COCK BLOCK

For Weekly SurgeNovember 20, 2013 

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    COCK FIGHT

    Who | Coastal Carolina University at University of South Carolina

    When | 1 p.m. Saturday

    Where | Williams- Brice Stadium, Columbia

    TV | Pay-per-view, available on HTC Digital Cable PPV channel 530; Time Warner Cable PPV channel 597 (standard) and 598 (hi-def)

    Radio | Sunny 103.1, WSYN-FM

    Online game-tracker | http://client.stretchinternet.com/client/coastal.portal#

Susan Tomko of Myrtle Beach will be wearing an interesting color combination when she walks into Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia on Saturday.

She’ll be sporting both teal and garnet to show her support for the two football teams that will face off on the field that afternoon – Coastal Carolina University’s Chanticleers and the University of South Carolina Gamecocks.

Tomko is a Coastal graduate who is also a dedicated Gamecock fan, and she personally can’t wait for the matchup that she calls “a game bigger than Carolina/Clemson, although I know most people won’t agree.”

She attended Coastal Carolina College in the 1980s when the Conway school was still part of the USC system, and didn’t have a football team. So, Tomko cheered for Coastal’s basketball team while at the same time pulling for “my other USC team” – the Gamecocks’ football squad.

“I’ve loved my Gamecocks ever since, but within the last 10 years, since Coastal got a football team, it’s been exciting to pull for both of my alma mater teams,” she said.

Tomko may be a rarity in that she likes both teams equally, something almost unheard of in a state and region where rabid, partisan football fandom is practically bred into people from infancy.

But her enthusiasm for the game is infectious because in truth, Saturday’s game proves to be one of the most interesting showdowns in the decade-long history of football at Coastal Carolina University.

The Chanticleers (10-1) are having one of their strongest seasons to date, currently ranked No. 7 in the FCS coaches’ poll and undefeated until a Nov. 9 loss to archrival Charleston Southern, but rebounded last week to destroy Presbyterian for a share of the Big South Conference title.

The twelfth-ranked Gamecocks, meanwhile, have overcome losses to Georgia and Tennessee to remain in contention for the SEC East title in what has been an overall wacky season in the conference - and with a Missouri loss on Saturday can earn a berth in the SEC Championship Game. They’ve consistently been ranked in the top 15 in the nation, and several players have received national attention. The most talk preseason was about defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who became something of an instant college football legend in January with his notorious helmet-removing hit against Michigan’s Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl. Clowney, it turns out, has had an up-and-down season, with some fans and sports talking heads accusing him of holding back in order to prevent injuries that could affect his future in the NFL. Other true Gamecock heroes have emerged, however in the person of eternally resilient quarterback Connor Shaw, who fueled a jaw-dropping Oct. 26 double overtime comeback against Missouri, and running back Mike Davis. It might not exactly be the legendary season that some pundits and fans were hoping for, but it’s certainly one of the best in recent USC memory.

Exactly what will happen when the Chanticleers face off against Clowney, Shaw and company in the garnet-and-black madness that is Williams-Brice Stadium on a football Saturday is anybody’s guess. Just the difference in crowd size will be a baptism by fire of sorts for CCU’s players. Williams-Brice seats 80,250, as opposed to Coastal’s home base, Brooks Stadium, which seats 9,214.

Chicken or the egg?

What makes the matchup so interesting is just how both schools got to this point.

CCU’s Chanticleers, basically, will be roosters facing off against the egg that hatched them in the first place.

For those who weren’t in South Carolina before 1991, or perhaps have forgotten, Coastal used to be part of the USC system, a branch established in 1954 as Coastal Carolina College. Two local groups, the Coastal Education Foundation and the Horry County Higher Education Commission, orchestrated a split in July 1991. The legislative approval to become an independent university came in July 1993, and Coastal was on its own.

Coastal had always fielded its own teams in sports such as basketball and baseball, but football remained a distant dream until efforts to get CCU its own team ramped up in the late ‘90s.

The dream of gridiron action at Coastal became a reality in 2003, when the team played its first game in the Big South Conference under the leadership of head coach David Bennett, who remained with the school until 2011.

Since then, the Chants have made a more than respectable showing. They’ve won conference championships (2004-06, ’10, ’12) and made it to the playoffs three times (2006, ’10 and ’12).

While they’ve done great in their own conference, things haven’t gone quite as well when they’ve gone after bigger football fish.

