After the Charlotte 49ers dismantled Massachusetts 52-17 earlier this month, strobe lights fired and Drake blared as players danced on top of lockers, and a visiting high school football recruit signaled to first-year coach Will Healy.
The recruit had seen enough.
Within seconds, coaches whistled for the music to stop. The locker room fell silent. Everyone turned to the recruit.
“I want to commit to Charlotte and spend my next four years here,” exclaimed Buddy Mack, a three-star defensive back out of Byrnes High in Duncan, South Carolina, in a video that he posted on Twitter.
Lockers shook as players roared and high-fived.
The party continued.
This is Club LIT, a transformed locker room experience after every 49ers victory. It is one of the many changes that Healy and his new coaching staff have instituted. The coaches themselves sometimes body surf through Club LIT after a big win.
This marks the most exciting year for Charlotte in its brief history. Healy, who at 34 is the second youngest coach in college football, takes over a program loaded with more talent than it’s ever had. Through two games, the 49ers are averaging higher fan turnouts than at any other point since its inaugural season in Division I FBS. And, for the first time, the stadium is selling alcohol.
Healy’s goal is simple: To make people care about Charlotte football.
“One of the things that I think is really fun is the building aspect,” he said. “And part of that is continuing to build a fanbase. I don’t expect everybody in Charlotte to make the 49ers their first team, but we’ll gladly be your second team.”
My afternoon with the Charlotte football team reminded me of the famed ‘John F. Kennedy and the janitor’ anecdote. The story goes like this: In 1961, President Kennedy traveled to Houston and visited the NASA headquarters for the first time. While touring the facility, he introduced himself to a janitor who was mopping the floor and asked him what he did at NASA. The janitor responded: “I’m helping put a man on the moon.”
Inside the Judy Rose Football Center on the UNC Charlotte campus, sentiments are more or less the same. An entire staff and team bought into a single purpose — regardless of role — which is to get the current crop of seniors, along with the rest of the team, to its first bowl game in school history.
Charlotte hasn’t experienced much success in its six-year existence. With an all-time record of 24-50, the 49ers have never finished a season with more than five wins.
To Healy, the challenge of elevating the team to new heights was part of the allure of the job.
“Taking over a program that has not reached its potential where you can exceed expectations and do more than what has been done is important to me,” Healy said.
The Chattanooga native has embraced Charlotte. He and his wife, Emily, are almost regulars at the Crunkleton — where he recommends the Moscow Mule — and at the Pizza Peel when they have their kids in tow. They’ve even built out a mini-49ers football fanbase amongst their Chantilly neighbors.
“They all come out to the games now and are fired up,” Healy said.
Healy played in college as a quarterback at the University of Richmond, but he made a name for himself as a coach at Austin Peay. That’s where he inherited a team that won one game in the three previous seasons. Healy led the program to 13 victories in his last two seasons and earned the Eddie Robinson Award as the top head coach at the FCS level in 2017.
Chris Vannini, a national college football reporter for The Athletic, says Healy is a guy who can build something from nothing.
“The job he did to get Austin Peay to eight wins was absolutely unbelievable — with it literally being the worst program in Division I football,” Vannini said. “And not only did he win, he also brought in the best recruiting class at the FCS level around the same time.”
One immediate difference you’ll notice with Charlotte football is the level of accessibility.
After the summer scrimmage in August, each player and coach personally thanked the dozens of fans who showed up.
“When you’re competing against the Carolina Panthers, South Carolina, North Carolina, Clemson, Duke, NC State … then you have to do something that they don’t — and that’s build a relationship,” he said. “They want to come support you because they know you.”
It’s a new approach for his boss, Charlotte athletics director Mike Hill, as well. After spending 24 years at the University of Florida— a college football blueblood — Hill, who has been at Charlotte for just 18 months, appreciates the fan-friendly mentality.
“This is the most accessible program in college football,” Hill said. “And it’s because of [Healy].”
After all, Healy asks, how many times can you bring your seven-year-old out to a college football practice and meet every player and member of the coaching staff?
“There is definitely some excitement to come watch the football team,” said Brent Cole, a 2019 UNCC graduate. “I think the school is growing. Better recruits are coming in and we’re playing bigger games.”
Cole is one of 80,000 alumni living within an hour of Charlotte’s campus, according to Hill. With such an expansive regional footprint, even marginal success could yield meaningful returns for the program.
And there are certainly big games on the schedule. Charlotte visited Clemson last weekend, although they fell to the defending national champions 52-10. Charlotte opens against Tennessee next season. And in the next decade, the team will travel to South Carolina, Florida and Georgia.
But big-time programs are also coming to play in Charlotte. Duke, Maryland, East Carolina and North Carolina will all visit the 49ers by 2025.
And while much of that is down the line, Charlotte football in 2019 certainly has enough to entertain the early adopters.
Engaged college football fan? The 49ers play host to trendy preseason favorites like Florida Atlantic and North Texas this season.
Casual college football fan? The 49ers won’t bore you. Charlotte puts up a lot of points — almost 40 per game — and has the top scoring offense in its conference. Ticket prices won’t break the bank either: You can still get tickets to this weekend’s homecoming game for as low as $20.
Right now, football fans in this city could use a little of that.
Don’t like football? That’s fine. As of 2019, Richardson Stadium sells alcohol — and it’s not particularly expensive, either. Six dollars for domestic beer and wine and eight dollars for craft beer — home games feature an assortment of options from Cabarrus Brewing and 26 Acres Brewing.
The tailgating scene is vibrant — with hundreds of fans grilling in the parking lot three hours before kickoff. But you don’t have to tailgate on campus to start the party before the game. A simple light rail ride from uptown to Richardson Stadium is less than 25 minutes (I know — I checked).
Chip Wampler, Charlotte athletics fan since 1977, is excited about the possibilities for the program — and about Healy’s potential. Wampler, who runs the Mobile Mineshaft tailgate, believes Charlotteans are finally going to take notice.
“I would compare Charlotte football today to a Knights game,” Wampler said. “It’s a great family affair, for sure. But for young people? What a fun event to come to.”
The challenge from Healy is clear: Give Charlotte football a shot.
“Come give it a try,” Healy said. “If you don’t like it, that’s fine. But I guarantee when you meet our players and our coaches you will want to come pull for us.”
Charlotte hosts Florida Atlantic this Saturday in its homecoming game at 3:30 p.m. at Richardson Stadium.