CONWAY — When Dave Patenaude was a young 30-something head coach at Division II New Haven a decade ago, he had grand visions for how his college football career was going to progress.
That job was going to be the stepping stone to an FCS head coaching position, which would eventually be followed by a prominent offensive coordinator role at a national power of some sort and ultimately the head coaching job at Boston College or the like. That was the plan, at least – until New Haven unexpectedly cut its football program after the 2003 season.
Just like that, he was almost out of the sport altogether.
“I was 10 minutes away from not being a football coach anymore,” said Patenaude, who is in his first season as Coastal Carolina’s offensive coordinator. “I was getting out of the profession. I couldn’t find a job. I had an unbelievable opportunity in pharmaceutical sales – six digits, a car, an expense account and it was in the area I lived in [so] I wouldn’t have had to move. I had several interviews, did well, met with the team that I was going to be on. ... And then ultimately I was supposed to call the manager back, and my wife and I went out to lunch and she said, ‘You can’t do this.’ ”
Patenaude says he gives his wife Christine, whom he’s known since high school, all the credit for keeping him in the only job he’s ever wanted to do, and fans of the suddenly-surging Chanticleers should perhaps be as thankful as anybody now for the outcome of that pivotal crossroads moment nine years ago.
Hired in late January as first-year head coach Joe Moglia rounded out his new coaching staff, Patenaude has Coastal averaging 47.5 points over a four-game winning streak that’s put the team at the doorstep of a potential FCS playoff berth entering the season finale Saturday against Charleston Southern. The Chants (6-4, 4-1 Big South) have tallied 1,221 yards of offense and 120 points over the last two weeks while rolling over struggling conference foes Gardner-Webb and Presbyterian, and they lead all Big South teams in scoring (42.2 points per game) and total offense (499.8 yards) in league play.
But try to get Patenaude to say the offense is peaking now or that he’s maximizing the talent on the roster to its fullest potential, and he’ll simply offer that, “I think we’re much better than we were at the beginning of the season.”
After a number of stops along a career path that’s changed course more often than he could have anticipated, Patenaude has become all too keen to the volatility of college football – both on the field and off.
“This profession is so up and down,” he said, sitting in his office. “You know, you score a lot of points one week; the next week you get shutout. It’s the same thing in your career. You can get shutout very quickly – they drop a program or a head coach moves to another program and you don’t get retained and now he doesn’t take you. The [in]stability and unpredictability in this profession is crazy.”
But so far, so good in his debut season at Coastal – especially if the Chants can win this week.
Change of course
First, the back story.
It was the beginning of the 2003 football season, Patenaude’s second at New Haven after being hired by the university in southern Connecticut as a 32-year-old first-time head coach following a stint as the offensive coordinator at Columbia, and he was meeting with the school’s athletic director.
“The school was in real financial peril. I had met with our athletic director in the beginning of the season and [he said], ‘Hey, the school’s in trouble financially, we’re having issues, it shouldn’t be an issue, but just a heads up,’ ” Patenaude said. “And then it really came out of the blue there right after the season. The board of directors had met and they’re dropping football and there’s nothing we can do.”
First, Patenaude had to break the news to his team and worry about finding new football homes for the players and staff. And then he had to look at his own situation and realize that the fast track he thought he was on with his career had suddenly gone way off course.
“There was some low spots,” he said, looking back.
Challenges that led him to the brink of a decision he knows he would have regretted – especially with that pharmaceutical company eventually “going in the tank,” he said – but from that fateful discussion with his wife came a new career course and eventually a new perspective.
“I give her all the credit in the world because she knew exactly who I was and what I should be doing,” Patenaude said, recalling that conversation over lunch. “It was hard on her to be able to say, ‘We’re passing up a tremendous opportunity for our family financially, but at the end of the day are you going to be happy?’ She knew that I wouldn’t be.”
He eventually latched on as a volunteer assistant at Holy Cross in 2004 while still being paid the remaining salary on his New Haven contract and spent three years there as the running backs coach and later the special teams coordinator and wide receivers coach before moving on and eventually serving as the offensive coordinator at Hofstra – which would pull an all-too-familiar surprise a few seasons later when it dropped its football program as well.
