-4) this season, and has gone 1-11 in the calendar year since the start of the FCS and SoCon designated and unprecedented spring season back, which started the last weekend of February.
It’s not that Wofford isn’t talented or rather that it doesn’t have talented players, but rather, they have no identity recognizable from the Ayers era. Love him or loathe him as so many fans did around the league, due to Wofford’s near immediate success in the SoCon, most everyone I know or talk to respected Ayers–a SoCon Hall-of-Fame coach–did and how quickly he made Wofford a factor in the SoCon.
I remembered a chance meeting I had with Ayers back in the late summer of 2005 when I was interning at the SoCon office in Spartanburg. I had to deliver a box of media guides over to the Wofford football offices that they had forgotten to get from media day, which was officially my first weekend on the job at the SoCon, and I ran into coach Ayers.
I had never met coach. His stern handshake and honest look gave me the type of comforting feeling that a man should get when he shakes another’s hand. There’s a point. Ayers was not just tough in front of cameras, it was who he was, and though he couldn’t have been any more congenial or hospitable in helping me find the right way through Wofford’s football offices to drop off the boxes, he invited me into his office.
It was neat, yet there was plenty of VHS tapes of different film strewn about the office. What you might expect of a coach that had been so successful. I briefly brought up how I admired what Wofford had done in 2003–a year which saw Wofford leave no doubts as to its playoff status as it had been left out with a 9-3 record just a year earlier–and he grinned.
He went into coach mode, and by the end of our conversation, I understood everything I needed to about Wofford, why it was successful, and the toughness he instilled in his players.
Literally, it seems all that Ayers worked so tirelessly to build has disintegrated under Josh Conklin. In Conklin’s defense, he had a tough act to follow.
What no one will dispute in not being able to defend is letting that “Ayers toughness” slip, which has nothing to do with Xs and Os and has everything with approach.
I have an opinion here. I might not be anywhere in Duncan Park’s proximity to Wofford be on target, but my take is the fact that it isn’t a question of Xs and Os at all. It’s a question of identity.
From Wofford’s game day uniforms–Yes, I said that– to the offense it is trying to run, to what it’s asking its QBs to do for that offense, I would make the argument that it has everything to do with asking these questions “Who are We?” and the second one which might be more important…”Why are We?” I am pretty certain that Ayers could have known nothing about football, but you’d better believe you had to be able to answer those two questions.
Wofford has three SoCon games remaining following its 41-21 loss to Western Carolina last Saturday. It will face Chattanooga this coming Saturday before finishing out the season at The Citadel (Nov. 13), and will close the season at North Carolina (Nov. 20).
Two more opportunities exist for this Wofford team to save itself from the ultimate futility of going from SoCon dynasty-to-complete dumpster fire in a matter of more than two calendar years. It’s been astonishing and not in a good way.
This season has me doing some research–some for good reasons–but mostly for bad ones. I love all research, but I don’t like to run another program through the mud because I believe in the creed if I were in that position would I want that done to me. However, while I offered a minor opinion above on a potential elixir to Wofford’s ails, I am by no means as harsh that cold hard facts can be. Those are harsher than words or opinions I could ever begin to share.
One perusal of the Wofford 2021 media guide, and I already know I am going to bypass Ayers’ complete coaching career to get back to some comparable horror that Terrier fans must be experiencing on this Halloween.
In fact, a lot of Halloweens have past since 1987 in the Hub City of of Spartanburg, S.C., where folks in these parts hold their faith first, family second, and Wofford’s winning football program third as three assurances in life in a city situated north of Greenville and South of Charlotte …That sounds like the beginning to one of those cheesy crime shows like City Confidential…However, there’s a lot of truth to it.
Thirty-four Halloweens have passed for Terrier football fans–I counted and math for me has been like trying to coach Wofford to wins this year–since that season that will live in infamy for Terrier football program.
Wofford had just polished off one of its worst season’s in program history. A 1-10 campaign under the direction of Wofford’s own version of Homer Hobbs–Rick Gilstrap.
If it had not been for Southern Connecticut State, which I think might have a strong soccer program (the other football) or have a great online program, with neither of the two I am completely certain of, the Gilstrap-led Terriers would have been strapped with a winless season.
However, a 10-3 win at Snyder Field over the visiting Owls. Otus the Owl is their mascot by-the-way… Another appropriate add-in for a holiday such as this. Gilstrap saw a win, but in beating the Owls, they say its always a bad omen to see owls.
It was for Gilstrap, who saw his 1-10 season be the end of his three-year stint as head coach of Wofford’s football program, which was in its final year as an NAIA Independent member that season, and thankfully at least for most Wofford football fans I talk to, the owl sighting signaled the swan song for ol’ Rick Gilstrap. It was three years in a doghouse for Terrier football fans.