The Chants have played against FBS (aka Division I) schools six times, and lost all six outings. Their first effort was a 66-10 stomping by Penn State in 2008. Other losses have followed at the hands of Kent State, Clemson, the West Virginia University Mountaineers, Georgia and Toledo.

Of course, you can’t use these games to make too much of a judgment about Coastal’s program. It’s become routine for smaller schools to be taken to the woodshed each season by FBS schools. These games, while frequently resulting in a serious waxing for the smaller opponent, provide some much needed revenue for schools like Coastal (CCU gets $375,000 to play USC) and also provide them with highly desirable national exposure. The players learn a little more about the game and what it’s like to play under a harsher and brasher spotlight, and national TV exposure more people around the country get to see what kind of football is being played on smaller campuses.

And, of course, there are weekends where FCS schools pull an upset over their bigger and better known rivals. It’s something that’s happening with more frequency these days.

(And for anybody who is a little confused about the terms being tossed around for the different football subdivisions, a reminder that the FBS used to be known as NCAA Division I-A, and the FCS was Division I-AA.)

In the first two weeks of this season, for instance, eleven FCS teams beat their larger FBS rivals. Experts say the growing trend toward upsets is because of better recruiting by the smaller schools, who are increasingly mining their regional high schools with more effectiveness, and overall better coaching.

Tailgating Rooster Style

CCU’s upcoming matchup against the Gamecocks will not only pit two teams with an intertwined history against each other. It also gives Chanticleers fans a chance to show what they’re made of against the backdrop of one of the most rabid fandoms in all of college football.

For those who have never attended a home game at Williams Brice Stadium in Columbia, it’s like descending into an alternate universe where everything is cast in shades of garnet and black. More than 80,000 people of all ages cram into the stadium, about 99.5 percent of them clad in some form of the team’s colors. There are even babies in miniature Gamecocks football and cheerleading uniforms, bibs emblazoned with Cocky the mascot, onesies with Clowney’s no. 7 or former beloved Marcus Lattimore’s No. 21.

People show up in RVs outfitted like rolling castles, parking up to eight hours before a night game to begin tailgating. Gamecocks fans with money love their team so much they were willing to sink thousands into retrofitted train cars now known as Cock-a-booses, which are lined up alongside the stadium and serve as party outposts. Other fans have shelled out more thousands to invest in condos built alongside the stadium so Gamecocks who party a little too hard won’t have far to stagger on weekends, or, if they prefer, can live 24-7-365 in the shadow of Coach Steve Spurrier and company’s stomping grounds.

Williams Brice is, also, the only place in the entire world where, on a Saturday afternoon, it’s perfectly acceptable to scream out the word “COCKS!” with thousands of other people, and not feel in any way embarrassed.

Will Coastal fans be able to hold a candle to this mania?

They just might hold their own, if the atmosphere at the Nov. 9 game against Charleston Southern was any indication. Coastal fans crammed the visitors’ side of the Buccaneers’ small stadium, which drew a record crowd of more than 6,000 for the day. Before the game, several dozen groups of Chants’ fans sat out in the parking lot, tailgating under tents emblazoned with the Chanticleer mascot. Others gathered under a huge inflatable hospitality tent for alumni. These numbers, fans said, would have been even higher had it been a home game.

All the usual trappings of tailgating were evident, including elaborate meals of fried chicken, burgers and brats on the grill. The one thing that wasn’t as evident as it sometimes is in Columbia? Alcohol. If it was there, it was well hidden, because Charleston Southern, is, of course, a school with Baptist roots, and on this day people were, at least for appearances’ sake, keeping it sober.

Daniel Lempesis, 23, a CCU senior, said he tailgates for most home games and has been impressed with fans’ response to the Chants this year.

“It’s a lot better than it was last year, and I think our record is part of it,” he said. “The main thing we have to work on, especially at home, is to keep students from leaving at halftime.”

Interestingly enough, this is a problem USC has dealt with recently as well, with even Spurrier weighing in to encourage wayward students to stay in their seats until the game is over.

Coastal’s fans are just as rabid and demanding in the stands as anyone the Gamecocks have to offer, and they show their devotion with a mind-boggling array of teal apparel, including even scarves and high heels. The team also brings along a very good marching band with an impressive drum line.

So, Coastal’s fan turnout might be on a smaller scale, but they’ve got all the trappings of strong fan support that USC does.

Which brings us to the ultimate question:

Do the Chants have a chance?

