What must be done eventually should be done immediately.
The Will Healy era has come a close, and Charlotte 49ers athletic director Mike Hill wasted no time moving on from the fourth-year head coach and opening a national search for the next candidate in line.
A 1-6 start to the season, combined with an arduous loss on homecoming against Florida International, was the nail in the coffin to a four-year tenure that had both high expectations and pressure for the 37-year-old coach.
This story will cover the build-up to the firing, the remaining four games for this senior-led group, a behind-the-scenes look at the past 72 hours inside the program, and of course, who’s in line to become the next head coach.
We’re in one of the biggest moments in Charlotte’s football history, and it’s imperative that Mike Hill and the athletic department build on Healy’s successes and find an individual that can continue pushing Charlotte to new heights, especially with the move to the American Athletic Conference on the horizon.
From a chilly December day filled with excitement and optimism on the concourse of Richardson Stadium, where Healy was announced as head coach in 2018, to a freezing-cold night inside the walls of the Judy Rose Center, where the boos from the crowd brought the walls crashing down as Healy’s firing became imminent - it was a fascinating journey for the program and its observers.
“Charlotte is so different than what I took over three years ago at Austin Peay,” Healy said at his introductory press conference. “These guys know how to win football games. You went from an opportunity where you hoped you could win to now; they expect to win. The foundation has been laid to take the next step and do it in a hurry.”
The 49ers took that next step almost immediately under Healy’s direction, resurrecting from a shallow 2-5 grave at the start of the 2019 season and rattling off five straight victories to score the program’s first winning season and bowl appearance. Beating Marshall under the lights was one of the best moments in the program’s history. Storming the field, crowd surfing in Club Lit, and being bowl eligible for the first time – what a moment.
While the 2020 COVID-season would derail the progress and halt momentum, the turn really started on Dec. 16, 2019 – when Charlotte checked in at the Atlantis for the Bahamas Bowl. Charlotte was completely unprepared for the matchup with Buffalo, ultimately resulting in a 31-9 loss at the hands of the Bulls, then led by Lance Leipold.
Alex Highsmith, Cameron Clark, Jeff Gemmell, Benny LeMay and others had played their last downs in green and gold, passing the torch to Chris Reynolds, Victor Tucker, D’Mitri Emmanuel, Ben DeLuca, Tyriq Harris and Markees Watts to lead the program.
Many thought that 2020 was the low point, playing just six games and losing four of those in the cancellation-ridden season, with the most notable being a 53-19 blowout loss at Duke.
The following year was a return to normalcy, with yet another transfer being brought in to try and take Reynolds’ job as starting quarterback. Excitement was back. Fans were back. And it all came to fruition on Sept. 3, 2021, when the Blue Devils came to town as the first Power Five program to travel to Richardson Stadium.
It felt like everybody in the country was watching Charlotte on that Friday night. Healy had definitely arrived. A back-and-forth game saw Reynolds and Tucker continue their dominance, and saw Grant DuBose become a breakout star. Reynolds’ game-winning drive resulted in a moment that not a soul who was present will forget.
The fans storming the field. Healy’s oldest, Eli, tackling him following his emotional postgame interview. The scene inside the 49ers’ locker room, where Club Lit had its own DJ and had solidified its place within the program – or so we thought.
The 49ers would jump out to the 10-year-old program’s best start of 4-2, heading into the bye week with the rumors of the jump to the American Athletic Conference looming.
It was announced on Oct. 21, 2021, that Charlotte, as well as five other schools from Conference USA, would join the AAC. The move promised increased resources, budgets and facilities, better recruiting, visibility and reputation.
Despite the highs to that point, Charlotte never competed for a C-USA title. The announcement signified the program taking a major step, but the on-field results that would follow led us to where we are today.
Charlotte would finish the season losing five of its last six, including a 56-34 loss to Old Dominion in the season finale to fall just short of bowl eligibility. Much of the defensive staff was replaced, with defensive coordinator Greg Brown stepping in for Marcus West and Brandon Cooper. The hiring process took far too long, with Charlotte missing out on multiple defensive recruits from Nov. 2021 through Feb. 2022. The results of that have been clear, as Charlotte’s defense is allowing 43 points and 527 yards per game through eight games – by far the worst in the FBS.
The struggles of the past 14 games came to fruition last Saturday, as the 49ers were embarrassed on their home field by Florida International, a 14-point underdog, who had been outscored 113 to 10 in their last two C-USA games.
BEHIND THE SCENES
It was a tough scene at Jerry Richardson Stadium when the Panthers began to blow out the 49ers. Early in the first quarter, multiple fans approached the press box, screaming “Fire Will Healy, it’s over” at the media, and proceeded to the coach’s box to do the same.
