Coastal Carolina's meteoric rise taking Chanticleers into FBS

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It’s about teal fields and caviar dreams in Matt Hogue’s world, because Coastal Carolina gave up thinking small a long time ago. A perfect regular season? That’s groovy and all, and yet …

“I think certainly, if we were unbeaten, a lot of people would be very excited about that,” said Hogue, the Chanticleers' athletic director. “And it’s an achievement that we would really take a lot of pride in.

“But I think when you talk to everyone around here, when you talk to the coaches and everyone associated with the program, ultimately, we want to make that playoff run and raise a trophy. So I think how you do in the regular season, it’s really going to be more (about), ‘How does that set you up to have the best possible trip to the national title?’ And, obviously, if you’re undefeated, you’re going to be in a better (position) to do that.”

The Chanticleers (7-0, 2-0 conference) have won or shared seven of the last 12 Big South league titles — and are sitting in the catbird seat for an eighth, a pretty nice clip for a football program that was on the drawing board in 2001 and didn’t take the field until two years after that. But Coastal also has a FCS playoff record of 4-5, and has seen its season ended in the quarterfinals two years in a row by North Dakota State. A move to the FBS beckons after this year, and there’s unfinished business to attend to.

“Certainly there was an expectation, sure, that this team can be in the national (race) again. And I think we’ve seen some new faces step up and play well and you know, the nation has learned a little bit about Devin Brown as a kick returner — he’s had a fantastic year,” said Hogue, whose program visits rival Charleston Southern (6-1, 3-0) Saturday at 6 p.m. ET on ASN. “So I think that there’s no question that expectations were high.”

Every year, the bar at Conway, S.C., inches upward. An unconventional program — coach Joe Moglia is a football man who squeezed in a stint as CEO of TD Ameritrade before picking up the gridiron baton again — taking an unconventional path to excellence.

“I don’t think there’s any question: His tenure has been incredible,” Hogue said of Moglia, who’s on a run of three consecutive Big South titles since taking the reins in 2012. “And I think that often times, people who are hugely successful are ones that challenge the conventional thought, conventional wisdom — or, in many cases, they change the conventional wisdom. … He doesn’t just do things because that’s the way other programs do them. He doesn’t recruit players just because there’s another program recruiting that player.”

“Everything they do (within) the program is done from a perspective of outside maybe conventional wisdom. I think sometimes maybe that does raise some eyebrows, but I think he’s proven that can be very successful in the football culture.”

Coastal, meanwhile, keeps on raising eyebrows. And the stakes. The Chanticleers are on track to join peers such as Appalachian State and Georgia State in the Sun Belt Conference next fall, with a full league slate set for 2017 and postseason eligibility on tap the year after that.

“Basically in 13 seasons to start a program and then move up to FBS, that’s certainly a quick rise,” Hogue said, “but I think it’s mirrored what’s happened at our institution at that time.”

Football has lifted the university’s profile, and vice versa. Enrollment at Coastal in 2001 was almost 5,000; this fall, it was more than 10,000.

“You can’t possibly think that you’re going to do it right away,” offered former Coastal athletic director and ex-Penn State football captain Warren Koegel, who was the athletic director back when the Chanticleers’ gridiron ship was hatched and, eventually, launched, more than a dozen years ago. “What you don’t know is how long it’s going to take.”

What they did see was an opportunity. University brass wanted a flame that would draw alums, and young alums, back to campus and light a fire under the pool of potential students. Powers Clemson and South Carolina split the state and the fan interest, but their respective campuses were each more than three-and-a-half-hour drive from the Myrtle Beach/Conway market.

“This part of South Carolina,” Koegel recalled, “was screaming for a college football entity … believe it or not, I had many people who told me we’d be lucky to get 1,000 fans (per game) when we first started.”

[caption id="attachment_3010" align="alignleft" width="150"] Click logo for a brief history of CCU football.[/caption]

Actually, they averaged 6,655 at home in Year 1. They changed the logo. They marketed. They pitched to older fans, young fans and families. Players such as Mike Tolbert and Josh Norman developed into NFL stars.

Also, whether under Moglia and predecessor Dave Bennett, they won. A lot.

“I think athletics is always going to have a significant marketing function for an institution; that’s really sort of a big piece of how it works,” Hogue said. “And you can say it’s ‘the front porch,’ and there’s other terminology that’s used, but I think we’ve reached a point where it’s far more sophisticated than that. And it very much is part of how you brand the institution, and it’s also how you drive interested parties to your institution … it’s not just an aesthetic (thing), but it’s also a very functional way to get people engaged with what’s happening at your university well beyond what’s happening in athletics.”

But for the savvy athletic directors, the job is never done, the grass under your feet never green enough. To that end, Hogue has touched base with his counterparts at like-minded schools, as well as comrades at Old Dominion, which transitioned it's football program to FBS in 2014.

“We’re certainly not No. 1, but I think we’ve got a fairly comparable situation to a lot of those situations (in the Sun Belt),” Hogue said. “We’re very similar to those situations in terms of being a state school and so forth, so we don’t feel that there’s a huge gap to jump. We know there are going to be areas where we’ve got to improve, but we feel like we’re going into it from a position of strength.”

A seating expansion from 9,214 to roughly 20,000 by 2017 at Brooks Stadium is on the to-do list — the Chanticleers’ home was built in a way that it could accommodate another level of stands on top of the current ones, Koegel said — although specific plans are still being kicked around the drawing board. In an idea world, football, done right, can be the tide that lifts all boats. The front porch.

“I think the better way of looking at it is, (you) start with the fact that our university has always provided tremendous support toward athletics,” Hogue said. “So I think we’ve always had tremendous support from our president and our board, that (it’s) a real important aspect to the overall experience at our university, and we want to try to be successful. I think it kind of really seeps across the whole department.”

The baseball program spent much of the season ranked in the NCBWA Top 25; men’s soccer opened the week 10th in its respective coaches’ poll. Coastal ranked 83rd nationally in the Learfield Sports Directors’ Cup, awarded annually to the athletic department with the most success across all sports, the highest standing of any school in the Big South or the Sun Belt.

For a program that’s never looked down from Day One, things keep looking up.

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