RETURN MAN

A former assistant is the Catamounts’ next head football coach

By DANIEL HOOKER ’01

Returning to Cullowhee to become the 13th head coach of the Western Carolina football program is a family affair for Mark Speir MAEd ’95 in more ways than one.

“I’m glad to be home,” Speir told a standing-room-only audience Dec. 22 in the Peele, Westmoreland Suhre, Hartshorn Hospitality Room of the Liston B. Ramsey Regional Activity Center. “Paige and I were married by my father on Balsam Mountain. My first son, Zeb, was born in C.J. Harris Hospital. My youngest son, Jackson, is named after the county. We are tied to Cullowhee. This is home, and we’re glad to be home.”

New WCU head football coach Mark Speir MAEd ’95 (right) and his family, (from left) son Zeb, wife Paige and son Jackson, join Paws to show their Catamount pride.

Speir used a familiar quotation to remind other members of the Catamount family that they have a role to play in helping rebuild the WCU football program. “We’ve all heard the phrase ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ It takes the Catamount nation to raise a football team,” he said. “We’re counting on you.”

A family-first man who has been involved with many charitable endeavors, including raising more than $30,000 to help rebuild a hospital in Bangladesh, Speir has spent much of his 21-year coaching career at the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision level. He got his coaching start at Western Carolina back in 1991 under former head coach Steve Hodgin MAEd ’83. He returns to Cullowhee after spending the past nine seasons at archrival Appalachian State, where he was part of three consecutive FCS national championships (from 2005-07) and served as recruiting coordinator since 2004.

“This program is going to be built on core family values,” Speir said. “But it’s not about a head football coach. It’s not about a staff. It’s a lot about those 100 student-athletes who are out there. They’re the ones who make us all proud. They’re the ones who get it done on Saturday afternoon. They’re the ones who can bring a community together – alumni, faculty, administration. They’re who it’s all about. To get that done, they need every one of you – they need the Catamount nation.”

Through his early career ties to WCU, and having spent the majority of his time in the coaching profession around student-athletes who were making college and playing choices, Speir has gotten to know a lot of the former players who have come through Cullowhee over the years.

“We’ve got a great tradition here at Western Carolina University. I want all the former football players – I know a lot of you, I had the opportunity to coach a lot of you – I want them back. This is home. This is where you ought to be on Saturday afternoons. And this is where you ought to bring your family, your kids. It’s a place we all ought to be very proud of,” said Speir. “I want former football players back – this is your program. We are just building upon the foundation you laid. I want you to know that you’re wanted, you’re welcome and we expect you to be here to help us.”

A native of Kannapolis, Speir broke into coaching while an undergraduate at Clemson University, working as a student assistant from 1986-89 and helping the Tigers to three Atlantic Coast Conference championships during his four years. Following his graduation in 1990, Speir landed in Cullowhee, first working with the running backs from 1991-93, then the linebackers in 1994 before coaching the defensive line and serving as the program’s recruiting coordinator from 1995-96.

He went on to make coaching stops at Presbyterian and Elon (2000-02) before landing at Appalachian in 2003.

Throughout his coaching career, Speir has made a name for himself through the recruiting process. He has held the title of recruiting coordinator at three NCAA FCS institutions (WCU, Elon and ASU), most recently organizing the efforts that landed Appalachian State six consecutive crops of freshmen widely considered among the top in NCAA Division I FCS recruiting classes. In 2009, Speir was tabbed as the NCAA Division I FCS Assistant Coach of the Year by the American Football Coaches Association.

Jerry Moore, the head coach at Appalachian State, praised WCU for its decision. “Western Carolina is very lucky to get Mark,” Moore said. “He is a perfect fit. He knows Western Carolina and knows it well. WCU is very, very fortunate to get Mark Speir. He is a great coach and a better man. He is the kind of guy who you would love your son to go play for.”

Former WCU football standout Brad Hoover ’00, who went on to play nine seasons in the NFL with the Carolina Panthers, credits Speir as one of the main reasons he became a Catamount. “It was the level of Mark Speir’s sincerity and his positive attitude during my recruitment experience with him that drew me to commit to Western Carolina,” Hoover said.

“Mark Speir will bring back a winning attitude to Western Carolina University,” he said. “He’s a first-class person and a really good coach. He will bring a staff who will reflect that attitude and experience to bring Western Carolina back to the level where it needs to be. I am real excited about the hire. I think it’s a good choice on Western Carolina’s part in getting a former Catamount who has experience winning at this level. He will do everything in his power to put WCU football back on the map.”