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Coastal Carolina's long road to becoming college football's must-see attraction

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Marty and McGee praise Coastal Carolina as legendary locker room celebrators (2:24)

Marty Smith and Ryan McGee explain why they see Coastal Carolina as the perfect embodiment of college football spirit and praise the Chanticleers for their bold and unique locker room celebration. (2:24)

It was Tuesday, July 30, 2002, when Coastal Carolina University dignitaries -- the chancellor, the athletic director, the football coach, a couple of trustees -- gathered beneath a pop-up tent in the sweltering Grand Strand, South Carolina, sun. They smiled from beneath their hard hats, stuck their ceremonial shovels into the sandy soil of Conway, South Carolina, and broke the ground that would become the foundation for their new football stadium.

"It was a great moment," remembers Coastal Carolina athletic director Matt Hogue. "Once we had all the wild watermelons moved out of the way."

It was indeed a great moment. A moment of big-time football dreaming, even though the payoff for that vision was still 6,666 days away. To be clear, that's today. The day when the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers are the toast of college football. When the phone won't stop ringing in the offices of the stadium that was started on that day in 2002, interview requests ranging from Sports Illustrated to College GameDay, eager to tell a feel-good story in the middle of a feel-bad year.

The Chants are that story, sitting 5-0 and ranked 20th in all the land. A quirky, fun-loving squad that fills our social media timelines with mullets, teal turf and a dollar store Georgia Southern Eagles mascot being elbow-dropped through a folding table like it was Macho Man Randy Savage on "Monday Nitro."

"There aren't a lot of us who are still around from that day," Hogue recalls. "But those of us who are, I think our shared goal is the same. Our eyes are always focused on the next step, but let's allow ourselves a moment to enjoy this ride, especially in the middle of a year like 2020 has become."

Hogue started working at Coastal in 1997, when people in Conway were still getting used to the name Coastal Carolina University, only four years into the school's declaration of independence from the University of South Carolina's system of satellite campuses in which it shed its former name, USC Coastal Carolina College, or as it was known throughout the state, USC Coastal. Hogue, a young sports broadcaster, was hired to be the radio play-by-play announcer for the Chanticleers' basketball team. He has been there ever since, from Coastal's decision to explore the idea of adding football in 1999 until today, including that stadium groundbreaking in 2002 at the corner of South Carolina Highway 544 and University Boulevard.

"When I started working here, that was the location of Conway High School's football stadium," Hogue remembers. "They decided to build a new stadium on their campus, so it left that lot open for us. But it sat there empty for seven or eight months between their last game and our groundbreaking, so it was completely overgrown with weeds and watermelons."

Wait ... watermelons?

"Yeah, if you know anything about the sandy soil down here in this corner of South Carolina, then you know it's perfect for growing watermelons," Hogue says from his office in Conway, S.C., which is indeed located along the same South Carolina/North Carolina border that is home to Pageland, home of the South Carolina Watermelon Festival.

"When we went out there to get ready for the groundbreaking ceremony, there were wild watermelons all over the place. So, we had to work around that."

It was an unexpectedly careful walk around the field that day, but the steps since have been deliberate by design. The Chanticleers' first season wasn't a season at all, a 2002 autumn spent running little more than scrimmages and walk-throughs, performed in front of would-be corporate backers and potential season-ticket holders.

The effort, kicked off by a board of trustees vote in 1999, was overseen by an all-star panel of advisers, including former Furman and N.C. State head coach-turned-Carolina coast retiree Dick Sheridan and College Football Hall of Famer Fisher DeBerry, who won 169 games at Air Force and was raised in nearby Cheraw, S.C. The head coach was David Bennett, a former Presbyterian College football star who had turned nearby Catawba (N.C.) College into an NCAA Division II winner.

For a decade, Bennett guided Coastal through its transition into an FCS independent, a member of the Big South and to five conference titles. In 2012, Bennett was replaced by Joe Moglia, making a return to coaching after a quarter-century working in finance, first at Merrill Lynch and then as CEO of TD Ameritrade. It was Moglia was oversaw Coastal's move into FBS, joining the Sun Belt Conference in 2017, though he took that season off for health reasons and ultimately handed over the reins to offensive coordinator Jamey Chadwell, the Chants' current head coach.