Patenaude quickly caught on as the offensive coordinator at Georgetown, though, and that’s where he caught Moglia’s attention.
Planning his own non-traditional coaching path and looking to get back into the college ranks after building his business reputation at Merrill Lynch and TD Ameritrade, Moglia began building a portfolio of potential assistant coaches should he realize his own goal of becoming a collegiate head coach.
“What I did was I looked at where they were in their respective league and what their statistics were,” Moglia said. “... When Georgetown was struggling in the Patriot League, they were struggling because they couldn’t move the ball. They got David as an offensive coordinator and all of a sudden they became a challenger in the Patriot League and one of the best offenses in the Patriot League.”
Patenaude, meanwhile, knew of Moglia’s story and heard that he was in consideration for several jobs, and perhaps most importantly, they knew some of the same people.
Moglia hired Mike Gallagher as one of his first assistant coaches after taking the job at Coastal, Gallagher had worked with Renato Diaz – now the Chants’ receivers coach – at Delaware State, and Diaz happened to be working under Patenaude at Georgetown. Gallagher told Diaz the Chants were looking for an offensive coordinator, and the dominoes started falling.
The first year is usually a learning process, Patenaude said, but less than 10 months after he was formally introduced as the team’s new offensive coordinator, the Chants find themselves in the midst of the most dominant four-game stretch of lopsided victories – each by at least 22 points – in program history.
Overall, they’re averaging 34.6 points and 441.5 offensive yards – up from 24.6 and 323.7 last season – and needing only a win Saturday over Charleston Southern and a Liberty win over VMI to clinch the third FCS playoff appearance in program history.
Diaz, who followed Patenaude from Georgetown to Coastal, isn’t surprised by how this has all turned out.
“He can see things on the football field and make calls that I’m just amazed by,” Diaz said of Patenaude. “I have to take a second look and say, ‘I would have never seen that in a million years.’ ... He’s got that gift. And he prepares like no one else I’ve ever seen with video. He watches so much video it would make my eyes bleed if I watched that much video.”
It doesn’t hurt, either, that Patenaude inherited a talented group of veteran personnel, but it’s worth noting that just about every key player on the offensive side is enjoying a career season.
Senior quarterback Aramis Hillary has thrived while leading the Big South in total offense at 2,400 yards (2,031 passing and 369 rushing). Junior receivers Matt Hazel (48 catches for 611 yards and five touchdowns), DeMario Bennett (37-535-6) and Niccolo Mastromatteo (35-424-3) have all set career highs already. And senior Jeremy Height has a career-best 686 rushing yards to lead a ground attack that has totaled 1,948 yards through 10 games, which is already 438 yards more than the team had in 11 games last season.
“He just made sure everybody knew what he came here to do,” senior receiver Akeem Wesley said. “He just wanted everybody to know that he was really excited about this offense and he saw talent around this offense and he wanted to make sure we showcased that talent. And so far, this offense that we have, that he put together, it’s really coming together.”
The Chants have kept the play-calling relatively uncomplicated. The offense basically works out of five base run plays and about 10 base pass concepts, Patenaude said, and they mix up the personnel and formations and motions from there.
It’s been a recipe that has worked quite well for the Chants, especially of late, while making for a transition that has gone almost seamlessly for an offensive coordinator whose career has been anything but.
“We’re playing for a conference championship, and I think that I’ve been blessed here with very good players, a very good coaching staff, a head coach who understands what we do and allows me to do what I need to do to be successful,” Patenaude said. “From a football standpoint, this is a great job. And the kids are awesome here. They want to win, they want to learn, so they’ve made it very easy for me to be able to do that. And when you couple that with the fact that my family is settled in and I’m 50 yards from the beach, it’s been a great year so far.”
So does that mean he expects to stick around for at least a couple years?
“That’s the plan,” he said with a smile. “That’s the plan. Unless I can get that head job at Boston College or Notre Dame.”
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318.