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Will Healy wants Charlotte to reach the next level — but what will it take

Brick by brick and step by step, Charlotte head coach Will Healy is looking to take the next step with the 49ers.

Will Healy has an infectious personality. Whenever he steps into a room, people often start to listen and oftentimes, will leave with laughter.

That much was true at Conference USA’s Media Day, when Healy stepped into the room and, almost immediately, lit a light constant with that infectious personality; and while the conversation at his media day press conference may have diverted from football talk to discussion about Joey Chestnut and Outback’s ranch dressing, that personality remained.

When it comes to football, though, there’s nothing that Will Healy is more passionate about than Charlotte football and all that it has to offer.

Maybe that’s why, when big-time jobs may have come calling a few seasons ago, he chose to stay at Charlotte and continue to build his ultimate dream – a major college football program in The Queen City.

“I would love to make Charlotte the big-time program, not go take a job at the big-time program, that’s how I’ve always felt. I think you can do it there, I don’t think it’s a pipe dream,” Healy said at Conference USA Media Day. “It’s the greatest city in the United States to live in. So, my family’s happy, my kids are happy. I think we’re just scratching the surface of where we can be and we can exceed expectations. That’s what makes it a really good job and I want to be the first to ever do it at Charlotte.”

For Healy, exceeding those expectations will come in various ways. But, despite some of the recent struggles — and there have been enough of them — Healy believes that Charlotte has all it takes to reach the levels set by other Group of Five programs like UCF and Cincinnati.

“We’re not there. Do I believe it has real potential? Yes, I do. I’ve always felt that way about Charlotte because I think the support that we had - we sold out every home game last year. I mean, we got 31,000 students. We got, on average 5100, 5200 students that are coming to games. It’s a great atmosphere,” Healy said.

NCAA Football: Duke at Charlotte
Fans of the University of Charlotte storm the field following their home victory against Duke.
Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

“I think we are learning what it looks like, from a resource perspective, what it takes to be at that level. And I think the other thing is, I hope we see the blueprint they’ve made and say ‘this is what it did for their university, it’s worth the investment,’ and I think we’re getting there.”

While developing a program to those levels isn’t easy or quick, Healy has seen significant growth in multiple things, including the leadership of players.

“I think we’re making big strides with the players taking control, in a good way. You know, I want it to be their voice, I want them to hold each other accountable,” Healy said. “I think the competition is very different from a culture perspective. And I think any time you can have competitive depth, it’s gonna help.”

Healy continued to explain how the player’s experience at Charlotte has kept him up at night and consumed him at times.

“I think that they know me a little bit better. They feel comfortable speaking to me about things that they think can make the program better and they know I’m gonna fight for them. There’s times where I’ll lay in bed trying to figure out ‘how do I make the program better from their experience?’ Like, that’s all I worry about and I think they realize that so they’re a little bit more patient with me when one little thing goes wrong or one little trip goes wrong,” Healy said “… But I think we have just 95% of our guys who are just amazing people and work their rear end off and do things the right way. I think the accessibility piece that I’ve gotten more used to, which makes them more and more confident to have conversations and make great first impressions and win interviews.”

The player’s experience at Charlotte has always been a priority for Healy. Simply put, Healy wants people to enjoy their time in The Queen City.

“The question would be if I asked them five years from now - they come in as a true freshman and they play five years for me, if they had a chance to make the same decision, would they make it again and choose Charlotte?” Healy said. “I want every single one of them to say yes. When we have a guy who doesn’t have a great experience in my program, it kills me. Like, it eats at me. … I want it to be the most memorable athletic experience of their life but I don’t want it to be the most memorable experience of their life.”

Building the experience for players can take different flavors for Healy. Sometimes, it’s as simple as getting prospects involved with local businesses for NIL and future jobs, or the introduction of “Club Lit,” they all play massive roles for Healy.

“I want it to be cool for our players to play football in Charlotte,” Healy said. “I want them to be able to go places and be recognized and people pat them on the back and be like, ‘I support you and I’m coming to the games.’ I want players that are coming up in the high school ranks to feel like it’s cool to play football in Charlotte and see how cool it is to be a hometown hero. I want players that left and gone somewhere else to play that are happy to come back because they see how big time our brand is.”

Healy continued: “And the other thing about it is, I want the city to wrap themselves around our players so that our players can create opportunities for themselves, whether it be through NIL or jobs after college. I want people to fill the stands. I love the city, it’s an amazing place. And so, a lot of work needs to be done to make sure we even take it to the next level because I think the surface is just being scratched.”

Now, Club Lit is a little more familiar.

The party scene inside Charlotte’s locker room is no secret to college football. It was featured on ESPN in 2019 and gained even more popularity following Charlotte’s win over Duke last season, which marked the program’s first victory over a Power Five opponent.

“I want them to have so much fun winning and celebrate success so much that they crave to have it again and they work really hard to make sure they can have that feeling again,” Healy said. “I know how hard they work. I know how long they work for that one opportunity and I think it’s so important to be … wrapped up in the moment of feeling victory because I want it to feel so good and taste so good that all you’re doing and craving all week is that taste again. It’s about celebrating success, man. When something good happens in their life, we have to celebrate it and I have a lot of joy when that happens.”

Despite the progress, though, Healy doesn’t feel like they’ve reached the apex. Not only did Charlotte fail to make a bowl game last season but the program might still be less popular than other North Carolina programs like North Carolina, NC State, and Appalachian State. Healy wants to change all of that, though.

“I think it started to happen because of bits and pieces of success but what I would love for it to be is not a win against Duke and an event on [College] Gameday, I would love for it to be consistently picked 8, 9, 10 games,” Healy said. “So, it takes years to build to make that happen and that’s the fun part. You think it’s something that can be sustainable, even in this crazy day of college football.”

What’s next for Charlotte, however?

Well, it starts on the field and building off of a disappointing end to the 2021 season, which ended with a 5-7 record. For Healy, that comes in the way of making, and winning a bowl game in 2022.

“I will be very disappointed if we don’t win a bowl game this year,” Healy said. “That’s my expectation. To say it’s a standard or an expectation, we have to do it multiple and multiple times and build that consistency over the program.”

Off the field, it’s a matter of recognizing the resources they have.

“I think we got to be who we want to be before we get there from a resource perspective and how we treat the players and what we do to keep assistant coaches and create some consistency there,” Healy said. “Obviously, the facilities piece to this is extremely important but I think the next step for us is we got to do something that’s never been done; We’ve never won a bowl game, we’ve never been in a conference championship game, we never won a conference title, we’ve never won more than seven games. So, let’s do something that’s never been done and let’s do that this year.”

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