CONWAY — It’s been 11 months since this all began, since Coastal Carolina turned its football program over to a man who had not held a paid college coaching position since the early 1980s and who had a background so unusual for the job and with no true precedent that all fans and observers could do was wonder – and speculate – what would come of it.
There was no shortage of skepticism and plenty of detractors – loyalists to the previous regime left feeling as if their football program had been taken over by a university president with a business background and a wealthy coach more notable for his work in the boardroom than in the locker room.
And then there is this …
The Chanticleers have won five straight games by 21 points or more, claimed a share of the Big South Conference championship and secured the program’s third-ever NCAA FCS playoff berth as they prepare for a first-round matchup with Bethune-Cookman in Daytona Beach, Fla., on Saturday.
As for Joe Moglia, the bold and very out-of-the-box hire chosen to replace David Bennett last December, well, he was named the Big South Coach of the Year earlier this week and one of 20 finalists for the Eddie Robinson Award presented annually to the top coach at the FCS level.
“There’s a hint of validation there,” CCU athletic director Hunter Yurachek said. “I think [CCU President David DeCenzo] and I and those involved in the process, as you got to know coach Moglia during the interview process, knew that he had the skill set first as a football coach and second as a leader to get the job done here as our head football coach at Coastal Carolina.
“This whole process was about our student athletes and their experience as students and as athletes of our football program. That’s why that decision was made, and I think it validates it from that point that our student athletes have really bought into coach Moglia.”
Validation. Vindication. Moglia was asked at least twice this week if he too felt any of those sentiments for all the instant-reaction that followed his hire. For all the attention paid to his personal wealth and his status as the former CEO and present chairman of TD Ameritrade. For those who suggested that fans would stay away from Brooks Stadium out of respect for Bennett and dissatisfaction over the selection of his successor. Or for anything else that came out in the weeks and months following his hire.
“I don’t think it’s any vindication. I think vindication’s a bad, bad word there,” Moglia said. “I think certainly Coastal feels good about the fact that we’ve gotten to the playoffs, I think it feels good about the fact that we’re sharing in the title. I think it feels good about the progress that we made. I think again, my background becomes a question only because it’s non-traditional.”
It wasn’t the fans and critics Moglia had to win over, though. It was a locker room full of players recruited by the outgoing coaching staff. Players who – like most other people – were caught by surprise when the news came out three weeks after the end of last season that Bennett had been dismissed.
The players would return to campus in early January and formally meet with Moglia and the new assistant coaches he had hired by that point, and then a group of seniors would sit down with the new head coach and lay out some hopes of their own – a range of requests from switching to Nike cleats to limiting full-pad practices to lightening the time demands on the players.
Moglia quietly took notes during the meeting, senior center Pat Williams said, and “next thing you know things were changing the next week.”
“He earned our trust Jan. 8 when he came in and we had that meeting about how things were going to change, we started seeing change, everything we pretty much wanted he got us. So we decided we could trust him,” Williams said. “And then as a business man like he is, he sold a great product that everybody bought into. That’s when it changed.”
Senior quarterback Aramis Hillary, meanwhile, has been as outspoken as any player on the team in voicing his support for Moglia and this new era of Coastal football. He said it after the team’s season-opening win over North Carolina A&T, he said it after a record-tying individual effort at Presbyterian two weeks ago and again on Wednesday in the aftermath of the Chants’ surge into the playoffs.
“For us to get a new coach our senior year, that was kind of out of our control, but we wanted to make the best of our season and he’s came in and done everything he [could] to adapt and adjust,” Hillary said. “It’s been a great adjustment. I think he’s done all he can to make everybody feel comfortable, and we’re excited about having coach Moglia here. I think he’s going to do great things in the future. He’s just that type of guy – whenever he says something, everybody listens and we want to just win ballgames for him because he’s a great guy and he’s done all he can for us.”
That confidence and cohesion had to weather a 2-4 start, a humbling 55-14 loss at Appalachian State and the first four-game losing streak in program history.
Then it started to turn.
After challenging league favorite Stony Brook to the end of regulation in a 27-21 loss on Oct. 13, the Chants have been on a historic pace. They’re averaging 46.2 points, 476.2 yards and 285.6 rushing yards through this five-game winning streak, and never in program history has Coastal strung together such a run of lopsided victories.
And along the way, the Chants got the help they needed with Liberty upsetting Stony Brook to set up a scenario in which all three teams tied for the Big South championship and Coastal claimed the league’s automatic playoff berth through the tiebreaker of best road record in league play.
Moglia is vague as to when he feels the players had fully bought into him, reiterating that it’s a process anytime a new coaching staff arrives, and he understood that from the start.
