Commentary

49ers preparing for Charlotte market

Originally Published: June 24, 2011
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Charlotte 49ers football program's first office space on campus was a cramped conference room.

"It was more like a closet," 49ers offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen said. "There was one conference table and one grease board. You had to go out in the hallway to get [cell]phone reception. We were walking all over each other."

In the next 18 months, the 49ers will try to etch their place in a basketball-crazed state, which has long been dominated by ACC schools Duke, North Carolina, NC State and Wake Forest. The fledgling football program also will have to compete for attention -- and shrinking entertainment dollars -- in a city where the sports landscape is dominated by the NFL's Carolina Panthers and the NBA's Charlotte Bobcats.

Somehow, Charlotte, the country's 17th-largest city with a growing population of more than 700,000 residents, has never had a major college football team.

[+] EnlargeCharlotte Stadium
Wade Bruton, UNC Charlotte photography The Charlotte 49ers are building a new stadium, but will they find a fan base?

"We're a best-kept secret and don't want to be," Charlotte athletic director Judy Rose said.

Rose started lobbying for the school of more than 25,000 students to add football immediately after she was named athletic director in 1990. She finally got her wish last year.

When college football's landscape changed dramatically last year when the Big Ten and Pac-10 announced their expansion to 12 schools, Rose feared her other sports would be left behind. Charlotte's basketball, baseball and other sports teams compete in the Atlantic-10 Conference. The A-10 doesn't have a football league.

"Everything has been driven by football, and basketball hasn't had anything to do with it," Rose said. "I had this fear that we would be left out. I had a fear that there would be a break-off of the schools that have football and those that don't have football. It scared the heck out of me."

The 49ers' first football game is scheduled for Aug. 31, 2013, against the Campbell Camels. The 49ers will play at least their first two seasons as a Football Championship Subdivision independent, with long-term plans in place to eventually move to the larger Football Bowl Subdivision.

Rose had discussions with at least three FCS leagues -- the Big South, Colonial Athletic Association and Southern Conference -- about membership, but each league decided it wasn't interested in expanding.

"To move from FCS to FBS, you have to have an invitation from a conference," Rose said. "We have to make sure it's a conference that would want us and would be a good fit for us. Our long-term goal is to be FBS, but I can't define 'long-term.' Sometimes things just happen."

The 49ers have a lot of work to do between now and their first game. The 49ers' football offices are on the second floor of Halton Arena, an on-campus basketball facility. Coach Brad Lambert and his skeleton staff are working without a secretary, and there isn't even a refrigerator in their break room. A field house, coaches' offices and weight room will be part of the new stadium, which will take about 14 months to build.

"It's literally been from the ground up," Mullen said. "But it's been a lot of fun."

Lambert, 46, has three full-time assistants and will add three more staff members in January. A full coaching staff will be hired by August 2012, when the 49ers can begin practicing.

Mullen, one of Lambert's closest friends, is a former offensive coordinator at Ohio, Wake Forest and West Virginia. Former Michigan defensive line coach Bruce Tall is the team's defensive coordinator, and former Wofford assistant James Adams also will coach defense. Lambert's nephew, Trevor Lambert, is the team's football operations director.

Brad Lambert's first order of business is generating excitement for football at a school that has never had its own team.

[+] EnlargeBrad Lambert
Wade Bruton, UNC Charlotte photographyCoach Brad Lambert is focused on building the 49ers program from scratch.

"We want to give people a reason to stay on campus on the weekends," Lambert said. "In the past, everyone left to go to Wake Forest, NC State or Clemson to watch football."

Rose, who worked as Charlotte's women's basketball coach before she was named athletic director, isn't concerned about fan support.

"I'm not worried about the kids staying here," Rose said. "I think they've left the campus [on weekends] out of necessity. We didn't give them enough options. People come for a soccer game, and they go home. They come for a volleyball game, and they go home. They come for basketball games and go home. When people come for football, they come for the entire day or weekend. It is an event."

In many ways, Charlotte's students already will have an investment in their football team. After a survey showed that Charlotte's student body supported adding football, the student government voted overwhelmingly to approve student fees to support the sport. For the next 30 years, students will pay annual debt-services fees of $120 to help pay for $45 million in stadium construction costs.

Additionally, students will pay football operating fees -- freshmen will pay $50, sophomores $100, juniors $150 and seniors $200 -- to help the school pay for its increased athletic budget. Rose estimates the school will spend between $5 million and $6 million in football operating expenses annually.

Because Charlotte is relatively young -- the school didn't open its doors until 1946, more than 150 years after UNC Chapel Hill was chartered -- there isn't a huge alumni base to tap into for financial donations. The school has sold about 3,400 seat licenses, which have price tags ranging from $250 to $1,500 each.

"This university is very young and still very young," Rose said. "Our funding for the university is never enough to do what you want to do even academically. We're just starting to get alumni who are in position to give financially. We don't have the Educational Foundation that [UNC] Chapel Hill has. We haven't had generations of graduates who have been giving for 100 years. We're caught in that little time lapse of trying to catch up."

Rose hopes the Carolina Panthers can help spread the 49ers' brand name. She leaned on the Panthers during her campaign to launch a football program. Former Panthers players Mike Minter and Mike Rucker served as ambassadors for the college team, and the school plans to market its new team and sell season tickets at Panthers games.

"I think having the Panthers here definitely helps us," Rose said. "We had a great relationship with the Panthers, even before we started seriously talking as a university about adding football."

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UNC Charlotte Photography Preparations are under way for the Charlotte 49ers' first home game on Aug. 31, 2013.

Lambert and his staff have been the program's best salesmen. Because there are only three assistants, each of them spent most of April and May on the road, recruiting high school prospects. The 49ers will sign a class of about 25 students in February and a larger class in 2013. The incoming freshmen will redshirt in 2012, but all of them will have to play in 2013.

Mullen estimates that he visited between 150 and 200 high schools this past spring. Earlier this month, Charlotte's coaches worked other schools' summer camps, where they were able to evaluate prospects. Mullen worked camps at Clemson, Duke, Georgia, North Carolina, NC State, South Carolina and Wake Forest; Adams worked camps at Duke, NC State, South Carolina and Wake Forest.

Adams said being on the road so much helped the coaches spread the 49ers' brand name.

"It was like every week you're in a new state and every day you're in a new city," Adams said. "It's about getting out and showing the logo and spreading the word."

Not everyone was yet familiar with the Charlotte 49ers, though.

"At one high school, the secretary thought I worked for the San Francisco 49ers," Adams said.

This fall, Charlotte's coaches will spend even more time recruiting because they still won't have games to prepare for.

"I always say I'm at my best when I'm working, so it's going to be interesting," Tall said. "I'm just going to have to channel my energy in a different way. I'm going to watch a lot of film and make it a research year."

Lambert, who played at Kansas State and worked at Oklahoma, Marshall and Georgia, isn't worried about having too much idle time. He'll spend the next 18 months spreading the message about Charlotte's new football program.

"When the Panthers came here, I think it just elevated football in the state," Lambert said. "The players and coaches have gotten so much better over the last 10 years. The Panthers have been successful. They've been to the Super Bowl. I think it really brought more attention to football in the state."

Now, one more team is fighting to get noticed in North Carolina.

Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

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