Charlotte, NC – Stony Brook athletic director Jim Fiore was fielding congratulations at the Big South Conference's football media day for all of the success that has come to his jewel of a program out on Long Island, N.Y.
Fiore then reasoned to two of the admirers who are chasing Stony Brook's football program, Gardner-Webb coach Ron Dickerson Jr. and athletic director Chuck Burch, that winning still comes down to a simple factor:
Having the right student-athletes. Talented ones.
Gardner-Webb won the first two Big South titles in 2002 and '03, but since then the Runnin' Bulldogs have become part of the group below the dividing line in the Big South. Coastal Carolina and Liberty had come to be the better teams in the conference and now Stony Brook is the pre-eminent power, having earned at least a share of the last three titles.
Another big season is expected this year for the defending champion Seawolves, who on Thursday were installed as the prohibitive favorite in the seven-team conference.
Stony Brook earned 15 of the 18 first-place votes in the preseason poll, with the other three going to Liberty. Coach Chuck Priore's squad finished 9-4 and earned the first FCS playoff win in Big South history last season.
Having earned the top spot in the poll for the first time since joining the conference as an associate member in 2008, the Seawolves return 41 letter- winners, including 17 starters, led by running back Miguel Maysonet, the conference's 2011 offensive player of the year who has earned the preseason nod this year. Their success has lured Iowa transfer running back Marcus Coker to the fold as well.
After Liberty, Coastal Carolina was third in the poll, which didn't surprise anyone. Either Coastal, Liberty or Stony Brook has won the Big South title - outright or shared - since 2006.
The only other champion beside the Gardner-Webb squads in the first two years of the conference was Charleston Southern earning a share of the title with Coastal in 2005. VMI and Presbyterian, which has ended a transitional phase from Division II and will become eligible for the Big South title and automatic playoff berth this year, are seeking their first Big South titles.
It may seem like the same ol', same ol', but maybe there will be change in the near future. The teams below the dividing line in the Big South seem to be saying, "Hold on a minute."
"It's rightfully deserved," said Charleston Southern cornerback Charles James, the preseason defensive player of the year. "Stony Brook's been at the top of the conference for years. So has Liberty. Coastal's right up there with them.
"Every year, each team is fighting to win a conference championship. They have great programs, I give them all the credit in the world. The way that can be stopped is a team has to wake up and say, 'We want to win a championship and we have to do what it takes.'"
"Can it change? Yes, I do think it can change," Presbyterian coach Harold Nichols said.
"That's the goal. I'm going to be really interested to see what happens over the next four or five years. I think it can happen. We have a lot of respect for all three of those programs, they're all very well coached teams and have done a really good job. They are steps ahead of us in the process. I'm anxious to see what will happen when we get to an even playing field."
Ironically, the way the dynamic could change is conference realignment. Stony Brook is a coveted program and could leave the Big South for CAA Football in the near future. Liberty has even higher aspirations, seeking to make the leap to the FBS level. Hence the hiring of new head coach Turner Gill, the former Nebraska great who has coached at Buffalo and Kansas.
Coastal Carolina doesn't seem to be going anywhere, and that's fine with new coach Joe Moglia and the Chanticleers as long as that means they are going to remain a Big South power.
The others? Well, they're not quite the Little Sisters of the Poor. They think they can close the gap on the Big Three by raising their facilities, budgets and programs.
Dickerson is in his second season at Gardner-Webb and feels his style of coaching is now firmly established among his players. VMI coach Sparky Woods, in his fifth season, feels revived that he has a more veteran team to tackle the challenge of winning at a military school. Nichols, in his fourth season, has had time to build his talent base and watched his program make a leap to 4-7 last season after opening with back-to-back 0-11 teams.
Charleston Southern veteran coach Jay Mills now has the task of climbing out of an 0-11 hole - last season's record. "Once we got back together in January, we had a new goal," Mills said, "we had a new lease on life, so to speak. The old was gone and the new had come."