An abundance of the crowd was chanting the same thing. There were boos, and the stadium emptied out following the halftime homecoming festivities. I saw Hill walk into the locker room area between timeouts in the first half, something I had never seen him do in five seasons of covering the program.
It was the lowest-attended homecoming day game in Healy’s tenure, not counting the capacity-restricted 2020 season. In 2019 against FAU, Charlotte drew a crowd of 12,334 on homecoming. 2021 against Rice surpassed a sell-out, with 16,050 in attendance. 2022 saw just 10,576 in attendance, and a small fraction of that remained in the second half.
The postgame press conference was sobering. The reality was setting in. Healy was asked about the chants in the crowd, and he was asked if he was still the right guy for the program.
“I’m a really big believer in this journey is not over, and there are some really fun chapters that I hope we’ll get a chance to read,” Healy told reporters. “I also understand that this job is about results, and I haven’t been able to get the results, especially this year, that I would like to have for these guys, for our fans, and for my boss.”
Sunday morning at 8, Hill informed Healy that they would meet in two hours, at 10 AM. He would be notified of his termination then, and offensive line coach Pete Rossomando would accept the position as interim head coach around 10:45 that morning.
Healy then addressed the team at 1 PM on Sunday. It was an emotional meeting, “without a dry eye in the room,” I’m told. The meeting went about as well as it could possibly go, concluding Healy’s tenure with the university.
Hill met with the media on Monday, speaking for over 30 minutes about the highs and lows in the past four years.
“Obviously, yesterday was a really difficult day,” Hill said. “We love Will Healy. I hired him. I believe in him. I still think that he has a bright future ahead of him. Unfortunately, those of us who have been around for a long time know that sometimes you learn the most from disappointment and failure. While his tenure here was far from a failure, it was enough of a struggle in the last 14 games that we felt like we needed to make a move.”
The players didn’t practice on Monday but were scheduled to lift and invited to seek counseling, with mental health being a top priority during the change. Tuesday’s practice was the first under interim head coach Rossomando, and it was closed to the media for the team period.
Following practice, Watts shared his message to his former head coach.
“Just saying thank you. I love him. When he came in, he changed a lot of things for me. He reignited my passion for football after I felt like I lost it,” Watts said of Healy. “The four years with him were great. The results weren’t always what we wanted to be, but it was still a great time. He’s family for sure.”
FOUR GAMES LEFT
At Monday night’s Niners Live show, Rossomando spoke for the first time as interim head coach. He stated that all coordinators would remain the same to finish the season, however, the way that the team practiced would change. The players voiced their excitement about the practice changes.
There are multiple seniors, including Reynolds, Tucker and Watts that made the decision to come back for an extra year at Charlotte, and these are the guys fans would likely be rooting for the most. All three define what it means to be a 49er, and senior day against Louisiana Tech on Nov. 19 is going to be an emotional day for many.
Despite the whirlwind that was this past weekend, there’s still a lot of talent and fight on this roster.
“It’s tough as a player, you lose your head coach. You see it happen, and you hate it. It sucks,” Reynolds said on Tuesday. “But you’ve got to put your hard hat back on and go back to work. Coach Ross is going to do a great job. Now we’ve got to keep moving forward. Tough times don’t last, but tough people do. And we’re going to find that out these next four weeks.”
The 49ers (1-7, 0-4 C-USA) will travel to Houston to take on Rice (4-3, 2-1 C-USA) this Saturday. And Reynolds expects the team to respond.
“You’ve got to find motivation and find a way to compete. If you can’t bring your own juice in a game like this on Saturday – I mean, we’ve just got to go play football. You’ve got to find your love, and if you don’t have that love then you don’t need to be here.”
This wasn’t the season that anyone expected for the 49ers, but there are four opportunities remaining. For some players, it will be their last snaps in green and gold, and for some, it will be the conclusion of their careers. For those who decide to stick with the university, it will be the start of a new chapter.
This is the million-dollar question, and according to Hill following Monday’s press conference, every candidate list across the country is compiled of writers throwing names at the wall and hoping it sticks. There are some names with traction, though. And we’ll get to that below.
First off, Hill’s comments on characteristics for the next hire were interesting.
“We’re going to look at a lot of different kinds of candidates as we seek out the characteristics of a great head coach here,” Hill said. “There’s a tendency in any business if you make a move where you let someone go, to want to hire someone that is the opposite of what you had – and I don’t know that that’s necessarily the case here.
