From a virtual unknown to the NFL’s leading cornerback, Josh Norman has become one of the game’s biggest stars virtually overnight. What you might not know, though, is that his ascent merely mirrors that of the small school he hails from.
Times are changing in Conway, South Carolina. The Waccamaw River still wends its way through this tiny blob some 25 miles from the Atlantic, as do the trains on R.J. Corman’s Railroad Line; the coaches slowly meander past sleepy clapboard houses on their way to Myrtle Beach. Yet something in this town of just 16,000 is shaking the place to its 283-year-old core.
Coastal Carolina University lies a short drive from downtown. It’s home to more than 10,000 students and counts PGA Tour nearly-man Dustin Johnson and Emmy-nominated actor Michael Kelly of House of Cards fame among its alumni. Yet this tiny liberal arts school is making college football sit up and take notice. Despite only taking up the game in 2003, the Chanticleers have won the Big South Conference seven times and were the number-one ranked team in the FCS last year. Their impact has been so enormous that from 2017 they’ll join the Sun Belt Conference of the FBS as big-time football awaits. Make no mistake; this isn’t Alabama or Michigan. The Crimson Tide’s annual football revenue is north of $81million; CCU’s is just $10million across all 15 of its competitive sports.
Despite their comparatively minuscule budget and tiny footballing pedigree, this little engine that roars is having a major impact on the NFL: since 2003 they’ve sent nine players to the league, with seven currently on active rosters – including household names like Mike Tolbert, Jerome Simpson and superstar-in-the-making Josh Norman. Theirs is a modern-day collegiate Disney story; a mix of expectation, success, a billionaire and a horse called Delta.
Twelve years ago, it was just a pipe dream. That was until Bruce Stewart arrived at Myrtle Beach Airport for a job interview. Dressed in a suit and tie, the law graduate sweltered as endless golf bags rode around the carousel. “It was all about the location,” he tells Gridiron. “I could feel the heat from the sun and I hadn’t even collected my luggage! But I knew I wanted to work for Coastal; I wanted to win.” Stewart, an innovative administrator, got the position and focused first on improving things on the hard wood. However, he was fascinated by the prospect of expanding the school’s range of sports, notably football. “I was highly intrigued,” he said. “I mean, this is higher education right? So we think about things and study. I researched the way Georgia Southern and South Florida went about introducing football and what they’d done to achieve their successes in a short time, the Bulls especially. They’d made it to #2 in the AP poll at one stage and only started playing the game in ‘97. That really got my mind racing.”
Stewart, along with a panel of thinkers including former NC State coach Dick Sheridan and ex-Air Force leading man Fisher Deberry, formulated a plan to create CCU’s first football team. However, one thing was missing: players. “It was a hard sell to get kids to come here first off,” Stewart says, before closing the door of his office and leaning into the microphone. “But listen… phew… what if I gave you a blank canvas and said, ‘Here’s the brushes and here’s the paints, away you go, paint it however you want to’. That’s a pretty attractive proposition to forward-thinking student-athletes.”
It was to become Stewart’s Field of Dreams moment: build it and they will come. From a seed, to an opening-game victory against Newbury University, to the brink of major college football, the rise of Coastal Carolina has been truly remarkable.
There remains a dark underbelly of racism that lingers close to the surface in South Carolina. The Emanuel Methodist Episcopal Church, home to the Charleston massacre in June that saw nine African-Americans murdered by a white supremacist, is less than 100 miles away. CCU has a primarily white student body – around 70%, close to the national average – but 53% of its students are from outside the state and that, in large part, is down to football.
Yet it also works hard to make sure the best talent stays in-state. Talent like Simpson, Norman and Tyler Thigpen, all local products. Or like Silver Bluff High School senior defensive end Tarron Jackson, who committed to Coastal for the very reason Stewart introduced the programme: winning. “I love what they stand for,” Jackson reveals to Gridiron. “They want to win and I do too. It’s why I chose the Chants. I love the atmosphere the coaches provide and I love how they preach self-accountability. I can’t wait to get on that teal turf.”
CCU have only ever had two head coaches lead them onto that turf at Brooks Stadium. The first, David Bennett, was in charge during Coastal’s opening nine seasons before being replaced in 2011 by one of the most unique coaches in any sport. Joe Moglia is the only Fortune 500 billionaire in charge of a college programme and it’s a title he may hold for time immemorial. His was certainly an unorthodox hire; many said it smacked of cronyism given Moglia and the school president are neighbours in the prosperous local town of Pawleys Island. Others, though, claim his mix of business acumen and coaching nous might just take CCU to big things.
Moglia had been a defensive coordinator in the late 1970s at a pair of Ivy League schools but, unable to support his family on an assistant coach’s wage, gave it all up to start a second career on Wall Street, despite having no experience in finance. He got a job at Merrill Lynch – “There was a point during the interview when I thought to myself, ‘This guy is a complete lunatic’,” his boss would later tell a reporter – and went on to become the most successful salesman in the company’s history.
But football never left Moglia, who told one reporter he’d interviewed for a Division II head-coaching job in the ‘90s and taken a call gauging his interest in succeeding Paul Tagliabue as NFL commissioner. But Moglia would stay on Wall Street until the financial crisis of 2008. “There’s a bug that’s catching, and it’s called football coaching,” says Bill Campbell, a friend of Moglia’s. “After the crash, it happened real quick. Tom Osbourne offered Joe an internship of sorts with Bo Pelini and Nebraska and he was gone. That bug caught him fair and square.”
