July 31, 2014

Issac Bailey Column | Moglia has built it: Now fans must come

Column for Thursday, July 31

Moglia has built it. Will the fans come?

Everything seems to be in place for another special year for Coastal Carolina University football, a program that has had its fair share of standout campaigns.

It is the overwhelming favorite to win the Big South title and powered by the league’s preseason offensive and defensive players of the year and a total of 9 players receiving early recognition.

It is coming off inarguably its most impressive season, which included a couple of postseason victories and a deep run in the playoffs, making good on Head Coach Joe Moglia’s promise to build upon former coach David Bennett’s strong foundation and provided vindication for CCU President David DeCenzo and then-Athletic Director Hunter Yuracheck, who were heavily criticized for hiring a multi-millionaire better known to CNBC than ESPN.

CCU is a genuine burgeoning national powerhouse with legitimate aspirations for a national championship.

The football part of the equation seems to be well in hand. Moglia and company have built it, but when will the school’s fan base begin making as many waves off the field as the team makes on it? The team receives good, not great support, which could be the difference between the greatness CCU competitors have achieved or perpetual runner-up status.

I get why CCU officials discussed the lack of sellouts and tepid, uneven tickets sales as one of the reasons it was parting ways two years ago with Bennett, the team’s inaugural coach. CCU wanted more than what had seemed to become a mediocre team after years of success that included an early playoff berth, conference championships and a handful of NFL players and ESPN highlights.

It made sense to wonder if the fairly tepid fan support – including a less-than-packed house for the program’s first ever home playoff game in 2010 – was caused by the product on the field. That is no longer a valid explanation, but solving it just maybe the final thing standing in the way of heights the school could only dream of a few years ago.

The first time CCU made the playoffs, under Bennett in 2006, it faced Appalachian State in Boone, N.C. That team was in the midst of an unprecedented run, which included 3 consecutive national titles and a once-in-a-lifetime victory over the storied Michigan Wolverines.

It also included a decided home field advantage. The year Appalachian State beat CCU, its field capacity was about 17,000 – but its average attendance was more than 24,000, according to reports from the school. Since then, Kidd Brewer Stadium was renovated and has hosted crowds larger than 30,000.

That’s what CCU faced in its first playoff game. In its latest one, against another juggernaut, North Dakota State, it faced a deafening sellout crowd in a dome stadium which seats about 19,000 people. It is not a coincidence that North Dakota State was able to do the past three years what Appalachian State had done not too long ago – multiple, consecutive national titles and victories over teams from larger schools – and discussions of moving up to the highest level of college football.

CCU has built a team that can compete with the best on the field and maybe even beat them as it continues that long, hard climb to a national title. But to make that leap, it likely needs a fan base as consistent and excited as those in North Dakota and Boone.

So far, that has yet to materialize. Brooks Stadium has too many empty seats on too many Saturday afternoons and nights during the fall even though its capacity is roughly half of North Dakota’s, whose team frequently plays in front of sellout crowds and hosted the ESPN “GameDay” crew in part because of it and its stellar on-field success.

Creating a winning product is ultimately up to the coaches and players. But the difference between being a real contender and actual champion can be fan support.

It’s a bit odd that this final piece is even an issue. We are in a football-happy region that pined for college football to come to its backyard. Maybe it is because of the decades-long loyalty to the Gamecocks and Tigers or transient nature of the area that makes it more difficult to cultivate a championship-level of community support.

I don’t what it is. But here’s the irony: The most passionate segment of the fan base passionately revolted when Bennett was fired and Moglia hired.

DeCenzo said he made the move because he wanted CCU to seriously compete for the top prize. He and the school have so far held up their end of the bargain. The rest just maybe up to those who wrongly believed he was making a mistake.

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