“First, someone who is going to be a great leader of young men, and who does things the right way. That’s really important to us as a university and as a program. It’s also going to be important that this person has a great track record of excellent recruiting and shows themselves as a developer of talent,” Hill continued. “I’d like to see someone who has demonstrated skills or can articulate a vision of how to organize a staff and how to hire a staff, and how to structure things in a way to have success because it takes everybody in the building. Someone who is a great communicator. It’s hard to follow a guy like Will Healy and not be able to also be a great ambassador in our community.”
The timeline for the hire isn’t as compressed as it would be if it were done at the end of the season, but Charlotte is already working on the hunt and will be employing a search firm in the process. While a specific firm is yet to be named, it’s worth mentioning that TurnkeyZRG was the firm utilized when Charlotte replaced former athletic director Judy Rose with Hill in 2018.
The move to the American Athletic Conference looms large with this hire, and the salary pools to attract the types of candidates that Charlotte is looking for are worth discussing.
Healy’s salary was $835,742, ranking seventh among the 10 current full-time coaches in C-USA (not including Alabama-Birmingham’s interim head coach Bryant Vincent). Head coaches in the AAC are bringing in nearly double that amount.
“We’ll have conversations privately on how we might be able to fund some of those things. The other five schools that are moving to the American with us – many of them are in a similar situation. We’re joining a league where the incumbents have larger resources because they’ve been a part of a league that has much bigger payouts than we’ve had,” Hill said of remaining competitive in terms of salary. “We’re not going to be able to jump from where we are today to the top of the league, but we’ll be competitive for sure.”
Okay, now on to the list of candidates for this job. For the record, Rossomando said that he would love to be in consideration for the position moving forward. He jokingly asked me if I had the contract for him to sign on the spot.
Mack is a 42-year-old Tennessee native, who currently serves as running backs coach for the undefeated Vols. Mack has four seasons of head coaching experience with North Carolina Central, where he posted a 31-15 overall record, with winning records in every season. He would then join Rice in 2018 as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, before being promoted to assistant head coach in 2019.
Mack has been mentioned in many college football circles around Charlotte as a potential candidate. He owns five conference championships and was a three-time HBCU head coach of the year and has already been in multiple MAC head coaching conversations.
Minter is a Carolina Panthers legend and is currently the head coach at Campbell. He has led the Camels for the past 10 seasons, playing a major role in the additions of scholarships and the program’s entrance into the Big South Conference back in 2018.
Recruiting is where Minter has shined, pulling in the No. 1 FCS recruiting class in 2022, outperforming the Charlotte 49ers class in the process. The Camels even landed a four-star safety, Myles Rowser, to lead the class. One key aspect to watch with Minter is that he is similar to the Healy hire, being a great FCS recruiter with a losing record. His overall record as a head coach since taking over at Campbell in 2013 is 40-55.
Hamilton doesn’t have much head coaching experience, outside a five-game stint in the XFL with the DC Defenders in 2020. He is, however, a Charlotte native with experience at the G5, P5 and NFL levels. Hamilton is currently the offensive coordinator with the Houston Texans and has also had stops with the Colts, Browns and Chargers in the past 10 years. His most recent collegiate position was assistant head coach and passing game coordinator under Jim Harbaugh at Michigan in 2017-18.
Being regionally recognized, Hamilton’s local connections would play a positive role in the recruiting aspect. This would be a home run hire for a program that is looking to rejuvenate its upwards trajectory.
Atkins, who served as the 49ers’ offensive coordinator during their only winning season and bowl appearance in 2019, has Charlotte ties. Atkins is an offensive mastermind, who has since moved on and been promoted to offensive coordinator at Florida State.
Many Charlotte players have raved about Atkins’ coaching abilities and what he meant to the team’s late season run in 2019. His recruiting has also made headlines, being listed as the primary recruiter for seven four-start prospects for the Noles, according to 247 sports.
His rise over the past four seasons has been clear, and his potential to continue growing at the Power Five level may deter him from returning to the Queen City as the next head coach.
Cox joined the Crimson Tide as tight ends coach under Nick Saban in February, following a season in the same position with the 49ers. He was a player-favorite in his tenure in the Queen City, and he’s also a high school football legend from his time at Independence, where he won the North Carolina Player of the Year award.
He has progressed through the coaching ranks quickly, but he has no head coaching or coordinating experience at the collegiate level, making him the least qualified of the bunch. He would have to rely on his ties to the area and to the program to gain an edge for the job.
It was time to move on from Healy. The recruiting success had slowed, dropping from 71st in the nation in 2020 to 129th in the ongoing 2023 class, according to 247 sports. Making this move now adjusts expectations moving forward, and Charlotte will be in full rebuild mode for the jump to the American in 2023.
A new conference. A new head coach. A new-look stadium. A new mentality.