Coach Scott Satterfield of Appalachian State is, if nothing else, also coachable. His players speak, and he listens.
Consider his willingness to break away from the Mountaineers’ standard black-and-gold or all-black uniform combinations in lieu of a white-out for their Sept. 10 home opener against Old Dominion. It wasn’t a popular move in the eyes of the Appalachian State faithful who bleed black and gold, and even the more open-minded fans have been reluctant to embrace an initiative the school says was started by the players.
Satterfield, who considers himself an old-school coach in a 43-year-old body, is indifferent. He doesn’t care if his team sports purple polka dots so long as it wins and continues its upward trajectory of the past two years.
The Mountaineers are the preseason favorite to win the Sun Belt Conference. It’s an unlikely position, even for a Group of Five team, considering Appalachian State is only entering its third season in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Lofty expectations, however, quickly materialize when teams go 11-2 and win a bowl game for the first time in school history – and in its first year of FBS postseason eligibility, no less.
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Realizing that aggressive forecast, in Satterfield’s opinion, is what matters. Uniform combinations don’t mean nearly as much when the mists from winning tint your vision, anyway.
“It’s kind of breaking tradition, and I’m a traditionalist,” said Satterfield, a former Appalachian quarterback who was appropriately dressed in a plain gray T-shirt. “I wore all black, that’s what I like and what I played with so I get where some of the fans are coming from.
“But it’s not about me, it’s not about them, it’s all about our players. The sacrifices they make day in and day out, they deserve to be able to do something like that. I just told them they better play good because it will be the last time we do it, I can tell you that.”
A media day crowd that has grown annually since the Mountaineers announced their move to the FBS chuckled along with the coach. The thing is that he was only slightly kidding.
Satterfield’s growth as a coach and Appalachian State’s growth as a football program are reflected in each other. And one thing he’s learned since he took over for Jerry Moore, his mentor, after the 2012 season is wins produce opportunities that in turn produce more wins. It’s not grueling to stop that cycle, but it is difficult to get it started.
That was the case for Appalachian State and Satterfield.
The move from the Football Championship Subdivision was as jarring as the switch in coaches. Swapping major parts of its identity created an unsettling environment throughout the High Country and points beyond. It ventured toward becoming downright toxic when the Mountaineers went 4-8 in 2013, their final FCS season and Satterfield’s first as head coach.
Appalachian State made its FBS debut with a 52-14 loss at Michigan. It lost four of its next five games as it continued through nonconference play and into its inaugural Sun Belt schedule. Given the harsh adjustment period tethered with moving up a level, nothing was unexpected.
That is, until something happened after that.
Coaches made adjustments, young players adapted to football at the higher level, divine intervention materialized in the Mountaineers’ favor – exactly what occurred depends upon who’s telling it. Regardless, Appalachian won its next six games by an average of 21 points.
It was a dominating finish that thrust the Mountaineers into the offseason with the nation’s fifth-longest winning streak, making everyone in black and gold antsy for the chance to start again. And, as Satterfield said, what happened last season kind of came out of nowhere.
Part of it could be attributed to the players growing acclimated to the speed, physicality and other complexities of the FBS level, some credit could go to merely being in the right place at the right time considering the Mountaineers were still a mystery to teams outside of the Eastern time zone.
Not to be marginalized is the growth of Satterfield, who – despite years of experience as an assistant coach – was receiving almost on-the-job training to be a head coach while working in the shadow of a legend whose exit was murky. Somewhere along the line, either the fog lifted or he accrued enough wisdom to reverse the 5-13 start to his career and coach his team to 17 wins in the next 19 games.
“He grew a lot just like we grew a lot,” said redshirt senior John Law, a linebacker and the Sun Belt’s preseason defensive player of the year. “There was certain stuff that he had to figure out coming in as far as coaching us and just being the head man.
“When he first came in it was like, ‘You guys want to wear the wristbands and all this stuff,’ but he gets it now just by being with us, growing with us as a team. It’s awesome playing for a guy like that, a guy who understands everything is not going to be perfect.”
Satterfield was already aware perfection is rarely achieved. The more attainable goal is to make conditions as ideal as possible to increase the likelihood of mining near-perfect results. Sometimes that means tweaking uniforms to please current players or catch the eye of highly-rated recruits.
“One of the questions was if we thought we’d be ahead this fast,” Satterfield said. “We had good goals and dreams about it, but you never know what’s going to happen.
“…The growth has been great over the last couple of years, but to me we’re still growing the program. We’re not there yet. We’re still trying to develop the talent we’ve signed the last few years, getting better players in here year in and year out, trying to outdo what we’ve done in the past.”