Even before the 2020 college football season began, Jamey Chadwell knew it would be unlike any his Coastal Carolina team had ever faced.
That’s life amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disrupted some of college football’s most established institutions. That includes rivalries, bowl season — even the College Football Playoff.
To traverse such a season even largely unscathed is a feat in itself. Chadwell’s Chanticleers went beyond that, however, to go 11-1, earn their first conference co-championship at the FBS level and secure their first bowl berth in program history. All this, in just the program’s fourth year as an FBS team. All this, after going 5-7 in 2019. All this, after getting picked to finish last in the Sun Belt East division.
For those reasons and more, Sporting News has selected Chadwell as its 2020 Coach of the Year.
SN PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Alabama's DeVonta Smith
“You know, college football is a special game,” Chadwell told Sporting News. ”But it’s still a game, and I wanted our guys to enjoy it this year more than ever, because of the pandemic. Not being guaranteed each week, we tried to have as much fun with it as we could.”
It was a fun season for Coastal Carolina, one that featured "Mormons vs. Mullets," the first visit by “College GameDay” to Conway, S.C., post-game wrestling matches, big-time plays and bigger personalities. It was a far cry from what everyone outside the program expected.
The Chanticleers' second-year coach had no problem using those expectations — or lack thereof — to motivate his team. Because, he knew, they were better than their 2019 record indicated. And he knew he could use that to create a tangible goal in 2020.
“Five of those losses, we lost by a total of 24 points,” Chadwell said. “And so our whole theme this offseason — we actually wore a bracelet with it — was 24. And we were going to do everything possible to overcome those 24 points.
“That’s how we tried to plan the season, is we’re going to overcome these 24 points.”
Coastal Carolina did that and more, enjoying a season Chadwell described as one of the most fun he has ever been a part of. Yet everything the team enjoyed in 2020 was possible only because of an incredible amount of work. On top of the usual team-specific preparations every week, he and his staff needed to ensure they had enough players to field a team every Saturday. And, once the week concluded, he needed them to turn around and start the process all over again.
“Every Wednesday we would test,” Chadwell told SN, “and Thursday morning you’re holding your breath.”
He needn’t have bothered: His team bought in completely, producing zero positive COVID-19 tests through 11 straight weeks. That consistency and accountability led to an undefeated regular season, which included wins against Power 5 opponent Kansas, previously undefeated Louisiana and two-time defending Sun Belt champion Appalachian State.
Chadwell points to the Georgia Southern game as the point he knew this season could be special; the team, ranked for the first time in program history, handled the sudden influx of attention and won 28-14 with starting quarterback Grayson McCall out due to injury.
But no game better epitomized the 2020 season or highlighted Chadwell’s coaching acumen better than the BYU game on Dec. 5. Coastal Carolina not only had to scrap its game plan against Liberty, who dropped out mid-week due to COVID-19 issues, but also had only a few days to prepare for the undefeated Cougars.
As Chadwell tells it, he didn’t find out about the potential change in opponent until Wednesday, after his team had finished practice. After a quick call to athletic director Matt Hogue, Coastal Carolina went into what he called “scramble mode.” He immediately put his graduate assistants to work breaking down BYU film; the next morning, it was confirmed the two teams would play.
“What was surreal about the whole thing was, Saturday morning, we’re sitting here about 9:30, 10 o’clock, and we’re watching ‘GameDay,’ and we’re still finalizing the game plan for BYU,” Chadwell said. “And we’re watching the TV and we’re all looking at each other and go, ‘GameDay is right outside at our stadium. They’re literally right on the field.’
“And it just hit us there. We go, ‘You know, this is crazy.’ But we took about a minute there just to bring it all in and say, ‘This is unbelievable. We’re playing a college football game in two days’ notice, and ‘College GameDay’ is here.’”
The ensuing contest was one of the most entertaining of the season: a chippy, hard-fought game that resulted in a 27-22 Chanticleers win by way of a last-second stop at the goal line. Yet as incredible as the season was, it was only because Chadwell’s players bought into his message each and every week. Once they did that, the wins and ensuing accolades took care of themselves.
The team earned 16 selections to the All-Sun Belt team, including 10 first-team selections. They also secured five of the conference’s six individual awards: Player and Freshman of the Year (McCall); Defensive Player of the Year (defensive end Tarron Jackson); Newcomer of the Year (cornerback D’Jordan Strong); and, naturally, Coach of the Year.
Coastal Carolina’s success, at both the team and individual level, didn’t spring forth from nowhere. Chadwell has helped cultivate it from the moment he joined the team in 2017, the program’s first year at the FBS level. He led the team to a 3-9 record as interim coach that year in place of Joe Moglia, who missed coaching while on medical leave.
Chadwell saw the program struggle through three losing seasons from 2017-19. But he also saw the nucleus of that 2017 team — which includes nine fifth-year seniors who were part of the transition from FCS to FBS — rise above it all. That, Chadwell said, has been one of the best parts of the 2020 campaign.
“That ‘17 year was, personally, one of the worst years of my life from a professional standpoint,” Chadwell said. “But to have that same group, same nucleus. ... To still be here, and to take those lumps with them, and then to see where they are now, to being a laughingstock to being the darlings of college football and America’s team … it’s unbelievable.
“It’s a special group, and a special team to be a part of.”
Due in no small part, surely, to the coach who led them.