Bennett falls victim to sports fans’ long-term memory loss

Some of you may know, but most do not, that I was the radio play-by-play Voice of the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers long before football was a notion at CCU.

In fact, when we would convene at Shamrock’s Restaurant (where the Chant faithful and coaching staffs would gather after games), at “The Roundtable,” many would laugh a hearty laugh when we predicted that football would be the flagship sport of the University into the new millennium.

I can’t tell you how many skeptics we encountered when the very mention of football at CCU was brought up. I saw the vision of Dr. Ron Ingle and Mark Kelley and knew it was inevitable. I worked for two seasons at Marshall University amid its run to I-AA National Championships and an undefeated season at the D-I level. So, I knew that if a national power could be built in tiny Huntington, W.V., it was a slam-dunk in Myrtle Beach.

So, in 2000, when Buddy Sasser, a football coaching legend in his own right at Conway High, ETSU and Wofford, announced that Coastal was forming an exploratory committee to examine and put the foundation of a football program in motion, I was ecstatic. I knew that Sasser and the members of the committee, including S.C. State legend Willie Jeffries and Air Force coaching icon Fisher DeBerry, would lay a superb foundation.

With that said, in the interest of full disclosure, I desperately wanted one of those committee members chosen as the first coach of “our” football program at CCU. Former Furman and N.C. State head coach Dick Sheridan was also on that committee and I believe to this day that he is the best college football coach in America, not coaching football.

Sheridan was my choice, but he made it clear early in the process that he was not a candidate for the job. Once the final decision was made that football was viable and the school was committed to spending the millions it was going to take, a coaching search began.

I followed the search closely as a sports talk host, knowing this would be the biggest hire in the history of Grand Strand sports. Even though football was still two years away from actually taking snaps on the field, this was huge. The first head coach is going to be the face of the program, the man who introduces CCU football to the the Southeast, where football is king, and to the nation.  You have to make the right choice.

Well, I began to worry when the process dragged deep into 2001 and when the announcement was made that a press conference was going to be held on December 21st to make this monumental hire, the anticipation was breathtaking for every huge sports fan along the Grand Strand. The day had arrived, the leaks were minimal, the names were few and far between.

I knew some of the principals involved fairly well, but I couldn’t pry a clue out of them. As new Athletic Director Warren “Moose” Koegel announced that David Bennett would lead the Chants into this new era there was a collective… silence … followed by  “Who?” You mean we spent almost two full years searching for a home run hire and we hire some guy from Division II Catawba College? Really??

OK, he’s got an impressive 63-17 (sorry, Gamecocks…) record and three straight trips to the NCAA D-II playoffs, but this is Myrtle Beach and a chance to build your own program from scratch, why couldn’t we get someone that anyone has ever heard of?

Fast-forward to 2004, David Bennett has built not only a competitive football team, but a reputation as a man who is concerned about the betterment of this community, his players’ overall well-being and winning a national championship for Coastal Carolina. By the time he took the Chants to the first of four Big South Conference titles and two trips to the FCS Playoffs (the only two that the Big South Conference had ever received by the way), he could have been elected Mayor of Myrtle Beach (sorry JR!), or Conway, or any other Grand Strand community. That’s how popular he was.

He built grass-roots support with his Southern drawl and “aw shucks” attitude, the formation of the “Colin’s Kids” foundation to support children’s charitable efforts in the area, and his outgoing personality that actually drew national attention to Coastal Carolina University more often than his successful football program. That was the David Bennett we knew now, first class in every sense of the word.

At the beginning of the 2010 campaign, his program had slipped to below .500 over the past three years and the early part of the schedule didn’t start any better. The criticism started flowing that Bennett had lost his touch, wasn’t the Golden Boy that people thought in the first five years and he admitted that the anonymous “bloggers” were starting to get under the coach’s skin.

It was the first indication among the CCU Nation that there is a large faction of the sports world, no matter where you are or what level of competition, that has the shortest memory of any demographic on the planet. They couldn’t remember that just four seasons prior he won back-to-back-to-back conference championships and faced national power Appalachian State in the playoffs.

They couldn’t remember that he was just the second coach in FCS history to get his program to the playoffs in just the fourth year of existence. Only Erk Russell at Georgia Southern got his team to the playoffs sooner. They couldn’t remember that he put five players in the National Football League in the first five years of existence. Say that out-loud, five players in the NFL in five years! That’s un-freakin’-believable.

So, they jumped on the dog-pile and ripped him with ignorant passion, but without substantial explanation of his shortcomings. CCU was 1-4 midway through 2010 and the naysayers were sure he was on the way out at season’s end. But a funny thing happened on the road to the unemployment line, his critics were amazed at how much football David Bennett was able to learn over the last six weeks of the season as the Chants pummeled CSU 70-3 to close the campaign.

Then a remarkable thing happened, the Chants were helped by none other than the Liberty Flames by crushing Stony Brook and earned the BSC playoff bid yet again. Not only that, but they were awarded a home playoff game. Western Illinois came to town and were handed a win by Zack McDowell with four interceptions, three inside the WIU 10-yard line. Bennett took responsibility for that loss, as every head coach should, but said the 2011 season would set the stage for greater success down the road.

This recently completed season started with lots of promise, a defeat of Furman in Conway, the same team that beat both App State and Wofford this year, and a 4-1 record with the only loss at SEC opponent Georgia. The manhandling at Liberty was disappointing, but not unexpected with the talent that Danny Rocco has assembled in Lynchburg. The loss to Gardner-Webb on Homecoming was alarming indeed, but again conference football, no matter the conference is tricky.

That loss could have been the final straw, I don’t know. The arrest of the equipment manager on Friday was dismissed by CCU president Dr. David DeCenzo as the final straw, but it couldn’t have been completely overlooked, because the school has known of the impending changes for weeks.

Had Bennett gone 8-3, rather than 7-4 this season I can’t tell you that he’d still be the head coach of the Chants. As many of you, I have been asked why? All I can say is that sports fans and sports administrators have very short memories and the “what have you done for me today” mentality is more evident in our business that any other.

Coaches know the pitfalls, accept the pressure (along with the bushels of cash), and realize that many times winning records are not enough. I could cite dozens of comparable acts by schools or professional sports franchises, but you sometimes think that a school the size and with the “homey” feel of Coastal Carolina would be above the cut-throat world of win-at-all-costs.

I have seen not only the football program be born and mature over the last decade, but the basketball program rise, fall and rise again and the baseball program rise to the top of the college landscape. I’ve also seen the athletic department grow to the point where some would say it’s getting a bit too big for its britches, and while I don’t disagree with that, it’s all a part of playing big-boy, big-money ball at the NCAA level.

I don’t particularly like it, but I accept it, just as the only face of “our” football program, David Bennett, has done gracefully. I close by saying thank you Coach Bennett, good luck no matter what you decide to do in the future and I will always remember you for growing the program the right way, the championships you brought to CCU and the great relationship you built with the Grand Strand.

BTW… I’m a dog!

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3 responses to “Bennett falls victim to sports fans’ long-term memory loss”

  1. Eric Weiss says:

    No, Allen you are a Wolf! A Part of the Pack!

  2. Jeff Gardner says:

    Great article. I’m like most fans, very disappointed in the leadership of CCU.

  3. James Mize says:

    Very well written article. I agree with every word. Good luck to Coach Bennett. He did an incredible job.

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