The final season of the Tom Apke Era at Appalachian State came to an end in disappointing fashion, as the Mountaineers mustered just eight wins, capped by a loss in the 1996 Southern Conference Tournament to heated rival and eventual champion Western Carolina.
Appalachian State basketball needed a new image, and the athletic department felt Vanderbilt assistant Buzz Peterson was the guy for the job.
Peterson was no stranger to success in the Southern Conference, having served on some of those great ETSU staffs under Alan LeForce during the Bucs’ golden era in the SoCon, when ETSU was in its hey-day in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. Peterson also played at North Carolina from 1981-85 and was roommates and good friends with Michael Jordan.
He had the pedigree and the knowledge of hoops to be the kind of game-changer for Appalachian State that Bobby Cremins had been in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. In fact, when Peterson came in, it had been nearly two decades since the Black and Gold had been to the Big Dance.
The 1996-97 season would see the kind of improvement Mountaineer fans had been longing for following a pair of dismal seasons in the final couple of years under Apke. “Buzz ball” — a term coined to help generate excitement about Mountaineer basketball by the public relations and marketing staffs — proved to be a hit.
That first season saw the Mountaineers play a fast, up-tempo brand of hoops and that helped yield a final record of 14-14. The Mountaineers opened the Southern Conference Tournament in Greensboro with a win over defending champion and arch-rival Western Carolina, ending the Catamounts’ season. Facing the Marshall Thundering Herd’s high-octane attack in the semifinals, however, proved to be too much for Peterson’s Apps to handle, and the Mountaineers dropped an 84-78 decision.
A six-win improvement for the Mountaineers in 1996-97 was certainly a building block that Peterson could work with after year one in the High Country. Peterson had done a nice job of infusing new talent into the program, such as lightning-quick point guard Tyson Patterson and walk-on sharp-shooter Matt McMahon, with some of the holdover veterans, like Tige Darner.
The 1997-98 season would see Buzz continue the rebuilding project in Boone, leading the Mountaineers within striking distance of the NCAA Tournament. The Mountaineers went all the way to the SoCon final before losing to Bob McKillop’s Davidson Wildcats.
The Mountaineers recorded their first 20-win season in a decade, and posted their first 21-win campaign since 1949-50. Appalachian would go on to finish the season 21-8 overall, finishing second overall in the SoCon.
One of the key factors in that winning season had been the acquisition of more talent to surround Patterson and McMahon. The arrival of Marshall Phillips out of Atlanta was a game-changer for the Mountaineers.
The athletic 6’5 wing could either go down low in the paint or take defenders off the dribble. He was even a decent shooter from the perimeter, but many other Division I programs had passed on Phillips, considering him a project. Peterson found him while he was playing in the Atlanta Midnight Basketball League.
These midnight leagues were leagues set up throughout the Southeast to keep youth out of trouble and provide another outlet for talents such as Phillips to be discovered by college basketball coaches. Phillips never played high school basketball, yet he was a natural talent.
Arriving at Appalachian State as a junior, Phillips was an instant hit. He posted 29 points and 15 rebounds in an early December against ACC foe Georgia Tech.
Phillips and the Mountaineers built off that successful 1998 season, but 1999 ended in the same place — a game short of the NCAA Tournament.
Still, Peterson’s Mountaineers had finished the 1998-99 season with a 21-8 record, and their 13-3 record in Southern Conference play was good enough to garner the Apps the North Division title. Despite the disappointment, Peterson had put together the first consecutive 20-win seasons in school history.
They finally broke through the next year. Following Phillips’ graduation, Patterson needed a new scoring mate in the Appalachian backcourt. He got that in the form of sharp-shooting guard Rufus Leach.
Patterson, Leach, and young forward Josh Sheehan helped the Mountaineers go on the road and upset Clemson in one of the biggest moments in Peterson’s career to that point.
It was Patterson who helped the Mountaineers overcome a six-point deficit in the closing minutes to lift ASU to a 60-56 victory over Furman in the SoCon semifinals. The 5’7 point guard scored 12 of the final 14 Mountaineer points, and finished with a total of 28 to complete one of the most amazing individual performances in Southern Conference Tournament history.
Leach was named conference Freshman of the Year as part of a quartet of talented newcomers for the Mountaineers, which included center Corey Cooper, guard Shawn Alexander and forward Cedrick Holmes.
The Apps defeated SoCon powerhouse and defending champion College of Charleston in the title game, helping the Mountaineers to their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1979.
Appalachian State entered the NCAA Tournament as a 14 seed, but its season came to an end in the opening round against Ohio State. The Apps finished with 23 wins, tying the 1978-79 team for the most in school history.
Following the season, events turned tragic with Leach’s untimely death. Leach, a player who personified the truest measure of what it means to be a Mountaineer by helping pay his own way through school, was on pace to become an Appalachian State legend before his life was cut short that summer.
Shortly after Leach’s death, Peterson left Appalachian State to become the head coach of Tulsa, succeeding Bill Self. Houston Fancher replaced him.
The Mountaineers opened a new facility — the Holmes Convocation Center — losing by 30 points in the first-ever game in the brand new surroundings to North Carolina in Fancher’s first season.
Nine years after Peterson’s initial departure in June of 2000, he returned to Appalachian to succeed Fancher at the helm. Peterson had stops at Tulsa, Tennessee and Coastal Carolina before returning to Appalachian as head coach in 2009-10. Peterson helped lead the Mountaineers all the way back to the brink of the NCAA Tournament before falling to the Wofford Terriers.
Peterson then led the Apps to the CIT semifinals that season. They finished 24-13, which ranks as the second-most wins in a season in Mountaineer basketball history. Peterson left shortly after to take the head coaching job at UNC Wilmington.
The Apps, of course, now play in the Sun Belt and are trying to find their footing under fourth-year head coach Jim Fox. Peterson helped lay a strong foundation for Appalachian basketball in two different stints as the head coach, and in five combined years as head coach, he posted an overall record of 103-52.
Success has not come easy at Appalachian State, but few will forget the days when “Buzz Ball” was the operative phrase in the winter months in Boone.