CONWAY — It’s been 10 years since this all started, since Coastal Carolina University formally launched its football program, hired an affable coach with ties to the area and a proven track record of success and started building toward a vision of what could be one day.
A lot can happen in a decade, and that has indeed been true for the Chanticleers.
A tradition was forged, an identity formed and all the while expectations were raised – to the point that the Chants now begin anew again.
As Coastal football opens its 10th season Saturday night at Brooks Stadium, it opens a new era as well. Longtime coach David Bennett was let go in early December, starting the first of the shockwaves that characterized the most turbulent, eventful offseason in program history. The next came with the announcement of his replacement Joe Moglia, a long-ago assistant in the college ranks who had left the game behind for more than two decades to rise up in the business world before shifting his interest back to the sidelines.
The transition from the southern-speaking Cheraw native who built his coaching resume in the Carolinas and built Coastal football into what it’s become over its first nine seasons to the fast-talking New Yorker who built a personal fortune as the CEO of TD Ameritrade has made for a, well, rather interesting last eight months. There has been skepticism and support, curiosity and confliction and altogether enough interest and intrigue for national websites like ESPN’s Grantland.com to send a reporter to Conway to write about the “The Billion-Dollar Coach.”
Finally, on Saturday night, there will be a game. The buildup is over. The season – the next phase of Coastal football – kicks off at 6 p.m. as the Chants host North Carolina A&T and the fanbase turns its full focus back to the field.
“I think everybody’s excited and really anticipating this new era and what our team is going to look like,” CCU athletic director Hunter Yurachek said. “You can only get so much by watching the spring game or scrimmages. There’s a lot of anticipation about what that team is going to look like as the Joe Moglia era begins with our football program.”
Anticipation that officials state has boosted ticket sales and support. Disappointed in the lack of student involvement on gamedays a year ago, Yurachek touted Friday that more than 2,100 student tickets had been claimed online, surpassing the seating allotment of the student section and extending into standing room-only capacity – if all those students indeed make use of their tickets. Overall, he said about 8,000 tickets had been allocated by Friday afternoon “with four or five sales hours still to go and all day tomorrow.”
With the offseason coaching change not only about jolting the Chants on the field but rejuvenating the fanbase, those numbers are encouraging, he said.
“It’s about Coastal. It’s about the brand and the student-athletes. It’s about supporting your school,” said Mark Payne, CCU’s senior associate athletic director for external relations who oversees marketing, corporate sponsorships and ticketing. “... People are buying in. Everything from fan excitement to sales to donations, everything’s up. Advertising is up. I think people have bought into the fact that Coastal is its own entity.”
He later added, “I think a lot of people are just ready to kickoff and turn the page.”
Bennett warns it might be a little chaotic as he leads a visitor to his new office inside Socastee High School a little after 2 p.m. Tuesday.
“It’s never-ending,” the former coach says, settling behind the cluttered desk he occupies now as the Braves’ first-year athletics director.
There are papers scattered throughout, stacks of envelopes to be mailed to donors and a varsity tennis match with West Brunswick that still needs to be figured out as both schools had scheduled the event as a home match.
Bennett, looking casual in a light-green short-sleeve plaid button-down, laughs about having to work metal detector duty at the school that morning and that he can’t go anywhere without his walkie talkie because “you never know when they’re going to call you.” The day before, he says, he arrived at 7:30 a.m. and didn’t get home until 9:45 p.m. While the plan Tuesday is to talk about those first nine seasons of Coastal football, it’ll have to wait a little bit because his cellphone keeps ringing, he has to run some volleyball tickets down the hall and now there’s a man from Pepsi he needs to go let into the building.
“Rookie AD at work,” he says on his way out the door.
Bennett, who received a $925,000 buyout from Coastal in April after being relieved of his coaching duties midway through a 10-year contract, has adorned his new office full of Chants memories. There are plaques and photos and signed helmets from the NFL players the program has produced, not to mention stacks of other pictures and frames he has yet to find a place for on the wall.
“Being from Cheraw, right down the road an hour and a half away, you always heard of them starting football at Coastal, but you didn’t think they were going to do it because it was just talk,” Bennett says shortly after returning to his desk and catching a break in the action. “And then they did, and then they asked us to coach them. It was an honor and a privilege.
“I think a lot of people were hesitant and didn’t know how it would turn out. ... It’s come a long way. You’re proud to see that it’s come a long way.”
Bennett, who left a successful Division II program at Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C., after the 2001 season to start Coastal’s new program, talks about the early days of driving players in pickup trucks to use Carolina Forest High School’s band practice field, or scrimmaging at other area high schools – wherever they could find space. He talks about the importance of getting out in the community back then to introduce the program to the area.
