Kickoff Classic

Socastee’s Kenney Solomon rushes in the Touchstone Energy Cooperatives North South All-Star Football Game at Coastal Carolina University in December. The university has agreed to begin hosting the annual Conway National Bank Kickoff Classic, a preseason high school football jamboree. This will be the 30th year of the kickoff classic.

Partnership with CCU launches CNB Kickoff Classic to next level

 
 

At a time when the mega-preseason football events are fading, the CNB Kickoff Classic has gone all-in on its approach.

Three-and-a-half months after the partnership between the bank and Coastal Carolina University became public, the visible effects of playing the largest jamboree in the state on an NCAA Division-I football campus came front and center Tuesday. The annual luncheon and news conference that serves as a precursor to the scrimmages traded its typical florescent-lit room on the second floor of CNB’s 21st Avenue branch in Myrtle Beach to the third floor of the Norman Fieldhouse overlooking Brooks Stadium.

With the CNB logo adorning the video board, a new message was prevalent. The Classic isn’t simply trying to survive. It is adapting and trying to find new ways to succeed.

“We know that things change. But it is still here,” said Mitch Godwin, one of the bank’s vice presidents. “It’s a big deal for the community. We’re localized, so [the Classic] will stay that way. As long as the community supports it, we want to keep going.”

The 30th anniversary of the Kickoff Classic will be played in its largest venue to date, thanks in part to the timing of Coastal’s recent stadium expansion that will be debuted to the public for the first time on Friday evening. It was previously held at Brooks Stadium from 2004-2007, but that was during the infancy of the football program, when the visitor sideline was one level and the current fieldhouse was non-existent. 

And while Godwin and fellow CNB Vice President Buzz Freeman echoed many of the same remarks about the Classic as they have over the last three decades, the lead-up to this year’s games had some extra pomp.

CCU Athletics Director Matt Hogue was in house. Chants coach Jamey Chadwell popped in for a few minutes. Former Conway High coach Chuck Jordan, who was partially responsible for launching the CNB back in 1990 and is now on the staff at Coastal, was around for most of it, too.

What they heard was the participating head coaches take turns raving about the opportunity to play at CCU and what it means for their players and fans. 

Loris’ Jamie Snider, formerly the Chanticleers offensive coordinator and offensive line coach under Dave Bennett, spoke of the sheer size of the stadium.

Conway’s Carlton Terry called the event “special.”

And Carolina Forest’s Marc Morris, who had to move his first-round playoff game last fall to CCU after rains soaked his home field, believes the Classic should move to Coastal permanently. Frankly, that any of that is being discussed is an anomaly, one that can be credited to professional connections and a potential win-win for all involved. For many, running jamborees of this magnitude are no longer worth the effort.

In April — seven days prior to the CCU-CNB partnership being finalized — the 22-team, two-day Sertoma Classic in Charleston announced that it would not continue for its 39th season. In the Columbia area, the biggest preseason events this month feature no more than eight teams, the same number for the largest jamborees in Greenville and Anderson.

There is a reason for that.

Events like this have logistical constraints. Meanwhile, individual teams can frequently get more work in during a one-on-one scrimmage than they can during an abbreviated session meant to accommodate this many programs in one night (the South Carolina High School League counts them all the same).

Yet, here were the 10 high school coaches trumpeting the CNB-to-CCU philosophy.

Even though they universally liked it when it was held at Conway High School or Myrtle Beach’s Doug Shaw Memorial Stadium before, they seemed to appreciate it even more at Brooks.

On Tuesday, a big chunk of the message, spoken or implied, felt different from both sides.

And from Coastal’s standpoint, if you open the doors, maybe more people will walk through them again.

GRADUATING FANS TO THE NEXT LEVEL

Outside of pure funding for travel and scholarships or any other various expenditures, NCAA Bylaw 20.9.9.3 was maybe the biggest potential hangup when it came to Coastal Carolina moving to the Football Bowl Subdivision for the start of the 2016 campaign.

Every rolling two-year window, the bylaw states, an FBS team must average 15,000 fans in paid or actual attendance. There are caveats and ways to navigate it, of course, but the simplistic answer was that Coastal did (and still does) need to sell more tickets for its beautiful new stadium.