Gardner-Webb might have the talent to make the biggest dent this year with the Stony Brook/Liberty/Coastal Carolina bullies on the block. The Runnin' Bulldogs must have been on the schedule maker's bad side with a brutally tough first half of the season, and their first two Big South games are at Liberty and Stony Brook, but they have the most returning starters in the conference, 22, including special teams.
Their entire offensive line returns to pave the way for 1,000-yard running back Kenny Little and backups Juanne Blount and Ricky Rhodes. Defensive lines in the Big South also don't get much better than the one that has end Preston Pemasa and tackle Matt Goods, who were all-conference first-team selections as sophomores last year.
"I'm not as rushed," Dickerson said of Year 2. "I'm not every day turning to look backward to see if I made a mistake and now I'm looking forward to see what's new ahead.
"We all have great philosophies as coaches, whether it's basketball, baseball, soccer or football. But if you don't have the players, it's not going to help. The thing that Stony Brook and Liberty have done is they've gone out and they've been able to sell their program and they've been able to get some great players in there."
Not surprisingly, Liberty (eight), Stony Brook (six) and Coastal Carolina (six) had the most players selected to the preseason all-conference team.
Stony Brook, coming off a season in which it led the FCS with a 38-point average and scorched Big South opponents for 48.8 points per game in a perfect run through the conference, seems to have the firepower to keep the success going. At worst, they could be playing for the title when they visit Liberty on Nov. 10.
Unless, of course, some of the other teams turn the league upside down.
"We've had some battles with every team in this conference over the four years we've been in," Stony Brook offensive coordinator Jeff Behrman said. "I think that's a credit to the high level of coaching that's in the conference and the level of play in the conference."
BIG SOUTH CONFERENCE FOOTBALL PRESEASON POLL
(Head Coaches and Media Panel)
1. Stony Brook (15 first-place votes), 123 points
2. Liberty (3), 108
3. Coastal Carolina, 74
4. Presbyterian, 69
5. Gardner-Webb, 65
6. VMI, 38
7. Charleston Southern, 27
PRESEASON ALL-BIG SOUTH TEAM
Offensive Player of the Year - Miguel Maysonet, RB, Stony Brook
Defensive Player of the Year - Charles James, CB, Charleston Southern
QB - Kyle Essington, Stony Brook, Sr.
RB - Miguel Maysonet, Stony Brook, Sr.
RB - Kenny Little, Gardner-Webb, R-Sr.
WR - Nathan Perera, Charleston Southern, Jr.
WR - Matt Hazel, Coastal Carolina, Jr.
WR - Pat Kelly, Liberty, Sr.
TE - David Duran, Coastal Carolina, R-Sr.
OL - Jamie Dunaway, Gardner-Webb, Sr.
OL - Malcolm Boyd, Liberty, Sr.
OL - Jamey Cheatwood, Coastal Carolina, R-Jr.
OL - Steve Demilio, Gardner-Webb, R-Sr.
OL - Michael Bamiro, Stony Brook, R-Jr.
DL - Preston Pemasa, Gardner-Webb, Jr.
DL - Matt Goods, Gardner-Webb, R-Jr.
DL - Francis Bah, Liberty, R-Jr.
DL - Chris Thomas, Coastal Carolina, Sr.
LB - Andrae Jacobs, Coastal Carolina, Sr.
LB - Jawara Dudley, Stony Brook, Jr.
LB - Nick Sigmon, Liberty, R-Soph.
LB - Donelle Williams, Presbyterian, So.
DB - Charles James, Charleston Southern, R-Sr.
DB - Walt Aikens, Liberty, R-Jr.
DB - Kevin Fogg, Liberty, Sr.
DB - Dominick Reyes, Stony Brook, R-Sr.
PK - Wesley Skiffington, Stony Brook, R-Sr.
P - Patrick Morgano, Presbyterian, Sr.
LS - Richard Wright, Liberty, R-Jr.
KR - Kevin Fogg, Liberty, Sr.
PR - Niccolo Mastromatteo, Coastal Carolina, Jr.