HUNTERSVILLE – Without actually saying it, Will Healy’s hypothetical message to the administration at UNC Charlotte is “if you build it, they will come.”
Healy, the new head coach of the 49ers football team, brought his youthful looks – which he wasn’t afraid to remind the audience of – and enthusiastic charm to a luncheon hosted by the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce June 20 at NorthStone Country Club.
The 34-year-old was hired in December after two seasons leading Austin Peay and already has high aspirations for what the still-young Charlotte program can become.
Though attendance at Charlotte’s games last season failed to fill the 15,000-seat Jerry Richardson Stadium, Healy is already talking expansion.
“A big part of my philosophy is you make a place what you want it to be before you get there, so you don’t have to change who you are when you get there,” he said. “Let’s expand the stadium. I hear, ‘We’re not filling 15,000. Fill 15,000 and then you can expand it.’ What are you going to do when we fill it for two straight years, and you still can’t build it. Now you just lost money.”
Given the turnaround Healy pulled off coaching at Austin Peay and the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga and as a player at the University of Richmond, he has sufficient evidence his new team can improve on the 5-7 record from coach Brad Lambert’s final season last fall.
Playing in the Football Championship Subdivision, Austin Peay had a 0-11 record in 2016 prior to Healy’s arrival but went 8-4 in 2017 and 5-6 the next year. The Governors broke several records during the 2017 season, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Beyond setting a slew of school records on offense, Healy addressed parts of the culture that needed change too.
One was the uniforms: The “not cool” Russell Athletic brand was ditched for a more-trendy Under Armour. Further, he increased the number of buses the team takes to travel from two to three.
“I get this all the time, ‘If y’all win some games over there, y’all will pack that place out,” Healy said. “That’s great, but I have to recruit every Saturday too. If you pack the place right now, I promise I’ll recruit better and it’s going to help me win in the long run. ‘Let’s wait on doing this until we win a couple games.’ That’s great, anyone can do that. That’s called frontrunners, that’s called bandwagon.”
Beyond convincing the Charlotte administration and donors to provide funds to build the kind of facilities – including for indoor practices – Healy yearns for, he realizes there’s an uphill battle in the recruiting game too, especially with Appalachian State’s long-term success just a few hours away.
“I know it’s not going to happen overnight,” Healy said. “I know what type of work we have left to do. We’re really not that cool to high school players right now. It’s a lot cooler to go to App, it’s a lot cooler to go to (East Carolina.) Taking something that’s not necessarily what you want it to be and taking it to what you want it to be is probably one of the most rewarding things you can be a part of.”
Though now at the Football Bowl Subdivision level, competing in Conference USA, Healy helped attract top-five FCS recruiting classes in four of the last five years.
But part of what makes him so enthusiastic about the future of the 7-year-old 49er program are the talents of his assistant coaches.
“You will not see a guy on our staff leave for a lateral job,” Healy said. “You saw guys leave so-called – form a perception standpoint – better jobs to come here, but from a quality-of-life perspective, you will not see coaches leave here to take another Conference USA job doing the same thing.”
Among the staff is assistant head coach and co-defensive coordinator Marcus West, who followed Healy from UT-Chattanooga to Austin Peay and now to the Queen City.
“My vision for Charlotte is make sure we’re big-time enough that these guys don’t leave,” Healy said of his assistants. “I want to make Charlotte such a big-time job that when Clemson comes calling, they have a hard time leaving.”