It was 10 o’clock Saturday night in Conway, South Carolina, and while the Brooks Stadium grandstands had long since emptied, one-quarter of the playing field was packed with people.
From the 25-yard line to back of the end zone, the black-uniformed Coastal Carolina Chanticleers and their coaches gathered in clusters, smiling, laughing and sometimes even crying with their families. They stood patiently in line, waiting to take photos together at one particular spot on the field, what is now and forever will be the high holy ground of the right hashmark at the 1-yard line, where BYU receiver Dax Milne was wrapped up by Coastal safety Mateo Sudipo and thrown to the teal turf as time expired.
The cheers were gone. The empty stands were littered with dog-eared poster board signs, worn out from being wagged at cameras since before dawn and the airing of College GameDay. “Welcome to Dirty Myrtle,” they proclaimed, while hailing the matchup of the “Mormons vs. Mullets” and a thousand other reminders that Conway is located in the vacation area officially known as the Grand Strand but lovingly referred to by locals as the “Redneck Riviera.”
But late Saturday, the party had left the aluminum bleachers and moved on to the beach bars. The Carolina Beach beats of the Fantastic Shakers’ “Myrtle Beach Days” were no longer blaring through the concourse. The only sound that now dared interrupt the Chants and their laughter was the steady vibrato of a ringing bell. The Beaty Memorial Victory Bell hangs just outside of that end zone, and as the 5,000 fans filed out of the stadium, it seemed as if every single one of them took a turn at ringing it.
Amid the crowd, a group of Coastal Carolina coaches gathered, and one motioned into the darkness toward the bell tower as one said, “Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Hey, Coach, wonder if they can hear that all over the country?”
“Coach” just grinned and nodded. Jamey Chadwell was taking in the moment. The head coach, in only his third season at the helm and second as a full-timer (he was interim head coach in 2017), has been careful to take in all the moments during this most improbable of 10-0 seasons. A year when a football team that didn’t even exist 18 years ago and was picked to finish last in the Sun Belt East and had never been ranked and thusly had never hosted a Top 25 matchup and, oh, by the way, didn’t know it would be playing 13th-ranked BYU until two days before the game kicked off.
As Chadwell had said during the electrified pregame warm-ups and repeated into a TV microphone three hours later, as his team celebrated the 22-17 victory on the field behind him, “We are about as 2020 a story as you can think of. We have a lot of fun. I think people need some fun right now. But we also aren’t just about mullets and crazy locker room celebrations. We’re pretty good at football, too.”
Yes, they are. And yes, that does get lost amid all the good-natured coverage of Coastal’s good-time ways. In October, as the Chanticleers reached 5-0 and cracked the AP Top 25, their story was featured everywhere, but the focus was on their intricately choreographed WWE-style locker room celebrations, a competition of hairstyles so heavy with product that would rival the backstage at a 1980s Fashion Week, and so many explanations of what the hell a Chanticleer even is. (Hint: Call your high school English Lit teacher and ask them to repeat those Chaucer lessons that you slept through.)
— Silas Kelly (@sila_SK_elly) October 25, 2020
“But here is the thing about all that stuff,” BYU head coach Kalani Sitake explained Friday, less than 24 hours before his Cougars took the field in Conway. He joked that wearing a mullet like the ones sported by the likes of Coastal linebackers Silas Kelly and Teddy Gallagher “might be a great way to enforce social distancing” and then explained, “I love it. It’s super fun, and I love to see a team having fun. But I think maybe while people are watching all of that, maybe they are missing out on the fact that this is a really good football team.
“I love their coaching staff. I am a football junkie, and I watch football all the time at every level, so I love FCS football. And because of that, I have known about Coach Chadwell for a long time. His offense is fascinating stuff. You don’t find it in a lot of places. So, while people might be watching and loving those locker room celebrations, I hope they also appreciate what this team does to have those celebrations.”
Every offensive system has a lineage, and many of those football family trees have become downright famous. The roots of Hal Mumme’s “Air Raid” or Don Coryell’s grandfathering of the West Coast offense are well documented. Chadwell’s spread option is begat from a lesser-known but no-less-proud marker-board bloodline that twists the learnings of Chadwell’s football background as naturally as the strands of his DNA.
