On Monday, Sept. 2, the Coastal Carolina football program evacuated to Greenville, South Carolina, ahead of Hurricane Dorian’s projected arrival to the Carolina coast. Traveling northwest from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, the Chanticleers’ entourage was a large one, including 115 players, 11 coaches, support staff—and a large papier-mâché piñata.
The team hit the road earlier than planned, around 11:15 a.m., after South Carolina governor Henry McMaster issued an evacuation order on Sunday that moved up the program’s timeline from its planned Monday evening departure. The Chanticleers’ schedule was upended, and the team wasn’t able to get to one order of business it usually covers on Day 1 of game weeks: its opponent-specific “championship.”
Coach Jamey Chadwell instituted the tradition four years ago, when he was head coach at Charleston Southern and he felt his team was playing inconsistently. To try to get his players up for each opponent, formidable or not, he assigned each of his assistants a week to host a so-called championship in tandem with the scheduled game. The logistics were up to the assistant: Would there be a trophy? What would he call the championship? Would it be opponent-specific? It was gimmicky, maybe, but Chadwell felt it would incentivize his players through the monotony of the season.
It worked, too; Charleston Southern made the FCS playoffs in 2015 and ’16, Chadwell’s final two years with the program. So when he was promoted to head coach at Coastal Carolina last winter, he knew the championships would be a part of his method, introduced every Monday and dangled as a kind of carrot throughout game weeks.
For this year’s game against Kansas, assistant head coach Patrick Covington was tasked with the Chanticleer’s championship. Going into the matchup, Coastal Carolina, a member of the Sun Belt, was 0–7 against Power 5 opponents, and Kansas looked a lot like an opportunity to break that streak. In the leadup to the game, Covington and his wife brainstormed ideas for a trophy, and Covington’s wife proposed a piñata. It would play perfectly into a modification on a team mantra, “strike the stone,” which is meant to exemplify the way the team attacks its opponents. Last week, Coastal Carolina’s rallying cry was “strike the ‘Hawks.”
Covington turned to Facebook and found a local company, Piñatas by Design, to execute his idea. Excited by the idea of creating something for the Chanticleers team, the company returned a papier-mâché beast twice as large as the original specifications had called for—approximately the size of the average third-grader, with a massive head.
Coaches were set to unveil the Jayhawk Monday, but the evacuation delayed its debut. Instead, the piñata was unceremoniously loaded onto the team bus. After a six-hour drive through congested traffic, Covington lugged the piñata into his hotel room, where it remained all week, a secret. Meanwhile, the players lifted at North Greenville University and practiced at Clemson on Tuesday and at Furman on Wednesday and Thursday. (Asked about the excitement of training at the defending nation champions’ facilities, junior center Trey Carter said that “Clemson’s obviously a great program, but we’re not little fanboys, or anything like that. We’re a college football team, too.”) It wasn’t until Friday, when the team arrived in Lawrence, that coaches presented Covington’s creation.
By then, players were exhausted after a week cooped up in hotel rooms. When they arrived on campus at Kansas Saturday, their bus pulled up outside a row of fraternity houses; heckling ensued. After a week of coaches yelling “Big 12” at them intermittently during practices, the Chanticleers didn’t need much more motivation. “You could tell,” Carter said, “just by the way everybody was acting—not the team, the fans—they thought they were going to have a nice little field day with us.”
What ensued was a 12–7 Coastal Carolina victory in which the Chanticleers allowed a Kansas touchdown on the first drive of the game and then shut down Les Miles’s team for the rest of the game. “Kansas is a Power 5, but they’re building their program up,” Chadwell said Monday. “So I’m realistic. It’s not like the upset of Michigan [vs. Appalachian State], or anything like that. But it is, for us and where we’re at and what we’re trying to build, still a Power 5 win. And that brings you so much notoriety.”
The piñata, then, gave Coastal Carolina a chance to go viral. After the win, it was strung up from the ceiling of the visiting locker room at Memorial Stadium. As players and coaches ran into the crowded space, there was no plan of attack, so linebacker Silas Kelly, who left the game with a left leg injury in the third quarter, took charge: He whacked the Jayhawk with his crutch. Kelly got two hits, and nose tackle Sterling Johnson finished the bird off. It broke at the neck, scattering lollipops, Tootsie Rolls and Sweet Tarts. From there, some players walked back out to the field for photos, tiny lollipops in giant hands, ready to return home for the first time in nearly a week—down one piñata and now 1–7 against the Power 5.