“We didn’t have the marketing department and things they have there now,” he says. “They might have just hired somebody to sell tickets. I think it kind of got them out of the junior college mentality. I mean, our coaches for the first two years sold ads for the program. So it’s been baby steps.”
He chuckles as he says that and then recalls the program’s first football game on Sept. 6, 2003, against Newberry. He smiles while recounting that his team didn’t even get to move into its locker room until the day before the game as the university waited for everything to pass building codes and what not. And he talks about the late drive that sent the Chants to a 21-14 win in that opener.
“That’s it right there,” he says, pointing to a picture on his wall. “It says, ‘The tradition begins.’”
It certainly did. Coastal went 63-39 in Bennett’s nine seasons, won at least a share of four Big South Conference championships and earned the league’s first two FCS playoff appearances while producing a handful players who have gone on to play in the NFL. He makes a point to also note that the Chants were 11-5 over his final 16 games, but university president David DeCenzo pointed to the program’s stagnation in recent years – four straights seasons of five or six wins before a 7-4 finish last year – and a lack of wins against opponents with winning records.
Bennett still has residual disappointment over what happened in December, and in reflecting back on his tenure, he talks less about wins and losses than the lessons he hopes his players learned beyond football. Bennett often steered the conversation that way during his time as coach, as well. That the job was more than wins and losses.
As for the upcoming football season, Bennett says he’s looking forward to spending Saturdays watching his daughter cheer on the sidelines at Clemson and checking in on his former assistant coaches. But he’ll keep tabs on the Chants, too.
“I’ll probably sneak in there and watch them somewhere along the line,” he says.
A new era
Many will be watching with a curious eye to see how this new chapter of Coastal Carolina unfolds.
That Grantland.com story posted online this week offered both sides of what was surely the most unique coaching move in college football this past offseason and included a critical comment from local football agent Joel Turner – who was close to Bennett and represents former Chants Tyler Thigpen and Mike Tolbert among others – in regards to some outside opinions about Moglia’s hire.
Moglia says he didn’t read the story, nor has he read much of anything written about him these last eight months. He was asked yet again during his Wednesday news conference about the detractors and said he appreciates the “emotion and drama” associated with this transition.
“There’s nobody that can root for me so hard or there’s nobody that can root against me so hard that’s going to have any real impact in terms of what our preparation is,” he said. “... We can’t worry about what’s happening on the outside. We can only control the things that we’ve got. So you know what, there may be some people that hope we don’t do particularly well, but there’s plenty of people out there that really are hoping we’re going to wind up doing fine.
“At the end of the day, we represent a great university and we have the best interests of this university and our kids at heart. And anybody that cares about this place, that should be their priority too.”
Junior wide receiver Matt Hazel says he gets asked by classmates “how it feels to be coached by a billionaire,” but adds, “You really don’t pay attention to it just because of coach Moglia’s personality, just being straight forward, being a players’ coach. He always takes our opinions. ... I think everybody’s buying in and everybody’s ready to play.”
CCU offensive line coach Patrick Covington, the lone holdover from Bennett’s coaching staff, also says the transition has gone well.
“The guys on the team have to have a lot of respect for what coach has done and the bold step he took coming back to college football,” he said. “And they respect it. Everything he’s tried to do since he came in here is build a championship football team.”
That is definitely the expectation now for the decade-old program, and in the wake of the offseason coaching change, that has perhaps never been made more clear.
Yurachek says he sees the program as one primed to win conference championships consistently, start making noise in the NCAA FCS playoffs and compete for the top prize. Moglia is the first to acknowledge those expectations, noting Wednesday after formally signing his contract that, “If we don’t win or we’re not competing for a national championship, we’re going to get fired. We know that and understand that.”
“I truly believe we are set to win a national championship here at Coastal Carolina. We made no bones about that with coach Moglia that that is our goal, to win a national championship,” Yurachek reiterated. “... I think you’ve seen everything he’s done in life has been a success. I don’t think that challenge scares him in the least, ... but it can’t just be on the shoulders of coach Moglia.
“It has to be a true campus and community effort getting to that point. It’s going to be this entire community really buying in.”
Yurachek and Payne were out on campus until about 1 a.m. one night this week posting banners to add to the buildup to the season opener. They’re optimistic that the early indications and ticket numbers will translate into the kind of support their hoping for Saturday – and beyond.
As for Moglia, he’s just ready to officially get started as the Chants try to launch their next ascent as a still-growing program.
“I think for any coach in any program at any level, you want to begin the season with a win, of course,” Moglia said. “I think with all the emotion that’s existed here and the stuff that’s been written about my being a non-traditional selection as far as this goes, there’s a little bit maybe more emotion associated with that.
“But the bottom line is, it’s still our first game and it’s a game we’ve got to win, and that’s pretty critical no matter who you are.”
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318.