The Chanticleers were entering their fourth season as an FBS team. They had never finished with a winning record in that subdivision, much less been nationally ranked. Like most teams, Coastal — as everyone calls the South Carolina school — had been forced to reshape its schedule and deal with a novel coronavirus-shortened preseason. And yet, Chadwell had a feeling.
“I thought we had a chance to be a good team,” he said. “We’d been closer than we looked a year ago and I just thought if we could get a few close games that didn’t go our way last year to go our way, we could compete.” He paused. “Did I dream we’d be ranked 20th in the country at some point? No. But we’ve had a unique opportunity and we’ve taken advantage of it.”
The Chanticleers are, in fact, ranked No. 20 in the country, taking a 5-0 record into Saturday’s game at Georgia State. They began the season with a win on the road against a Big 12 opponent — granted, it was Kansas — and have followed up by winning conference games against Louisiana, which also beat a Big 12 team in Iowa State, and Arkansas State, which had stunned Kansas State.
Those three upsets all took place on Sept. 12 and amounted to a coming-out party for the Sun Belt, which first played football in 2001 and is made up entirely of schools that once played in lower divisions of the NCAA. “It’s a strong conference,” Chadwell said. “But even though our schools have had some very good wins the last few years, not that many people have noticed. But because of covid and some of the power teams not playing, we’ve all had a chance to be seen on national TV. That’s a big deal.”
All five of Coastal’s wins have been on either a Fox or an ESPN network. Saturday’s game is on ESPNU. A door opened and the Chanticleers have charged through it.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Grayson McCall started the first four games, but he was hurt early in the Louisiana game two weeks ago after taking a hard hit. He finished the game, a 30-27 victory, but woke up extremely sore the next day. Junior Fred Payton, who had started for much of 2019, stepped in last week against Georgia Southern.
“I really thought I was going to win the job in preseason,” Payton said in a phone interview. “Then I hurt my Achilles’, and by the time I was healthy, they had decided to go with Grayson. We were winning, so I understood why they stayed with him.
“That doesn’t mean it wasn’t hard — it was. Then, Saturday, when I got my chance, I felt like I had to go out and make big plays right away. It took me a half to get past that.”
Payton threw two interceptions and the game was tied, 14-14, after two quarters. But he had a talk with himself at halftime. “I just reminded myself that I had been a good player last year and I didn’t have to prove it every play. I settled down after that.”
Coastal won, 28-14, and Chadwell feels comfortable regardless of who his quarterback is this weekend. McCall might be ready, but the coach said he won’t force anything. “There’s no need to put him at any risk,” Chadwell said. “We know Fred can get the job done.”
At 43, Chadwell is in his second season as the head coach, although he was the interim coach in 2017, the year Coastal transitioned to football’s highest level. Chadwell grew up in the tiny town of Caryville, Tenn. (pop. 2,297), about 30 miles north of Knoxville. He played quarterback at East Tennessee State, thinking he would follow in his father’s footsteps and coach high school football. But Paul Hamilton, his coach at East Tennessee, offered him the chance to “help out” as a student during spring practice as he neared graduation during his senior year. He stayed four years. From there, he moved to Charleston Southern as offensive coordinator and then became head coach at two Division II schools, North Greenville and Delta State, before Charleston Southern brought him back as head coach in 2013.
He was 37-14 in four seasons in the FCS before accepting an offer from Joe Moglia to become Coastal’s offensive coordinator as the Chanticleers made the move to the Sun Belt and the FBS.
“To me, it was a chance to be part of something right at the start,” Chadwell said. “I thought the idea of starting on the ground floor and helping build a foundation was pretty cool. Plus, I had a lot of respect for Coach Moglia and what he’d accomplished.”
Except Moglia wasn’t around for that 2017 season. He had an issue with mold in his lungs and doctors told him he needed to step away and deal with the problem or it would have serious long-term effects. That left Chadwell as the interim head coach. The Chanticleers went 3-9.
“I still joke with Coach Moglia that he set me up that season,” Chadwell said, laughing. “It wasn’t a typical interim situation. Usually, you’re replacing someone who got fired. That wasn’t the case here, though, and it was difficult. I was new and it was definitely not my program at that point. Tough as it was, it definitely made me a better coach.”
Moglia came back in 2018 and the team went 5-7. Having turned 70, he decided to step away and Chadwell got the job — again — going 5-7, 2-6 in the Sun Belt, identical to Moglia’s record the year before.
Before this season started, Chadwell gave his players wristbands marked with the number 24. “We lost five games last year by a total of 24 points,” he said. “I wanted everyone to understand that our job this season was to make up those 24 points so we could be a lot more successful.”
So far, so good. Chadwell understands that his team still has a lot of work to do, with games against Georgia State, South Alabama and Appalachian State before finishing the season with a nonconference game against Liberty, which is currently 6-0. But that’s not preventing him from enjoying the ride he and his players are on.
“It’s great seeing our students tweeting about being ranked 20th,” he said. “I understand who we are in this state. There’s Clemson, there’s South Carolina and then there’s us. But right now, we’re ranked, South Carolina’s not. I know as soon as we lose we’ll probably never be ranked again, but, for now, it’s definitely something to enjoy and take pride in.”
Coastal already has three Sun Belt wins, the most it has ever had, and a win Saturday could mark another milestone. “Our first goal is to win the conference,” Chadwell said. “But we’ve never been to a bowl and if we get to six wins, we’re bowl eligible. I know the bowl setup is different this year, but for us to be in a bowl would be absolutely great.”
So, have the attention, the ranking and the kudos gone to Chadwell’s head? Hardly. As he was about to hang up the phone he said, “Just to be sure you know, it’s Jamey: J-a-m-e-y. My mother would kill me if it wasn’t spelled right.”