“It takes a while to earn somebody’s respect,” Moglia said. “And I didn’t expect to have that, even if it was a perfectly smooth transition from the past, I didn’t expect that overnight. That takes place over a period of time, and I think the more our guys worked together, the more our guys worked with our staff, the more our staff worked together, the more all those things happened, the more you could start to see that.”
As for the personal accolades, the coach of the year honor and the national recognition in his first season, well, now is not the time to think about such things, he said. The season isn’t over. There’s a playoff game to be played Saturday and more left to write in the narrative of this exceedingly successful debut season.
“If you spend too much time thinking about some of these other things, it creates a distraction. It really genuinely creates a distraction,” Moglia said. “… When the season’s over, I will certainly reflect on that and I know I’ll feel good and grateful for the season we’ve had, especially if we do well this week.”
11 months later
Much of the angst and uproar that came out of the coaching change last December was directed at DeCenzo, who took the lead role in the decision to move on from Bennett – still a popular figure in the community – and the decision to take a chance on Moglia.
The university president drew criticism for how he handled the process and questions followed as to Moglia’s qualifications for the job.
But again, that was 11 months ago.
“I’m exceptionally pleased with what I’ve seen, excited about the direction that football is heading and where I believe coach Joe is going to take us,” DeCenzo said over the phone Wednesday. “The whole piece behind it was to begin moving toward an opportunity for a national championship, and it’s not going to happen overnight. But I’m just so pleased. I’m just so pleased with what happened this season.”
Coastal’s 7-4 record this season against one of the toughest schedules in the 10-year history of the program – with the four losses coming to three ranked FCS teams and FBS foe Toledo – matches the Chants’ mark from last season against a lighter slate and matches the program’s most wins in the last six seasons.
The offense, under the direction of new coordinator Dave Patenaude, has averaged 35.2 points and 433.5 yards overall while improving markedly from the Chants’ 2011 averages of 24.6 points and 323.7 yards.
Moglia, meanwhile, has dwelled all year on the need to reduce penalties and improve discipline on the field. Coastal ranks tied for 32nd among all FCS teams in fewest penalties per game (5.55) after ranking 92nd and 94th the last two seasons.
Speaking earlier this week, Yurachek wouldn’t specify what his expectations were for the first season of this new era of Coastal football – beyond continued improvement – but he said they’ve been exceeded.
And the feedback of late has been quite different than that which was pouring in following the coaching change last offseason.
“I think those that are Coastal Carolina fans first and foremost are tremendously excited about this opportunity,” Yurachek said of the playoff berth. “I think my colleagues around the country are excited for me and this university and what we’ve been able to accomplish because I think, you know, when you sit and talk to other athletic directors about this hire and the process and they know kind of the pain that ensued in making that decision, they’re happy for me. But again, it’s not about me – it never has been. It’s not about Dr. DeCenzo – it never has been. It’s always been about our student athletes, the football program, the department of athletics and this university as a whole.”
If there’s a criticism to levy, it’s that attendance remained lagging for much of the Chants’ home schedule. The number of empty seats was most glaring in that big clash with Stony Brook in mid-October – what should have been considered the biggest game on Coastal’s schedule given the conference positioning at stake – and even as the team locked up its playoff berth with a win over Charleston Southern last weekend, the crowd remained sparse despite official attendance figures of 7,037.
In declaring the need for a new direction for the football program last winter, DeCenzo cited waning fan support among the multiple reasons behind his decision.
Speaking Wednesday, he said he expects growth in that regard to take time.
“We need to continue to build the excitement,” he said. “Last Saturday’s game was, I think, realistic in terms of student turnout. Playing the Saturday before Thanksgiving when all the students have left just doesn’t work out. I made several attempts to move that game and it just was not possible. I think that as we continue to move forward, continue to market it to the community and our students, continue to march forward, I think you’re going to see it growing. We still do run into the issues of when Clemson and USC are playing at home, that does take a good bit of our attendance. …
“But these things all take time, and as they see the program moving forward … that excitement [will build] behind that.”
And he does, indeed, believe the program is moving forward.
Seven wins and an FCS playoff berth later, DeCenzo feels his controversial decision has been affirmed, but like Moglia, he says it’s not about vindication or swaying popular opinion.
It was and is about the results and progress on the field.
“The reality is the whole aspect behind this is what I firmly believed was in the best interest of the university and moving the program forward,” DeCenzo said. “You make these decisions [based on] what you believe is in the best interest of the institution and the athletic program. You don’t look at this personally, and certainly you’re not out there running a tally sheet.
“But I’m pleased, as I said. I fully anticipated a two or three-year ramp up. It looks like it may be happening sooner than that.”
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318.