Perhaps the best person to answer that question is the Chants’ architect Joe Moglia, who took over as head coach at the beginning of the 2012 season. Moglia generated a lot of interest because he left his position as CEO of TD Ameritrade to return to his first love, football, when he took over the reins at Coastal. Moglia originally spent 16 years coaching at the high school and college level before he left the sport behind in 1983 to pursue a career on Wall Street. His move to Coastal raised some eyebrows initially, with people wondering why and how someone would leave behind a lucrative financial career to lead a football team in Conway, South Carolina. The answer was simple: Moglia loves the game and felt he had something to offer the Chanticleers. He wasn’t wrong.

In his first season at the school, Moglia led the Chants to their fifth Big South championship and was named the conference’s Coach of the Year. This year, as noted above, he’s guiding the team to another strong season.

Much of his success as a coach likely comes from his keen ability not only to motivate his players, but also to focus single-mindedly on the game at hand. During a recent interview shortly after the loss to Charleston Southern, the coach wanted to dwell on the team’s upcoming opponent, Presbyterian College from the Upstate town of Clinton. What will happen when he finds himself standing across the field from Spurrier and the Gamecocks was barely even on the radar.

Moglia didn’t want to talk about USC immediately after the recent Charleston Southern game, preferring to stay focused on the hows and whys of Coastal’s defeat by CSU, but he did agree to offer some perspectives on the Gamecocks a few days later.

Moglia said his focus since he arrived in Conway was to build a team where every player, no matter what position or level, is prepared to take responsibility for everything they do at practice and on the field.

“We finished last season strong, with one of the toughest schedules in the country, won our conference and penetrated the playoffs, and I think everybody was proud of that,” he said. “Obviously we have laid a strong foundation and the players understand our philosophy. They’ve bought in to the philosophy that you come in well prepared and give it your very, very best at all times. If you’re well prepared, the probability of success on a Saturday is higher, whether we’re playing Presbyterian or USC. That’s going to be the key.”

The Ol’ Ball Coach, Spurrier, who has been known to goad his SEC foes, isn’t taking CCU lightly. “Coastal is a very good team, they’re very well coached and they’re ready to beat us,” Spurrier said in his weekly teleconference on Nov. 17. "We approach this week the same we approach every week. We’re trying to keep a home streak going. We know Coastal is going to come here and try to beat us, and they have a chance to do so if they play well and we don’t play well."

CCU fans, meanwhile, are more willing to offer their own direct predictions. Opinions vary widely, with some tending to think the Gamecocks will hand the Chants their heads on the proverbial platter, while others hold out hope for a precedent-shattering upset.

Students surveyed at the recent CCU game against Charleston Southern were split down the middle, with most thinking the Chanticleers will, at the very least, strike a little fear in the bigger chickens from the Midlands.

“It’s going to be closer than people think,” said Kellen Easterby, 22, a Coastal senior majoring in marine science. “I think our offense is going to be able to score on them more than some people are giving them credit for.” His sister Lindsay Easterby, 23, also a Coastal student, echoed his opinion.

Dave Mason, a local attorney who lives in Burgess, looks at the current Coastal football picture with some nostalgia. He fondly remembers a T-shirt on sale at the bookstore when he was a student at Coastal. It read “COASTAL CAROLINA FOOTBALL – NEVER DEFEATED, NEVER SCORED ON.”

The joke, of course, was that at the time, Coastal didn’t yet have a football program.

Mason went on to attend law school at the University of South Carolina and became a devoted fan of the Gamecocks, largely because he had the opportunity to watch them play at home at Williams-Brice Stadium. Because of that, he’ll be pulling for USC on Saturday.

“I just have more of an affinity for USC,” he said.

Mason confessed that he hasn’t paid as much attention to Chanticleers football as he would like, but he’s well aware of the team’s strong showing this year.

Still, he believes running onto the field to face a crowd of more than 80,000, most of them rabid Gamecocks fans, might be more than the Chants can handle.

“I know that every year there’s at least one game where a college championship series team surprises a Division I team, so you never know what’s going to happen, but I’m still pulling for the Gamecocks,” he said.

Jason Hugg, 40, who leads the Coastal alumni group in Columbia, is the complete opposite. Hugg, who hails from the Midlands town of Cayce but graduated from Coastal in 1997, thinks Moglia has helped the team develop a level of play and camaraderie that, if things line up right, could lead to a win.

“Carolina has had a few close calls this year, so I think there’s the possibility of an upset,” Hugg said. “I’m definitely going to be pulling for Coastal, but then again, that’s also because I’m a Clemson fan.”

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