The Little Guy Wins One for The Ages

By John Feinstein
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, September 3, 2007; 4:32 PM

Because of the absolute glut of media outlets now in existence, especially in the realm of sports, there is a tendency to get carried away (to put it mildly) by what is happening in the here-and-now.

Tiger Woods must be the greatest golfer of all time. Roger Federer must be the greatest tennis player of all time. Bill Belichick must be the greatest NFL coach of all time. Charlie Weis must be the greatest college football coach of all time. (Oh wait, that's just Weis's opinion).

And, of course, Appalachian State over Michigan must be the greatest upset in the history of college football.

With apologies to Woods, Federer and Belichick, all of whom may someday go down as the absolute best at what they do, Saturday's game in Ann Arbor is, in fact, the greatest upset in the history of college football.

It is more stunning than Carlisle over Army in 1912; more shocking than Carnegie Tech over Notre Dame in 1926 and more amazing than Columbia over an Army team that was unbeaten in 32 straight games in 1947. It is even more remarkable than Duke over anyone in 2007.

Why? Because there are few things in the world more imbalanced than today's college football world. The BCS schools have every possible advantage when playing non-BCS schools that are division 1-A, much less when they play schools from 1-AA. (Note to the NCAA: you can try changing the names of your divisions all you want, some of us just aren't going to pay attention). To begin with, 1-A schools are allowed 22 more scholarships than 1-AA schools. They have more money than they can possibly know what to do with (spend it on weight rooms is usually the answer); they have vastly superior facilities; their players are treated like kings every day of their lives and they never would be caught dead playing a 1-AA school on the road.

When Carnegie Tech beat Notre Dame, 19-0, 81 years ago the game was at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. Granted, Knute Rockne (the real one, not the current Irish coach who just thinks he's Rockne) took the game so lightly that he didn't bother to show up (seriously), and went to scout Army-Navy instead.

Lloyd Carr showed up to coach his team on Saturday, although the case can be made that he didn't do a very good job of it. Appalachian State won the game because it came into Michigan Stadium in an emotional frenzy, understanding that the game was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Michigan showed up wondering when it would be time to start looking at tape of Oregon.

Of course this happens frequently when little guy faces big guy. (Someone please hit me in the forehead with a rock if I bring up David and Goliath). Appalachian State is a well-coached, talented team that knows how to win, having won back-to-back division 1-AA national titles. Remember also, these are real national titles, where you have to play actual playoff games (three of them) to reach the championship game. The players and coaches know about pressure and they know how to win games.

When Michigan got its act together long enough on Saturday to rally and take the lead, and then get the ball back with the lead, the Mountaineers didn't panic. They got a stop, marched down the field to kick a field goal and then blocked a field goal on the game's final play. They made plays. This was no fluke. If the teams played again next week Michigan would probably win, but it wouldn't be easy. What's more, it doesn't matter. The game was played last Saturday and the better team on that day won.

There's only one bad thing about Appalachian State's victory: It will now give powerhouse schools an excuse to continue scheduling 1-AA teams. In truth, these games shouldn't be allowed because the kids from the 1-AA schools really don't have more than a once-in-a-lifetime chance to win the game or even compete in them. What's even worse is that the two football polls won't allow 1-AA teams to receive votes in their polls. If they're allowed to compete against 1-A teams, why in the world can't they be ranked if they're deserving? You think anyone in this week's top 25 would want to play the Mountaineers right about now? Think they'd want to play them at a neutral site after seeing them beat Michigan in front of 109,000 -- most in maize and blue -- last Saturday?

Duke, which last beat a Division 1-A team in 2004 (seriously) can receive a vote in the preseason coaches poll from Steve Spurrier, but Appalachian State, which would beat Duke by at least 40, can't receive a vote? Let's see how many voters in either poll continue to give Michigan a vote this week. You can bet there will be some who will do so, which is utterly ridiculous.

Really though, none of that matters. Saturday's game was one that will be brought up 50, 60, 70 years from now when extraordinary upsets occur. A little school from the mountains of North Carolina, located in a town with a population that is 96,000 people fewer than the capacity of Michigan Stadium, walked into one of college football's most hallowed venues and won.

One of the Michigan kids said after the game it wasn't really that big a deal? Really? Tell that to people 50 years from now when you're still being asked about it. Lloyd Carr, who is an outstanding coach by any definition, is officially a dead man walking. Unless he figures out a way to win every game for the rest of this season, he can't survive this. Beat Oregon? So what. Beat Notre Dame (which doesn't look quite as good these days with most of Tyrone Willingham's players gone, does it)? fine. Maybe if he beats Ohio State, he might survive.

But neither he nor his players will ever completely get past Appalachian State. Carr will always be remembered as the coach of the 1997 national championship team. He will also be remembered as the coach who lost to Appalachian State in 2007.

Chaminade over Virginia comes to mind on the list of all-time upsets, but at least that game was at Chaminade. The U.S. hockey team over the Soviets at Lake Placid also comes to mind but what would the score of that game have been if the game had been played in Moscow? Frances Ouimet over Harry Vardon and Ted Ray at The Country Club in 1913? Remarkable, but again it was an American over foreigners on American soil.

No, this might very well be the all-timer. You almost hesitate to say it because there will be three books (no, none written by me. wise-guys); four ESPN specials and a Sports Illustrated commemorative issue on sale by this time next week.

But this was as mind-bending an upset as any of us will ever see in our lifetimes. Unless you were a Michigan player, coach or fan, it was just pure fun to see a little guy knock off a true giant.

Appalachian State didn't have a rock. Just a lot of huge hearts. That was enough to create a memory likely to last just about as long as the story about the little guy, the giant and the rock.


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