Jay Mills doesn't sound like any college coach you've heard before. He's soft spoken, gentle and even fatherly, with none of the usual cliches of the profession. He reminds one of a minister appealing to his flock instead of a fire-breathing football stereotype.
Of course, all that probably has a lot to do with Charleston Southern's Southern Baptist affiliation. Also the fact that Mills' laidback inspirational approach is ideal for a small campus where few are strangers. How small? Wake Forest, another Baptist institution, has one of the smallest enrollments in Div. 1 with about 4,600 students. This fall 3,287 enrolled at Charleston Southern.
So where does football fit in at a school that touts its mission as "Commitment to providing academic excellence in a Christian environment"? That's what we asked Mills this summer in an effort to learn more about an FCS team eager to be as overmatched as an unarmed Christian entering ancient Rome's Colesium.
Coach, your emphasis seems to be less on winning than developing the character of young men.
Mills: Absolutely. It's as important to us to win the football game as any other team that goes on the field. But hopefully we'd like to do it within the rules of the game in the best way possible. And we believe that life lessons and the eternal perspective are gained through the sport. Some people say it develops character, and other people say it reveals character, as well. But I can't think of a better way to train young men for life and then some through the game of football.
But does it impact their character negatively when a team scores 66 points on them like Hawaii did last year?
Mills: I think Benjamin Franklin said it best. He said those things that hurt, instruct. Some of the greatest lessons I've learned in my life haven't been through moments of victory and triumph, but have actually sometimes been through disappointment and defeat. I think that's where character is developed and where it grows. And we believe perseverance is something that develops over time. Many of the great things that have been accomplished in our country's history didn't come easily. They've come through some steadfast commitment. So it's disappointing to lose a football game, no question about it. But it's more disappointing not to try, and not try to achieve heights that other people would consider too lofty.
Is it a selling point in recruiting that players will be going up against some big name schools?
Mills: I think that's certainly an aspect to it. And particularly because a majority of our team comes from the state of Florida. They dream of playing for schools such as Florida State. And the next best thing to playing for them is playing against them. Whether there's 90-thousand cheering for you or against you, there's still 90-thousand cheering. So how many opportunities in life do you have to experience something like that? We're very grateful for having those opportunities, including the financial aspect. It allows schools like ours that don't have the endowments and financial resources of bigger schools to be able to finance some things that otherwise we might not be able to provide for our young men and to our student body.
Your roster shows over 40 players from Florida. How did you develop such a pipeline from one state?
Mills: Well, it's a matter of numbers. In our state there are approximately 220 high schools that play football. If you go to Georgia there's 405. And when I first arrived there were 440 in Florida. So as you go South, there aren't many FCS schools, but there are plenty of good quality young men looking for an opportunity to play. And many of them would like to play with an opportunity for their families to come see them. So it's been a win-win situation.