In contrast, I have provided how rocky the start was for Rich Cavanaugh it was at Southern Connecticut State after succeeding some guy named Kevin Gilbride–that’s right the same Kevin Gilbride that went on to enjoy a 24-year NFL coaching career as mostly an offensive coordinator and NFL head coach, beginning in 1989 with the now defunct Houston Oilers. That was many ‘Moons’ ago.
But after that 1-9 season, which featured a season-opening win over Kutztown, Cavanaugh’s Owls turned their heads 180 degrees and promptly lost nine games to close that ’87 season.
As hard as this might be to believe, and I have no idea if this has to do with budgeting, carelessness or just good old fashioned patience, but after a 12-27 start to his career, which included 1987 and ’88 going a combined 1-19, the Owls stuck with Rich Cavanaugh. He would end up going to the NCAA playoffs in four-straight seasons (2006-10) and claimed a pair of conference titles in ’06 and ’09.
The guy is literally the all-time winningest coach in SCSU history according to its website (169-131-1) in a career that approached Mike Ayers-like length (29 seasons).
Wofford’s patience was much less with Gilstrap. In fact, a 10-6 early season loss to a Mike Ayers-led East Tennessee State team would offer a bit of foreshadowing. Whoooo knew? haha…The Bucs were under the leadership of then third-year head coach Mike Ayers, and he would lead the Bucs to a 5-6 season in 1987 season, which included a 29-14 win over the Dick Sheridan-led NC State Wolfpack.
Sheridan, who led Furman to its first SoCon title in 1978 and first of three national title appearances in 1987, was in his second season as the head coach of the Wolfpack. It would be his only losing season of nine at NC State, and as of October 2020, Sheridan was inducted into the NCAA College Football Hall-of-Fame.
Six-degrees of football separation in a sense. Ayers, who inherited a winless ETSU program in 1985, decided it was time for a change of scenery from Johnson City to Spartanburg. Ayers didn’t win a game in his first season succeeding Buddy Sasser in Johnson City, but in Ayers’ defense, the program he inherited in Johnson City was in serious decline and dealing with various NCAA infractions. He turned it into a 5-6 season with a win over an FBS two years later.
For Ayers, it probably the ceiling at that time for ETSU football, making the move to Wofford seem more sensible than from looking at it as purely on the surface. The rest is history.
So here’s the moral of this long Halloween haunt. Wofford’s final home game of the 2021 against Chattanooga next week could be a lot like purchasing a ticket to Wompus Woods.
You know somewhat it’s got some finality to it. For Wofford, it could be a winless home campaign and another $30 wasted on a Saturday that could have been better spent raking leaves rather than watch that horror show. However, if I can add this, if you should spend that money on Wofford football, you should do it for those seniors that had to endure this horror show first-hand. It’s not their fault. A lot of them probably thought it wasn’t going to end like this.
The question is, what will Conklin’s fate be at Wofford? Will he be like Wompus Woods and have his contract discontinued at season’s end like the fate of Wompus Woods? Or will he be like ole Rich Cavanaugh at Southern Connecticut State, who despite a 1-19 record over a two-year span, somehow didn’t get fired and went on to become the Owls’ all-time winningest coach. Only time will tell.
One thing is evident though, the next few weeks are pivotal for the future of Wofford football. From 1964-97, Wofford played as a both an NAIA Independent, Division II and Division I independent prior to joining the SoCon. The last time the Terriers failed to win a conference game was in 1959 as a member of an NAIA Conference known as the South Carolina Little Three as a part of NAIA District Six, with the Terriers losing to both Newberry (L, 0-35) and Presbyterian (L, 19-27) in what was a 5-5 season.
In Wofford’s football history, which of course began in 1889 against Upstate rival Furman, and should it go winless in conference play and lose its last three to Chattanooga and on the road at The Citadel and North Carolina, it would rank as one of the worst in program history in seasons which include seven or more games.
The pictures below detail some the worst, most-terrifying seasons in Wofford football history if you dare to look. Since Gibbs Stadium opened in 1996, Wofford has never gone winless at home. Also, if it loses out, it would mean Wofford would end the season on a 10-game losing streak and that would mark the longest losing streak in school history, and would be the longest without a tie somewhere in-between since the late 1930s. It’s been both horrific and historic for all the wrong reasons.
Fortunately, there’s a lot still to play for. Like playing not to be that team on the wrong part of history. Team 132 in Wofford football history wants to finish strong to avoid the frightening thought of how it could go.
Pictured below are some of those seasons prior to this one that were among the worst in Wofford history.