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CONWAY, S.C. – Coastal Carolina coach Jamey Chadwell is sitting behind the desk in his office, grinning as he attempts to explain how the Chanticleers became 2020's most endearing story in college football.
After Coastal blew out Kansas, 38-23, to open last season, it etched its mark into college football’s consciousness week after rollicking week. The country gawked at the Chanticleers' WWE-style victory celebrations, admired their flowing mullets and related to the overachieving crew of squatty “Mighty Mite” offensive linemen.
Chadwell himself emerged as a folksy fixture in the sport, taking a team that went 5-7 in 2019 and leading it to an undefeated regular season and Sun Belt title. To commemorate the league title, Chadwell grew out a mullet of his own as a promise to his team.
How much more can the lore of Coastal Carolina grow? With 20 returning starters and as 25.5-point favorites against Kansas on Friday night according to BetMGM, the No. 17 Chanticleers have an ESPN2 showcase to begin establishing their encore.
The highest compliment to Coastal Carolina’s ambush of the college football establishment in 2020 is that many will peek at the teal-colored Surf Turf on Friday night to soak in some of the authentic joy that Coastal unexpectedly provided last season. One line from Chadwell sums up how Coastal Carolina became a paragon for college football revelry: “We didn’t kill the chicken.”
Along with going 11-1, upsetting BYU amid the buzz of ESPN’s "College GameDay" and finishing the 2020 season ranked No. 14 in the Associated Press poll, the Chanticleers became a must-follow because of their creative and elaborate postgame celebrations.
One peek at Chadwell on the sideline Friday will show the spoils of victory. Even though there’s business in front of Coastal on the field, Chadwell’s flowing mullet is a reminder there’s still always time for a party in the back.
“We don’t take ourselves too seriously,” Chadwell told Yahoo Sports recently.
Birth of Coastal Carolina's weekly trophy tradition
How did this vibe arrive? Chadwell and defensive coordinator Chad Staggs recalled years ago, as they were climbing the coaching ladder together, working for a head coach who treated every day like it was fourth-and-inches. “It was a miserable existence,” Chadwell said.
How did they go completely in the opposite direction? How did they get in a position where Staggs once sent graduate assistants to a flea market to purchase a live chicken?
Coastal’s viral postgame locker room celebrations are actually a by-product of a lesson taken from one of the sport’s most trite cliches — one game at a time. Back in 2014, while the coach at Charleston Southern, Chadwell’s team burst out to a 5-0 start. It nearly upset Vanderbilt in October, falling 21-20, which spiraled into a three-game losing streak including a sluggish 7-3 loss to Presbyterian.
“I remember exactly why,” Chadwell said with a laugh. “We thought we were pretty good because we should've beat Vanderbilt and whatever.”
He realized that Charleston Southern got too focused on the opponent instead of themselves. Soon after, Chadwell introduced weekly “trophies” for the team. Each game became its own championship, often with the trophy themed around the opposition’s mascot. That’s why they arranged for the live chicken while at Charleston Southern for a game against Coastal, which has a rooster as a mascot. (The chicken wasn't killed, but the team wives were in on the ruse and brought in buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken to pass them around the locker room in celebration.)
For Georgia State, there was a "Black Panther" theme. For a game with Monmouth, which is in New Jersey, there was a battle for the sanctity of sweet tea versus Northern variety unsweetened tea. For a game against a wealthier opponent in the conference, there was a battle for silver spoons.
Each assistant coach is essentially responsible for a game. And so when the coaches introduce the trophy at the beginning of the week, there’s videos, themes and the clear urge to push the envelope to one-up the other coaches to see who can fire up the team.
“It turned into a competitive thing with the coaches,” Staggs said. “And the trophies got cool, and then the celebrations came along. But the point of those weeks was to try to keep it day-by-day, check your process, take each game one game at a time. That was the point of each game's championship, right? When you kinda brought that, each week is a championship, let's not focus on the big picture.”
Co-OC Willy Korn is considered the most creative. He cast his brother, coordinator of player personnel Colton Korn, as the Georgia Southern Eagle in the famous WWE re-enactment last season. That included an off-the-top-rope move that broke a folding table.
“What people don't know about it is he was having trouble breathing because they were beating the heck out of him,” Chadwell said. “Literally, he's struggling to breathe. So after he's laying down after they pin him or whatever, I gotta pull him out of there.”
Mullets, fun and winning help boost university's profile
Nearly a decade after the weekly championship started, that innovative twist on a cliché evolved enough to organically help brand the program, boost the athletic department and launch the university into a new sphere. Nowhere in Coastal’s athletic history had it received as much attention from winning and the celebratory shenanigans, with the baseball NCAA championship in 2016 the only thing in the ballpark.
Applications at the school rose 9 percent from 2020 to 2021 and first-year enrollment increased by 22 percent. (While enrollment numbers were inherently down in 2020 because of the pandemic, there was a 9 percent enrollment increase compared to 2019.)
Coastal president Michael T. Benson was a young president at Snow College in Utah in the early 2000s and saw the impact that Urban Meyer and Kyle Whittingham’s football success at the University of Utah had on the school and state. Benson is a vocal supporter of athletics, and was hired in October amid a football frenzy.
“All the attention it brought to our university is impossible to deny,” he said. “It’s an incontrovertible fact that we have our largest and best prepared [via test score] freshman class in our history. I can’t say enough about what happened.”
The peak came when ESPN’s "GameDay" arrived in December for a game with No. 8 BYU. The game was scheduled just two days before, which the shotgun nature turning it into a spectacle. Coastal won 22-17, with one of the season’s best games requiring a goal-line stop in the final seconds to secure the victory.
There’s an eagerness to run the whole show back in 2021. Benson said the school had to scramble to find 2,500 T-shirts to accommodate the 5,000 students expected for the white-out against Kansas on Friday night.
Many familiar staples will be there for Coastal Carolina. Quarterback Grayson McCall is coming off a freshman All-American season after accounting for 33 touchdowns. Six-foot-4 tight end Isaiah Likely is one of the country’s top NFL prospects at his position, and linebackers Teddy Gallagher and Silas Kelly provide both the heartbeat of the defense and can boast the most eye-popping mullets.
The most critical returnee for Coastal is Chadwell, who is both head coach and play-caller for Coastal’s unique offense. (Think an option offense on steroids, accented by an evolved passing game.) South Carolina, Tennessee and UCF all expressed interest in Chadwell to varying degrees last year, and he got a new contract loaded with incentives for he and the staff if they have similar high-end seasons.
It could happen this year, as Chadwell has a loaded team with a manageable schedule that has only one regular-season game — at Appalachian State — where Coastal could be considered underdogs.
Chadwell succeeded Joe Moglia as full-time coach in 2019, and Moglia played a big role in building the program into an FCS power; he went 56-22 and oversaw the transition to FBS before handing the program to his assistant. Moglia has stayed close to the program as the chairman of Coastal Carolina athletics, and he gave a major gift this week that will help build a $15 million football practice facility that will be named the Joe Moglia Center.
“There’s no reason why we can’t be a top 25 team,” Moglia said in a phone interview. “In great years, there’s no reason we can’t be a top 10 team.”
Coastal reached as high as No. 9 last year and started this season with a 52-14 victory over The Citadel. In just its fifth season of full-time FBS play, Coastal already has reached rare heights.
Perhaps more important, people are eager to see what’s next. Rest assured, no animals will be harmed amid the celebrations.