Those first three seasons in the Sun Belt were rough by any measure, with records of 3-9, and 5-7 in two seasons (including a few appearances in the ESPN.com Bottom 10 via this writer). From the outside, the story of Coastal Carolina football was little more than a goofy college football sidebar.

See: 2016, when Tyler Chadwick, star of Coastal's 2016 College World Series championship team and grad assistant on the college football team, was pressed into service as starting quarterback when all of the scholarship QBs were injured.

See: 2019, when every single player on the Coastal Carolina and Georgia Southern rosters were hit with 15-yard personal fouls after a testy pregame "dance-off."

See: That teal turf, the endless "Myrtle Beach University" jokes and the perfect storm of a college football stadium located in the vacation destination Grand Strand being named Brooks Stadium, after Robert Brooks, a native of the area who made his millions as the founder of Hooters restaurants.

"Listen, we do things a little differently down here," Hogue says with a laugh, quickly reminding that he is the only known play-by-play man to be promoted into the role of athletic director. "There's a reason that when you are traveling east and you cross over the Little Pee Dee River you enter what we like to call the Independent Republic of Horry County."

Yes, Horry County, South Carolina, home of Coastal Carolina, the cities of Conway and Myrtle Beach, more than 80 golf courses and at least that many fireworks outlets and pancake houses. The county is named for Revolutionary War hero Peter Horry, who teamed up with Frances "Swamp Fox" Marion to confound, confuse and ultimately defeat the British who dared to try to tame the South Carolina coast.

Horry and Marion have been gone for more than two centuries, but it's not that long of a line that can be drawn between the spirits of those burrs under the saddles of the Red Coats and these disrupters of the college football establishment. Rough hewn heroes like the mullet-adorned Chanticleer Teddy Gallagher, his cast-wearing, injury-overcoming linebacker mate Silas Kelly, and redshirt freshman quarterback Grayson McCall, who was benched last weekend by injuries, but prior to that had posted numbers rivaling another South Carolina resident QB, Clemson's Trevor Lawrence.

Heck, even the mascot is defiant. In the 1960s, when the school was still only a two-year branch of the University of South Carolina, it was time to come up with a mascot. Instructions were to choose something that would pay homage to their parent school. A group of students worked with an English professor to come up with something that would fulfill that requirement, but also thumb their noses at it.

"Chanticleer" is taken from the high-rent literary district of Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales," described in the Nun's Priest Tale as a proud and fierce rooster who dominates the barnyard. Chaucer wrote of the bird: "For crowing there was not his equal in all the land. His voice was merrier than the merry organ that plays in church, and his crowing from his resting place was more trustworthy than a clock. His comb was redder than fine coral and turreted like a castle wall, his bill was black and shone like a jet, and his legs and toes were like azure. His nails were whiter than the lily and his feathers were like burnished gold. With all of his splendor and great looks, Chanticleer is also greatly feared and mightily respected by all."

Coastal Carolina's football teams have always embodied that description. They have certainly always resembled the region in which they play. This is just the first season the team has been able to get the nation's attention.

"When we are out selling this program to the area, it's never been as difficult as you might think," explains Hogue, who in addition to his 17 years on the microphone was also employed by the university's marketing department.

The South Carolina grad speaks of his alma mater as well as Clemson when he talks about shopping his teal-branded teams in the northeastern-most corner of the Palmetto State, an area that since 1970 has swollen from a population of 60,000 to nearly 400,000, with nearly a quarter of that growth happening over the past 10 years.

"The people who grew up here want their own identity," Hogue said. "And the people who moved here are coming from the northeast and Midwest. They grew up as Penn State fans or Ohio State fans, but they want a local team to root for. We are that team."

It's a team that has always had spirit. They have always had personality. Now they also have the wins. With that, they have the nation's attention. Between phone calls and interviews, Hogue and everyone in every office around him at Coastal Carolina, from the board room to the locker room, is making sure to force themselves to pause and appreciate that.

"To think about that day in 2002, that groundbreaking in the middle of an empty high school football field with wild watermelons growing in it, or even before that, when the idea of playing football wasn't even yet an idea," Hogue said. "To get from there to here, to our first top-25 ranking and now to 20, it's been a lot of hard work. But it's so much fun. It's never not been fun. And no matter what happens from here, we're making sure it's fun now, too."