The Rivalry That Wasn’t

by Kempton Smith, BGP Contributor and Appalachian State Alumnus

In the FCS championship years, Elon was the emerging program that really wanted to be a rival.  They were not able to win enough to make it happen.

University Background and Academics

Elon was chartered as a Christian college in 1889, ten years before Appalachian was founded as a state-supported university.  Evolving through the years, Elon has become a very successful university, particularly in areas of specialization.

Elon Appalachian State
Location NC/Alamance Co (Piedmont) NC/Watauga/Boone (Mountains)
Enrollment 6,300 19,000
Undergrad majors 70 150
Avg SAT 1890-1930 1080-1260
Tuition $37,921 $7,410 NC    $22,217 Non NC
% From NC 10% 90%


Elon’s schools of Business and Communications are favorites, with nearly 50% of the Elon student body choosing majors in these areas. Elon, similar to Wake Forest, has a significant number of out-of-state students.

Student Life

Elon reports about 4,000 students live on campus (63% of undergrads) and a 13:1 Student-Faculty Ratio.  App has on-campus housing for 5,600 and reports a 16:1 Student-Faculty Ratio. Both appear campus-focused, especially with undergrads, and both have considerable student involvement in social clubs.

Elon’s campus has been ranked as one of most attractive campuses in the country by national publications.  The New York Times and the Princeton Review both named Elon “the most beautiful campus in the country” in 2019.  Princeton Review also awarded Elon top-ranking in the “Best-run” category.

Elon has welcomed well-known national and international dignitaries for special events.  Speakers included sitting U.S. Vice Presidents, Past Presidents, and Past Prime Ministers.  In more recent years:

  • 2003 – Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa
  • 2005 – Former Apollo astronaut and U.S. Senator John Glenn
  • 2006 – Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell
  • 2008 – Former President Bill Clinton

Academic Rankings

U.S. News ranks Elon 88th Elon in the National Universities category.  They are overall 73rd best University for undergraduate teaching.  Appalachian is ranked 6th best overall in the South Region and 2nd best in the South for undergraduate teaching.

Football Culture:  Parking lot, Stands, Scoreboard

Comparing Tailgating, the In-Stadium experience, Boosters, and Football expenditures

Elon organized football in 1909, and they have played continuously since 1919.  Originally known as the Fighting Christians, their pre-2000 mascot logo looked much like a combination of today’s Yosef and the Fighting Irishman of Notre Dame.

Appalachian’s Yosef originated in the 1941-42 edition of The Rhododendron.  It too has evolved through the years.  The roots of this version were re-developed from a version popular in the 1980s.

In 2000, the University adopted the Phoenix as its new athletic identity.  The mythical bird that rose from the ashes was selected to remind fans of a campus fire that destroyed the Main Building in 1923, especially the University’s rise from those ashes.

Boosters and Budgets

Elon University is private, and they choose not to make booster or financial information public.  A letter near the end of 2020 thanked the “more than 2,200 who contributed to the Student Athletic Scholarship fund. For comparison, App reports Yosef Club contributions of $3.9m from 2,700 members.

Using the average reported by FCS institutions as a surrogate, Elon likely spends about $4m on football (about ½ that of App).  Elon has an Endowment Fund with a 2020 balance of $261.6m.

Parking Lot

“Family-friendly tailgating is a renowned Elon football tradition.”  Elon promotes a family-friendly tailgate experience, specifying that beverages must be served in cups, no loud music, no foul language, no riding in the back of a pickup truck, and no drinking games.  Nice game-day experience pictures are posted online, but most are by the University.  A student newscast from 2019 shows the parking lot was full, but no Phoenix logo tents are visible.  The limited game day tailgate coverage and limited social media available lead to the opinion that tailgating at Elon is at a lower level.

App State’s tailgates are becoming legendary in college football.  ESPN sportswriters have acknowledged both the Library Deck and Big C’s tailgates in 2021.  In previous years, several reviewers from national publications have ranked App State in the top 25.


Completed in 2001, Rhodes Stadium is newer than most football stadiums.  The modern facilities appear very substantial and welcoming for the home team and its fans.  Elon reports a seating capacity of 11,250, with additional seating on a sloped grassy area called Phoenix Hill (much like Miller Hill).  Average attendance is reported as 7k to 8k by StadiumJourney.  Most online reviews are about the stadium and surroundings, with little written about the experience and traditions inside the venue on game day.

This week’s game will be the dedication of Jerry Moore Plaza, Family Weekend, and the home-opener.  This will be the first time in over 600 days that App fans have been able to cheer together for this football team.  I expect a truly special day.

Scoreboard: Traditions of Winning

Elon has played football continuously since 1919 (App in started in 1928).  Elon’s history includes back-to-back NAIA National Championships (1981 & 1982).  However, since 2000 Elon had only six winning seasons; 2017 was among their best at 8-4 with a 1st round playoff loss to Furman.  App’s history includes three consecutive FCS National Championships and only one losing season since 2000.

Over the ages, App and Elon have played “semi-regularly.”  The teams played each year between 1946 and 1971 when both were NAIA North State conference. Annual games also occurred between 2003 and 2013, when both were members of the Southern Conference.  Elon and App have played a total of 42 games, with the team from Boone winning 31 times.

Five of Elon’s winning seasons in this century were during the span when App and Elon were conference mates in the SoCon.  Elon was often close during that span, but they could not earn a win against App State on the gridiron.

The fan frustration was evident from one sportswriter from the Elon Student Newspaper from 2013:

Here we go again. Round No. 42 of the Elon University/Appalachian State University “rivalry.”

On Saturday, Sept. 21, Elon will host Appalachian State for the final time as Southern Conference and FCS rivals, if you can even call them rivals anymore.

Cutting straight to the chase and the cold truth, there isn’t any more “going for bragging rights” against Appalachian State for Elon. The Phoenix haven’t beat Appalachian State since 1964 when George Tucker was the head coach. 

In those SoCon years, the “near rivalry” flourished.  Fans flocked to the games.  The contest in 2009 set the Rhodes Field attendance record of 14,167 (which still stands today).  The following year’s matchup in Boone brought a new record crowd to Kidd Brewer, with a total of 31,531 attending.  That number stands strong enough for third-best in KBS football history, right behind Wake Forest and Miami.

App won that game 31-21.

For Elon, this year’s tilt is a money-maker.  Elon will be paid at least $300,000 for the game in Boone.

Both teams enter this game at 1-1.  Elon had a disappointing home-opening loss, celebrating the 20th year of Rhode’s Stadium, losing to Wofford 24-22.  On 9/11, Elon traveled to and beat Campbell.  App has a neutral field win against ECU and a heart-breaking loss to Miami to overcome.

Because of our experience in Ann Arbor, I will not underestimate the impact of preparation, talent, and heart over budget; and especially will try to avoid giving any opponent any bulletin-board material.  However, App has the superior football team, traditions, and culture over Elon.  That only works if we continue to rule the scoreboard.  Let’s take care of business on Saturday early in the game so that hopefully, we can get some live game experience for some players who have not seen action so far this season.  See you at the Rock.