Bennett, Coastal prepare for Penn State
By Mike London
CHARLOTTE ó He can’t officially bark at players until Saturday, so David stays busy collecting stones and getting plenty of reps with his slingshot.
David’s surname is Bennett, he coaches the Coastal Carolina football team and he’ll take aim at a traditional Goliath on Aug. 30 when his teal-and-bronze Chanticleers take on Penn State in Beaver Stadium for a high-noon season opener.
Coastal, which will field its sixth football team, has never taken on anyone with the tradition, the reputation, the crowd or the depth of Penn State.
But it’s time to get used to this. Coastal has more big-time games (and big-time paydays) scheduled. Coastal faces Clemson in 2009, meets West Virginia in 2010 and tackles Georgia in 2011.
Most Penn State supporters had no idea Coastal Carolina existed, much less had a football team, until it showed up on the schedule.
PSU fans who had heard of Coastal surely have no idea which Carolina the school is on the coast of, and you probably can’t find 50 Nittany Lions boosters who know a Chanticleer from a Chandelier ó or Conway, S.C., from Conway Twitty.
A Chanticleer, for the record, doesn’t hang from the ceiling. It’s a rooster.
Penn State has taken good-natured ribbing and bad-natured criticism from various media outlets for scheduling the Chanticleers.
Mostly the matchup is happening because Warren “Moose” Koegel, Coastal’s athletics director, played for coach Joe Paterno’s undefeated Nitanny Lions in 1968 and 1969 and was a captain alongside All-Pros Jack Ham and Franco Harris in 1970.
Don’t bother calling Bennett to remind him Appalachian State pulled off that shock-the-world thing at fifth-ranked Michigan.
Bennett’s grocer, pharmacist, dentist, barber and the kid next door already have mentioned it.
“It’s only happened once,” Bennett said at the recent Big South Football Media Day. “Appalachian-Michigan, that’s the one time an FCS team beat a top-10 BCS program. Yeah, it could happen again, and I don’t know what the odds are, but I do know they aren’t good. Look, maybe you could beat Tiger in a round of golf, but the odds aren’t too good.”
Football fans love underdogs. They’ll embrace the Chanticleers on Aug. 30.
“We seat 7, 500 and they seat 110,000,” Bennett said. “I realize our guys are going to walk into Beaver Stadium, look around and say, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ But the field is still gonna be 100 x 113, and we’ve just got to go out and win some of the battles. Can we win the war? I don’t know.”
Bennett’s folksy ain’ts have been replaced by polished aren’ts, but the drawl and delivery are the same as when he coached Catawba to a 63-17 record from 1995-2001.
Catawba is still Bennett’s second-favorite team. He follows the program closely, and he was thrilled with the Indians’ big 2007 season.
At SAC Hall of Fame ceremonies in June, Bennett shared a table with Catawba’s Dennis Davidson, Tom Childress and retiring president Dr. Robert Knott. They applauded as former Catawba linebacker and current Coastal defensive coordinator Curtis Walker was inducted.
Bennett’s staff is stuffed with Catawba grads, including passing game coordinator Kevin Brown and co-offensive coordinator Jamie Snider.
Bennett had plenty of praise for Catawba head coach Chip Hester, whom he left with a tough act to follow.
“Chip followed me as golf coach at Catawba, and he kept on winning championships,” Bennett said with a smile. “Now he’s doing the same thing in football. You’ll never meet a finer man than Chip.”
Many of the players Bennett will lead into Beaver Stadium also have local ties.
Davie County’s boisterous Ryan Boehm is Coastal’s starting center, and former Davie linebacker D.J. Rice has answered critics who dismissed him as too short. He’s a preseason All-Big South selection.
West Rowan’s Ben Erdman rebounded from an awful accident and is expected to punt. Erdman broke a leg and needed 200 stitches to close various wounds after his moped collided with a car at a traffic light.
A.L. Brown’s Sean Fortson has ridden a quarterback-receiver merry-go-round. He’s back at wideout now, and Bennett expects him to contribute.
Bennett is 39-17 in five seasons at Coastal. It earned the Big South’s first-ever playoff bid in 2006, but Bennett didn’t have an opportunity to speak to the crowd at media day. That was like making Bruce Springsteen watch a rock concert from the front row.
Only Danny Rocco of Liberty, the defending champion and preseason pick to repeat ó took the dais.
Silence was a new experience for Bennett, and so was suffering through his first losing season as a head coach in 2007. The Chanticleers went 5-6 after three straight championship seasons.
“Well, I tried to tell people we were rebuilding, but nobody listened,” Bennett said. “It was no fun to endure it, but we learned a lesson. We learned not to take success for granted.”
All-Big South offensive lineman Britt Leggett, from tiny Evergreen, N.C., said inexperience cost the Chanticleers dearly.
“Coach was in turmoil, not very happy at all,” Leggett said. “No excuses, but we had so many young pups and we didn’t handle pressure very well.”
“James Madison beat us like we’d stole something from them,” he said. “Every other game we had a chance.”
Even the mailman offered Bennett advice after last season.
Mack Brown, who has guided Texas to a national title, offered the message Bennett took to heart.
“Mack told me if you stay in this game long enough, you’re gonna have a losing season,” he said. “What’s important is how you deal with it.”
Bennett will begin dealing with it in a unique way. He’ll pack his slingshot and visit Paterno, whom he’s known since the Catawba staff spent time with the legend in the late 1990s.
“We’re going up there to play against maybe the greatest coach of all-time,” Leggett said. “But we’ve got a coach who’s built something out of nothing.”
Bennett turned 46 earlier this year, but his coaching fire burns as brightly as the day in 1994 when he was named head coach at Catawba.
The fire is in his eyes, in his belly and in his voice.
“I believe I’m more excited about this new season than I’ve ever been,” he said. “We’ve got a little something to prove.”