After 18 months in Lincoln he was hired by CCU to take over from Bennett – a decision that sparked an outcry from ex-players, most notably former All-American passer Thigpen: “As of today, Coastal Carolina no longer has an NFL quarterback as a booster, fan or alumnus,” he wrote in a letter to the school. But Moglia ignored the criticism, instead building on the tradition of players like Tolbert, Quinton Teal and Jerome Simpson by winning games – he’s 40-11 in four seasons – and recruiting quality talent.
“He’s a coach with a will to win,” says 2016 recruiting commitment Jackson. “He gets in that room and he’s forging a relationship. But he also understands that things happen in life that don’t pertain to football that are far more important. He came into my home and talked about the man who murdered those people in that church in Charleston. That message was far more important than football to me and my family.”
That sentiment is shared by the head of CoastalFans.com, Randy Akers. “Joe’s ‘Be A Man’ philosophy really hits home with recruits and their parents,” Akers tells Gridiron. “Under his direction, the programme doesn’t have any rules – just the expectation that players will stand on their own two feet, accept responsibility for themselves and their actions, and put a team on the field that all of CCU will be proud of. He imparts this knowledge on the kids that’ll help them be successful as players but also as adults. I think that’s a major reason why the school does so well on the field and why it sends so many players to the pros.”
The biggest star on Coastal’s conveyor belt to the NFL is a former walk-on who has been the best cornerback in the game this season: the Carolina Panthers’ Josh Norman. “My brother played at Coastal,” the fourth-year pro tells Gridiron, “but the thing is that I slipped between the rocks and the crevices on my way there.” His dream of big-time college ‘ball evaporated despite a decorated high-school career. Without a single scholarship offer from an FBS school, he followed the familial route to Conway and was soon showing Division I what it was missing. “I started as a freshman and was All-American as a sophomore and a senior, but honestly, playing for CCU helped me get to the pros. We get overlooked a good bit because we were a small school and the FBS guys get the first nod in everything. Every week you’d have to do something extraordinary to show up on their radar.”
Raised in rural South Carolina, his athletic prowess was matched only by his abilities as a horseman, and that passion has followed the fifth-rounder to the NFL. He now owns three horses, including a chestnut called Delta 747 (the horse has its own Twitter account, @Delta747J). And, after returning a Jameis Winston pick for a touchdown in Week 3, Norman rode an imaginary horse into the end zone, using the ball as the saddle horn. “I just wanted to represent for Delta,” he says. “If I waved at Winston, I’d get a flag. So I decided when I scored I’d ride Delta. But, lo and behold, I got a flag anyway.” And a fine of $8,681. Norman doesn’t care about the money, at least not yet. He just wants to make sure quarterbacks who throw his way know they’ll get the ‘Delta treatment’. “As soon as I get that ball I make them pay for what they did. I get in the end zone, ride my horse and it’s pretty darn fun.”
It’s been pretty darn fun watching him this season as well, although whether Carolina can retain the soon-to-be free agent remains to be seen. One thing’s for sure, stay or go, Norman’s going to have more than enough money to pay his fines. “Oh he’s going to get paid,” says future Hall-of-Famer Champ Bailey. “If it just started this year, then I’d be reluctant to pay; I’d say show me more. But this goes back to last year as well. To have a whole off-season to prepare and come out against the best guys and still hold your own and still be the top corner in the game? No doubt he should be paid like the number-one guy.” So does Norman agree with Bailey’s assessment of his talents? “Well, he ain’t wrong,” he tells Gridiron with the confidence only the best at their positions possess.
Norman had 13 picks at CCU and was a small-school star, but it took him a while to acclimatise to pro football. “You’re not at Coastal anymore,” Panther defensive backs coach Steve Wilks would tell him. “Allow the game to come to you and play within the system.” Looking back, Norman says Wilks was right. “I was making every play at Coastal, I really was. So when I got here it was a big shock for me. But coach was right; the plays are coming. I mean look at me now.” Norman’s performances over the last 18 months mean he deserves to be mentioned alongside Richard Sherman, Darrelle Revis and Patrick Peterson. A perfect combination of size, speed and length, he possesses tremendous instincts. “That’s all part of the set up,” says Bailey. “He lulls you to sleep.”
For Coastal Carolina to continue their rise, they’ll need to keep churning out kids like Norman. His performances this season have been worth more to CCU than any living-room speech Moglia could ever give. And despite the huge leap in competition next season, many – such as Akers – believe the move will pay off. “It’s the best thing CCU could have done to ensure they continue to improve and gain national importance. And recruits can see that Chants players are more relevant than ever in the NFL. I honestly believe we’ll grow into a power that everyone takes seriously.”
That sentiment is backed by the man who set this wheel in motion 12 years ago. For Stewart, now senior athletic director at Old Dominion, CCU’s future comes down to a single word he used while waiting for his bags that day at the airport: ‘winning’. “For Coastal now, it’s all about establishing themselves, continuing to attract top talent and pushing towards a New Year’s Day bowl game. I feel very optimistic that they’ll position themselves accordingly moving forwards and I keep a real close eye on them. They’re like one of my kids.”
Well Bruce, the kids are alright.
This article originally appeared in Issue XVIII of Gridiron magazine – for individual editions or subscriptions, click HERE