To understand a complicated Catamount story which unfolded nationally 40 years ago,
we must first set the stage.
Not just an average stage, but a grand stage which catapulted Western Carolina University into national prominence. It was a stage that put the spotlight on a stellar coaching staff that brought a resilient 1983 football team of young men together who showed the world they were more than just a team – they were a close-knit family.
If you never heard about this story, part of it you might not expect.
The team lost the NCAA Division I-AA national championship game to Southern Illinois University, 43-7, but people are still talking about it today as if it were yesterday. They may have lost the game, but the team gained a lot more – a page in WCU history in becoming the only football team to reach the national championship game, increased enrollment due to the national publicity, and most important, a bond that has lasted 40 years, not only just between the players, but with their families as well.
Recently, former WCU sports information director and athletics historian Steve White rounded up six original team members and two coaches who contributed to the winning season. These men drove back to Cullowhee from across the Carolinas and Georgia for a brief step back into history.
They all met in the Dogwood Room of Hinds University Center to watch championship game highlights and talk about some of their “emotional memories” about their winning season and their time as students in the 1980s.
“I’ve been associated with Catamount football for 62 seasons,” White said. “The excitement of being involved with several nationally ranked teams is etched in my memory. However, one season and team remain at the top of my list – 1983.”
Former WCU defensive end and NFL player Louis Cooper ’87 described the team as a close-knit group of guys who were like brothers.
“We were a solid group of guys who could play in hybrid positions,” Cooper said. “When coach Powers and his coaches got a hold of us, we just flourished. I am just glad I got to be a part of that team.”
- Louis Cooper
The group agreed that the real story of the season wasn’t the actual championship
game, but how they got there.
The season started with a thud as the Cats were routed by Clemson and then shut out at Wake Forest for the first time in seven seasons.
That 0-2 start looked like it was going to be 0-3 when East Tennessee State held a 10-point lead with four minutes to play and the Cats at their own 9-yard line. WCU converted three third downplays and scored in just over two minutes. The final bizarre winning play, called the Immaculate Reception II, was made by record-breaking receiver Eric Rasheed. WCU made a two-point conversion, got the ball back on an onside kick and won the game with 32 seconds to play.
That win ignited an undefeated streak of nine regular season games that landed the Catamounts a spot in the 12-team, NCAA I-AA playoffs as an at-large team.
The toughest three games of the season were playoff games against Colgate, Holy Cross and Furman. If WCU could win those games, the Catamounts would play in the championship game. Although they were mostly doubted, WCU advanced to face Southern Illinois in the championship game.
Receiver Kristy Kiser ’84 said he believes one major benefit to the team winning was
the leadership it received from quarterback Jeff Gilbert ’85.“Jeff’s development as
a quarterback was huge for us on the offensive side,” Kiser said. “This was a turning
point because we could see his development and that he had confidence when we walked
up to the line. That’s when things became really fun.”
Gilbert ended the season setting records for most yards passing in a season, most total offense in a season and most total plays in a season.
Then the final stage was set.
A sold out crowed of 18,000 fans, 10,000 of which were for WCU, attended the championship game in Charleston, South Carolina on Dec. 17, 1983. It was a surprise appearance from a resilient WCU team that many people earlier in the season would not have predicted them making.
Although the Cats scored first during the championship game, Southern Illinois University ended the emotionally drained Catamounts non-losing streak at 12 games to claim the national championship before a nationwide ABC-TV audience.
Gilbert, who now works in pharmaceuticals, said he has learned that people most likely will remember those memories that are strongly emotional.
“The emotional memories we have with the 1983 season and those memories that others have had and brought back to us over the years makes it very special,” Gilbert said. “It feels good to hear about their journey of supporting us as we represented WCU on a national level.”
Bernard Jones ’86, who the team calls “The Bandit,” played a hybrid position as defensive
end and outside linebacker.
“Eighty-three was not only just a great time for the football team, but for Western Carolina,” Jones said. “The transformation was amazing with the positive attitude on campus and in the community.”
Current WCU football coach Kerwin Bell briefly visited the reunion meeting and expressed how thankful he and the players were for the inspiration provided by members of the 1983 team.
“I know that you have to have that championship DNA or you are not going very far,” Bell said. “You all had that championship DNA where you believed in each other and that's what got you to work to win. You're so successful. I think we're on that same track right now. We're at a stage where we can now take that next level. So that's what we're working to do this year.”
Eric Rasheed, whose uncle is basketball legend Walt Frazier, talked about how fans beyond WCU helped to fuel their playoff victories.
“There were fans from App State, Furman and other colleges that followed us during our playoff season,” Rasheed said. “If you listen to those fans now, they still talk about how Western Carolina kept them going.”
Rasheed ended the season with two Southern Conference records – the most passes caught
in a season and the most kickoffs returned in a season.
So yes, they didn’t win the championship, but the team and the community seemed to gain a lot more.
The 1983 Catamounts became the first Southern Conference team to reach the NCAA championship game. They were also the first NCAA football team to play 15 games in a season.
The legacy will live on as Eric Rasheed’s son is playing for the Catamounts 40 years later this fall.