Before today's basketball game at Howard Coffin Gymnasium, Coastal Georgia coach Jesse Watkins and Auburn-Montgomery coach Mike Cheaney will exchange a family-friendly embrace. After tip-off, though, the pre-game niceties will quickly turn to competition.
"We'll have a hug or two before the game," Watkins said. "But during the game, we'll look at each other like I'm ready to beat you up, have fist fights, whatever it takes to get our team the win. It'll be a chess match."
Watkins and Cheaney's basketball friendship dates back roughly a decade to when Watkins coached at Southern Indiana. A native of Evansville, Ind., Cheaney was familiar with the region, and the coaching profession had the two in similar circles once Watkins took over that role in 2004. Around that same time — Cheaney joked that he would like a more specific timeline from Watkins — the now-Coastal Georgia head basketball coach began dating Cheaney's cousin.
"We've been coaching against each other and, I don't know how or where I was sleeping, but they started dating. Somehow, she fell in love with him, and they got married," Cheaney said with a laugh. "I saw him in coaching, but I didn't know he was dating my cousin for a long time. But we accepted him. He's a great guy. We're glad he's part of the family. "
The pair shared a strong bond prior to the family connection, working at coaching clinics together in the mid-2000s. All jokes aside, that friendship blossomed even further once Watkins began dating Cheaney's cousin. And now, the coaches are pitted against each other twice a year during Southern States Athletics Conference play.
Coastal Georgia (6-15, 2-7 in conference) will take on Auburn-Montgomery (12-7, 5-1 in conference) today in Brunswick in the first matchup of the 2015-16 season with the second coming on Feb. 27.
Neither coach denies that these games mean a little more than others, thanks to the family rivalry.
"This is a competitive game, a competitive sport, in a competitive league," Watkins said. "So when Thanksgiving and Christmas time comes around, we want to be able to say who beat who."
So far, Cheaney holds a 3-1 advantage. Before arriving at Auburn-Montgomery, Cheaney spent four seasons as Voorhees' head coach. He notched his first win against his cousin-in-law when Watkins was still an assistant under Gerald Cox, so Watkins likes to think he's only in a 2-1 hole.
Either way, Cheaney will wait at least 24 hours before bragging.
"This game probably means more than just Coastal and AU-M playing. It's bragging rights for the barbecue in the summer," Cheaney said. "I don't want to say that until after the game. I don't want to jinx myself right now. But this is personal. It's about who gets the first rib sandwich at the barbecue."
Watkins and Cheaney both conceded they've let their teams know that this game does have an added edge outside of regular conference competition. They don't want that to change the way their teams approach the games, but Watkins hinted that he'll "do whatever it takes to help them get motivated" for a game. If it means putting his family reputation on the line, so be it.
Outside of this in-game rivalry, however, the coaching duo communicates at least once a week. They both have the luxury of a fellow conference coach that's willing to offer a few tips here and there to help out when necessary.
But their conversations deviate from standard Xs and Os.
"We talk all the time. All the time. A week doesn't go by where we don't talk to see how things are going. In this profession, you've got to be able to find someone you can rely on to talk to about your feelings," Watkins said. "On the coaching side, at the end of the day, we're happy for each other. We support each other."
During the game, that changes. Cheaney remembers a specific instance in last year's contest at Coastal Georgia. He briefly wandered outside of the sideline space allotted for coaches, and the referee asked him to return. Cheaney noticed Watkins, too, was out of place and questioned why that was acceptable.
He learned the hard way that it's not easy to win that battle, especially on the road.
"Coach Watkins was all the way at the 'X' by the scorer's table. I said, 'Well, look at him. He's out of his box.' Somehow, I still got the technical," Cheaney said. "He walked back behind the box and looked back at me and laughed. 'Was this a setup?' But, yeah, we're definitely competitive, so that's part of the family fun."
Today, that competitiveness will return to Howard Coffin Gymnasium. With Watkins' wife and kids in attendance to watch the matchup against "Uncle Mike," it will be all business for the cousins-in-law, who have a little extra incentive to notch a conference win.
"If I win, I'll be jumping up and down. If he wins, well, you know," Watkins said.