How 15 dark days in October proved costly for Bennett

For all of the great moments produced by David Bennett and the Coastal Carolina football program for nine years, his fate may have been sealed during a 15-day period in October.

Bennett was “re-assigned” to another position in the athletic department on Friday, a nice way of saying he was fired. It’s a common practice used when a coach is asked to resign and refuses. By re-assigning him, the school is off the hook for the buyout clause in his contract, forcing Bennett either to quit or accept a lesser role under the people who canned him. Few coaches will put up with the demotion and find another coaching job.

It all seemed moot 24 hours ago, when no one was expecting the bombshell that dropped on the Conway campus. Of course, everyone knew that more was expected of Bennett than this year’s 7-4 campaign, but he was only one year removed from bringing a Big South Conference championship and a playoff berth to the Chanticleers, so surely he was safe for at least one more year.

Or so we thought. It seems while Bennett was on the road recruiting, meetings were taking place back on campus that would strip him of the job he actually created. No one here knows Bennett as anything but the good ol’ boy coach of the Chanticleers since he built the program from the ground up starting in 2002. Like many, I thought he would retire from Coastal some day and have the stadium renamed in his honor.

Instead he was unceremoniously stripped of his job, leaving many of us to wonder why. Although there are a number of factors involved, such as declining ticket sales and attendance, the biggest factor may have been a fortnight in October that turned Bennett from a seemingly untouchable figure in the athletic department to suddenly very vulnerable.

Things were looking good back when the Chants headed to Liberty for a key conference game on Oct. 15. Coastal was 4-1, with its only loss coming to SEC East champion Georgia, and was ranked in the Top 25 of FCS schools. Bennett had even gained some national headlines with his famous “Cats and Dogs” speech that went viral and appeared on TV shows ranging from ESPN’s “SportsCenter” to Comedy Central’s “Tosh.0” but the laughter was about to end.

THe Chants were hammered by Liberty 63-27 in a game that actually was worse than the score indicates. The Flames led 49-0 before Coastal’s offense ever got anything going and it quickly became clear that not only could the Chants not compete with the best the Big South had to offer, they weren’t even close. In classic Bennett style, he simply said his team would find out what it was made of after the disappointing loss.

Unfortunately for him, no one liked the answer to what his team was made of when the next game rolled around, the Oct. 22 game against Gardner-Webb. With a huge homecoming crowd in attendance, Coastal thrilled the fans by scoring a game-tying touchdown in the final 2 minutes. But the celebration didn’t last long after the Chants were penalized for excessive celebration, then received two personal fouls on the ensuing kickoff. G-W. got the ball on the CCU 14, ran three plays and kicked the game-winning field goal.

Despite the close loss, the way it happened may have hurt Bennett more than anything else. Known as a strict disciplinarian, his team showed a total lack of control and, well, to put it bluntly, they looked stupid for giving away a game they had all but won. In hindsight, it makes you wonder what kind of talk took place among influential alumni over martinis in the parking lot following that embarrassing performance.

The internal strife really showed in the Oct. 29 trip to Stony Brook, where the SeaWolves treated the Chants like a pee-wee team in rolling to a 42-0 victory. Coastal’s roster, made up mostly of Southern boys, played in sub-freezing temperatures with cold wind and rain and, according to some accounts, simply quit when the going got too chilly. After three awful weeks in which Coastal was outscored 131-51, the grumblings back home began to grow louder.

Bennett seemed to right the ship by finishing the season with three straight wins, but the damage had already been done. CCU president David DeCenzo and athletics director Hunter Yurachek (it’s important to note that neither were in power when Bennett was named head coach in 2002) already had the wheels turning in the form of an evaluation of the program, and their findings pointed to the move that took place Friday.

They make some solid points, particularly about the “return on investment” into the football program. A brand new field house and stadium plus the financial support they say is among the top 20 FCS schools in the nation should result in more than a 7-4 season, It’s especially hard to accept when the basketball, baseball and soccer programs are exceeding expectations with a smaller budget and lesser facilities. They simply want more bang for the buck.

But for Bennett and the many supporters he has gained on the Grand Strand over the past decade, it’s a sad ending for a man who built CCU football from scratch. Selling new recruits on the idea that they could be a part of something special, he and his staff created something special from nothing and many folks felt he deserved more consideration than a coach who had walked in off the streets with nothing invested in the program.

Like everyone, probably DeCenzo and Yurachek included, it’s a sad way to see an era end that literally put Coastal Carolina on the map. David Bennett was the face of the university for many of the CCU supporters who didn’t even know where the school was until football came along, and there will be some hard feelings to smooth over in the community if Coastal hopes to return the football program to greatness.

But it’s one of the things that comes with having a football program like CCU envisioned years ago. It’s not all fun and games, and sometimes unpopular changes are made with no guarantee of results. Coastal has decided to go in a different direction, but it remains to see exactly what direction it takes the program.

Bennett will always be remembered as the father of Coastal football, and only time will tell how his offspring will go on without him.¬† But I’m reminded by something Bennett always said about coaches remembering the big losses more than the big wins. Apparently, so do his bosses.

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3 responses to “How 15 dark days in October proved costly for Bennett”

  1. Joe says:

    Terry – I’ve read and heard many reactions to this but I think yours is by far the most even-handed and reasonable of them all. A very good read IMO.

  2. Brian says:

    Well crafted piece, bud. Your involvement with the program gives you insight that others may no be privy to, so I will defer to your assessment.
    But I can’t help but believe – knowing the politics of anything can be misleading – that there is more to this. Gutting your program because of three obviously poor games in an odd season seems, as Frank Zappa said, like justifying the use of a guillotine on someone as the cure for a common head cold.

  3. Trish says:

    At last, I have read a sensible explanation for what happened! Thank you for being sensible and logical.

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