He grew up in Caryville, Tennessee, just north of Knoxville, the son of a high school football coach during the early 1990s, when so many high school teams across Tennessee still spent their Friday nights running versions of the single wing offense run by Gen. Robert Neyland in the stadium that now bears his name in Knoxville. Meanwhile, as young Chadwell was running the option as a high school QB, he became obsessed with Tennessee’s quarterback at the time, 1992 Heisman Trophy runner-up Heath Shuler. (Chadwell’s firstborn son is named Heath.)
Buried under Shuler’s NFL failings now is how spectacular he was in college, a game-changing dual-threat signal-caller. Chadwell studied No. 21 like a football AP class. Shuler’s head coach, Johnny Majors, was also a Heisman runner-up, a record-setting halfback despite being small in stature. Majors constantly preached the gospel of leverage: “The other guy can be bigger, stronger and faster, but if you know where to hit him and what angle to take in order to keep him from hitting you, you win. The key to this game is leverage.”
When Chadwell went to East Tennessee State to play quarterback, he was coached by Paul Hamilton, who came to ETSU from Air Force. Hamilton had helped Air Force’s Hall of Fame coach Fisher DeBerry hone the Falcons’ high-scoring offense, a hybrid attack that mixed traditional service academy triple-option philosophies (a direct descendant of the single wing) with a little bit of passing spice gleaned from years of facing off against WAC rivals, especially BYU.
“When I played and coached at places like ETSU or Charleston Southern or Delta State, and especially when we were at North Greenville, you are always looking for something to level the playing field,” Chadwell explained last week ahead of Saturday’s game (though at the time he thought it would be against Liberty, not BYU). “At North Greenville, we were a D-II school in little ol’ Tigerville, S.C., and I had 16 scholarships when everyone else had 25. So, we looked at every advantage we could find. We would get in the van and go visit practices wherever they would let us show up. Wofford (an FCS school in Spartanburg, South Carolina) has always run a really neat option scheme, so we spent a lot of time with them. We were in the backyard of Furman, who always ran the ball so well in their heyday. Anywhere we could pick something up and add a page to what we wanted to do, we did it.”
That’s what led to the old-school offensive showcase that BYU and the entire nation was introduced to Saturday night. Triple-option base sets with the quarterback in the shotgun position, plus hints of the spread with a sprinkle of old-fashioned WAC passing thrown in for good measure. The so-called “Mighty Mites” of the Coastal offensive line (center Sam Thompson is 5-foot-9, 290) kept BYU’s much larger defensive front off-balance all night long, posting 282 yards rushing and owning the clock all night. In the first quarter, the Chanticleers had possession of the football for 11:09 of the 15 minutes, including a 94-yard TD drive that lasted 9:09.
After that drive ended and the O-line sat down on the bench to grab a breather, they were shouted to by a defensive lineman who was grabbing his helmet and taking the field for the first time in nearly half an hour.
“Damn, fellas, that was sexy.”
Meanwhile, that D-line played its own version of “the key to this game is leverage.” Aside from an egregious cheap shot on BYU quarterback Zach Wilson at the end of the first half, the Chanticleers played bend-don’t-break perfectly, allowing 405 yards of offense but only three points in the second half. Wilson was held to only one TD pass for the first time this season.
Up next is a regular-season finale trip to 5-5 Troy, a game postponed from November after the Trojans were grounded by COVID-19. Then it’s back to Conway for the Sun Belt title game against No. 17 Louisiana and perhaps a New Year’s Six bowl berth. Whatever bowl game it’s invited to, it will be the program’s first. Mullets, Myrtle Beach and locker room elbow drops unleashed on the college football postseason. Heaven help us all, but perhaps especially the Chanticleers’ opponent in that game.
“We absolutely have fun, and we love that people love that, but we are also a good football team, and maybe tonight some people who didn’t believe that will believe that now,” quarterback Grayson McCall barked through a hoarse throat after rushing for 68 yards and throwing for 85. His face was smeared with eye black like he’d just stepped out of a cage match at Starrcade ’86, and as he tried to talk, he was enveloped by a hug from the unmistakably bleached-blond mulleted head of Teddy Gallagher. “We always have a good time, because we love each other, and we love how special this season has been. But we also work really hard to get better –“
Another interruption. The victory bell was ringing again. The freshman smiled.
“Because there’s nothing more fun than winning.”