By Bill Studenc
A former two-time Western Carolina University Academic All-American football player who still gets chills thinking back to his own gridiron glory days wants to help ensure that future Catamount student-athletes have similar experiences.
That’s why alumnus Mike Wade, longtime supporter of WCU, has made new gifts and pledges totaling $250,000, with $225,000 going toward the enhancement of the university’s athletics facilities and $25,000 to the Catamount Club.
“For me, there is nothing like college football,” said Wade, a 1977 business administration graduate. “It is such a gladiator sport, where participants learn the value of getting up after being knocked down. It is such a lesson in life. The more you pick yourself up, the more likely you are to succeed in your career and with your family.”
A former insurance executive who co-owns Rabbit Ridge student housing complex in Cullowhee and other real estate projects, Wade is among those making leadership gifts during the initial stages of WCU’s comprehensive fundraising campaign. As a key priority within the campaign goal, WCU aims to raise at least $30 million in philanthropic gifts to support upgrades to athletics facilities.
In addition, the university intends to fund another $30 million toward athletics facility improvements, financed by debt serviced from fees paid by WCU students. The WCU Student Government Association passed a resolution in 2021 supporting the use of increased student athletics fees for those improvements. Currently, no state-appropriated funds can be used to support intercollegiate athletics, including facilities, at any UNC institution.
“Mike and his wife, Regina, have been community champions here in Cullowhee for a long time,” said Alex Gary, director of athletics. “We are humbled by their willingness to step up once again, this time to support the university’s ambitious athletics facility plans.”
A member of the Catamount Club who attends most WCU home football games, Wade said he made his leadership gift because he recognizes the need. “These kids deserve the best facilities we can afford, and having first-class facilities will help our coaches recruit student-athletes,” he said. “It is obvious that our current facilities are severely lacking and need an upgrade.”
Wade played football at McDowell High School and signed a WCU football scholarship in 1972 – with the caveat that if he received a scholarship to play baseball elsewhere, he would opt for baseball. Wingate College offered that baseball scholarship, which Wade accepted. He had dreams of following in the footsteps of his father, who played professionally for the Chicago Cubs and Dallas-Fort Worth Rangers.
“After my first year at Wingate, it became clear to me that I was unlikely to play pro baseball and that football was the vehicle to get a college education made possible by an athletics scholarship,” said Wade, who transferred as a sophomore in 1974 and played defensive end for the Catamounts. That 1974 squad finished the regular season with nine wins and one loss, earning one of eight playoff spots for the College Division II Championship.
“We drew top-seed Louisiana Tech and played them in Ruston, Louisiana, over Thanksgiving weekend,” Wade said. “We lost 10-7 in the last minute of play. It was a great year for our team, but we lost a lot of senior leadership.”
Wade moved to linebacker the next season, and the Catamounts opened the 1975 season against Division 1 opponent Toledo. “We shocked them early and were leading 24-0 at half, but they had an All-American quarterback who led them back in the second half, and we lost 32-31. It set the tone for the season, and we never recovered,” he said.
Which sets up Wade’s favorite moment as a student-athlete, a memory he says continues to make hairs on the back of his neck stand at attention. Not surprisingly, it involves WCU’s former longtime rival, Appalachian State University.
“Going into the final game against Appalachian, our record was 2-7. The week before, we had lost to Furman 35-0, which was the most-humiliating loss I have ever suffered playing sports. App State that same weekend had beaten the University of South Carolina in Columbia and needed a win against us to earn a Tangerine Bowl bid,” Wade said.
Because of a rash of injuries, two WCU offensive players who had not even practiced defense that season started the game defensively, he said. App State was in the top 10 nationally in total offense, scoring 42 points against South Carolina.
“The Asheville Citizen-Times said the betting line on the game was the temperature at gametime. We were given no shot to win,” Wade said. “App State took the opening kickoff and drove the ball to the 2-yard line, where it was first-and-goal. Four downs later, the ball was still at the 2-yard line. It was game on.”
The Catamounts went on to score two fourth-quarter touchdowns and claim a 20-11 victory, the fifth consecutive win in WCU’s storied rivalry with App State. WCU held the Mountaineers to their lowest scoring total for the season, doing so with a patched-together defense rallied by a passionate home crowd.
“I can still vividly remember changing ends of the field after the third quarter and our fans giving our team a standing ovation,” Wade said. “Thinking of that moment gives me goosebumps almost 48 years later.” The upset was listed among the top moments in Catamount sports history in the 125th anniversary edition of The Magazine of Western Carolina University in 2014.
“I love Cullowhee and WCU,” he said. “From the time I arrived in the fall of 1974, I knew this was my real home. I wasn’t born here, but this was home. My college years were filled with wonderful relationships and incredible experiences, and I am forever grateful. I have had a love affair with this place for almost 49 years, and it’s not over yet.”
It is out of that love that Wade has made the university a focus of his philanthropy. In 2019, he made a $1 million planned gift to support WCU’s athletics and arts scholarships and programs.
“I like to support those individuals who strive to win every day in life and who never quit when they lose,” he said. “Nothing excites me more than being able to assist our kids in reaching their dreams. I like to help kids who are willing to work and excel in the classroom. Some of these kids come from difficult economic situations, and these are the kids I wish to help.”
Wade said he hopes other WCU friends and alumni will join him in supporting the university, especially through its comprehensive fundraising campaign. “Many of my classmates had great success in their chosen career. I would urge them – and many have – to make a difference in a kid’s life here at WCU. I would say to them, ‘choose to be the difference and contribute,’” he said.
Among the campaign priorities are expansions for strength and conditioning, sports medicine and academic space for student-athletes. Updates to E.J. Whitmire Stadium will include a new press box, premium space for fans, a rebuilt east concourse, football offices and meeting space, and a new football locker room. WCU will look to vacate Camp Lab Gymnasium and open a new facility for the golf, track and field, and women’s soccer programs. Other improvements in the master plan will benefit all 16 Catamount athletics teams.
For more information about how to support the Catamount athletics program, contact Julie Miller, associate athletics director for development, at 828-227-3084.