CONWAY — As former Coastal Carolina football coach David Bennett returned to campus Friday night and made his way toward Adkins Field House for the first time since his separation from the university after last season, new Chanticleers head coach Joe Moglia happened to be on his way out for the evening.
It was the first meeting between the coach who built Coastal football and the one charged with leading it into its next chapter.
“He said, ‘Honored to meet you, coach.’ I said, ‘Good to meet you, Joe,’” Bennett recounted later. “And I said, ‘Do one thing for me – take care of my boys.’ He said, ‘I’ll try.’ ... Our son said coincidence is when God’s at work behind the scenes, so there was a reason for us to meet there. I just told him, ‘Take care of my boys.’”
The rest of the faces Bennett encountered Friday night were far more familiar.
The longtime coach made his return to give the introduction speeches for two of his former players – linebacker Maurice Simpkins and safety Quinton Teal – as they became the first football inductees into Coastal’s Sasser Athletics Hall of Fame. The former Chants standouts were part of a five-person induction class that also included former CCU baseball star Mike Costanzo, former softball slugger Meagen Johnson and former track and field and cross country champion Anne Marie Moutsinga.
Bennett, who was relieved of his coaching duties at Coastal in December after leading the program through its first nine seasons, is now the athletic director at Socastee High School. He arrived just before the start of the ceremony – held in the large team meeting room where he once addressed his players – after watching the kickoff of the Braves’ game against Georgetown. And it took only moments for the handshakes and hugs to commence.
First, longtime CCU trainer Jeff Pounds greeted him in the hallway outside the banquet room. Soon thereafter, Simpkins and Teal heard their coach had arrived and made their way out to greet him and his wife, Melanie. Simpkins bulled his way into Bennett before wrapping him up in a big hug.
“It’s more of an honor for me to introduce you,” Bennett told them.
“It’s more of an honor for us to have you introduce us. Trust me,” Simpkins countered.
A steady stream of hugs and greetings continued for the man who went 63-39 in his nine seasons at the helm.
As they would talk about later in the induction speeches, Bennett and players like Simpkins and Teal helped Coastal to early success as the program won three Big South Conference championships in its first four seasons. Bennett was a part of four league championships and two FCS playoff appearances, but a 29-28 record over his final five seasons convinced university president David DeCenzo that a change was necessary. It was a tumultuous offseason for the program as it underwent its first head coaching change with a bold choice in Moglia and hefty buyout for Bennett.
“I just said a prayer, ‘Lord lead me what to say, let me not hold anything bad against anybody,’” Bennett said when asked what had gone through his mind on the drive over to campus.
And sure enough, whatever awkwardness there was or could have been for his return seemed to dissipate quickly.
“I’m going to snag me a hug from my coach,” one woman said, coming up to him and making small talk as if nothing had changed.
“There’s so many phenomenal people at this university,” Bennett said in a quiet moment before heading in for the ceremony. “Again, I’m missing our guys over there at [Socastee’s] Homecoming for about 30 minutes, and then I’ll shoot back over there, get out of this dadgum coat and nice shirt and put back on my sweats. I had two Socastee students come up to me tonight and say, ‘Coach, thank you.’ I said, ‘For what?’ They said, ‘For being here. For coming to Socastee.’ And I said, ‘Guys, it ain’t about me. It’s an honor and a privilege to be here.’”
And while Friday night was not about Bennett either, he fell right back into form and had the room laughing along with his introduction speeches for Teal and Simpkins, and then they took their turn at the podium.
The normally introverted Teal breezed past his allotted five minutes. He talked about how his grandmother wouldn’t let the kids in the house during the day so he had no choice but to spend his time playing sports. He talked about thinking he was done with sports after fracturing his patella in eighth grade, only to go on to be a two-time All-American and three-time All-Big South selection at Coastal and later an NFL player with the Carolina Panthers and San Diego Chargers. And he talked about what his time at Coastal meant.
“I was getting recruited by Clemson, South Carolina and Auburn, but I chose Coastal because you would never ever start another program and I wanted to set the tone for this place,” Teal said. “Coaches [said], ‘You’re crazy, why are you going to Coastal. They have nothing.’ I was like, ‘You’ll see.’ So now they challenged me, my mindset – I’ve got to make Coastal great. ... Like this very building that were standing in, it feels great that I was part of the foundation that started this. This is what we started and nobody can ever take this away. It will never be done again. It’s already here. It’s already established.”
Simpkins used the bulk of his speech to tout the value of his education not only on the field but in the classroom at Coastal. A double major in computer science and business administration, he went on to play briefly in the NFL with the Green Bay Packers and now runs his own computer programming consulting business.
Earlier in the week, he too paid tribute to the early days of Coastal football and the man who led him to Conway.
“As much as a lot of people want to discredit it, coach Bennett is responsible for the success of this football program from the ground up in my mind, and I was there from the ground up,” Simpkins said in a telephone interview Thursday.
As for Bennett, he said he’s kept in contact not only with his former Coastal football players but the ones the remain in the program as well. He mentioned that he listened to the end of the Chants’ triple overtime win over Furman last month on the radio. But he hasn’t been back to Brooks Stadium yet this season, and he won’t Saturday either as the hall of fame inductees are recognized during halftime. He’s going to watch his former defensive coordinator Curtis Walker coach with Western Carolina as they play The Citadel this week. He’s been trying to get around to see his former coaches while not missing any opportunity to watch his daughter on the sidelines as a cheerleader at Clemson.
Sitting in his office earlier this week, Bennett talked about what he thought it would be like returning Friday and the new era of Coastal football that now progresses without him.
“We’ve got a saying around here that [Socastee principal] Dr. Browning says,” he said. “It’s written right by his door when you walk in. It says, ‘It is what it is.’ It is what it is. God’s got me right here at this high school right now, and I’m here for a reason.”
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318.