Undoubtedly, there has a been a disconnect of sorts at times between the university’s football program and those of the nine Horry County schools. In the past, local high school coaches and athletics directors have commented on ebbs and flows of recruiting or even basic outreach.

Much of that has changed in recent years.

A few more local kids have drawn CCU offers, and Chanticleer brass welcomed Carolina Forest’s playoff game and the Touchstone Energy Cooperatives Bowl North vs. South all-star game last fall. Altruistic or not, moves like that certainly won’t hurt the Chants in the long run.

“I don’t think there’s any question that an event like this gives us an opportunity to showcase our stadium,” Hogue said. “Whether it had been renovated or not, we still want to create an opportunity for people to see it. One thing that we struggle with sometimes is once people get on our campus and consume it, they get engaged and they’re blown away. For us, it’s all about the draw to get them here. It’s residual for us to get them to our games.”

Cracking the local potential fan base is common sense.

Take the 2018 prep football season, for instance.

Despite the havoc caused by Hurricane Florence and ensuing flooding, despite plenty of high school games being moved to Saturdays and Mondays and Thursdays (and often at the last minute), the nine schools actually all still did pretty well in terms of attendance.

Myrtle Beach averaged roughly 2,000 fans per game. St. James, which was arguably the hardest hit by game changes, was still pushing 2,500 or so in three of its four home games and breached 3,000 fans in one of them. Carolina Forest’s five true home games grossed an average of 1,500 fans per, and North Myrtle Beach drew anywhere from 1,600 at its low point to just shy of 3,500 for an August game against Loris.

It works out to four in-county high school games each week on average, and those games are drawing conservatively 8,000 combined fans, if not more.

That’s a whole heck of a lot of people who already like football. Convincing a few more of them to head to Brooks Stadium on Saturdays would help the Chants reach some of those NCAA seating requirements.

Friday, then, could very well be the next step toward bridging that gap between all these high school football fans moving through the Brooks Stadium turnstiles on Saturdays.

“This new stadium here, maybe people who normally wouldn’t come to the Kickoff Classic will come and maybe they’ll come back [for a CCU game],” Godwin said. “We had it here before, and everyone loved it. We didn’t want to come in for one shot, a 30th anniversary deal. Coastal wants it just as bad as we do.

“This is our university, Horry County’s university. It’s something we all need to support.”

In the midst of possibly helping Coastal, the neutral-site locale at Brooks will be a boon for the high school teams, too.

KEEPING THINGS FRESH

Frankly, the Conway-Myrtle Beach rotation for the CNB Kickoff Classic has gotten stale to a degree.

It’s not a knock on Doug Shaw or the Backyard. But many of the players in the area will see one of those two fields every year outside of the Classic. New bells and whistles are frequently necessary to keep fans and players entertained.

In Horry County, there are no louder bells or whistles than the new Brooks Stadium.

There is now space for more than 20,000 fans, as well as upgraded concourses and design touches.

It doesn’t matter that Myrtle Beach has played in five state championship games since the 2008 (the same year the CNB shifted back to high school venues) or that a number of local athletes from Horry County will go on to play college ball. Numbers show that very few of the collective athletes from this area will every get another chance to play at a stadium of this quality ever again.

“It feels like a big stadium because it is a big stadium,” Snider said.

The tradeoffs of playing at Brooks are hard to find.

Monetarily, the two recent host schools, Myrtle Beach and Conway, won’t make any less money by not hosting. The schools are all compensated equally after costs, so as long as Friday’s game isn’t an attendance dud, they’ll all get a few thousand dollars to help fund their programs.

It’s why representatives from those two schools were on-board with the move.

“We enjoy hosting things — whether it’s track meets or football games. We’re excited to host anything,” said Myrtle Beach Athletics Director John Cahill, who played in the initial Classic as a kicker with the Seahawks. “But we also understand that the community feels this could be a better venue here, a better experience.”

The 10 schools, CNB officials and those from Coastal Carolina will meet in the coming weeks to determine just how much better it was and make a determination for the future (currently, there is no contract for 2020).

Contact Charles D. Perry at 843-488-7236

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