For the Charlotte 49ers, FCS is in the rear view mirror, and the next phase is on the horizon: a move to FBS, specifically Conference USA, where they will reside beginning next year.
About a week and a half ago, the 49ers wrapped up their second and final FCS season the same way they ended their first one: with a blowout victory over Morehead State to end at 5-6. But what can they learn from programs like UTSA, Old Dominion, Georgia Southern, Appalachian State and the four other schools that have joined FBS over the past three years? While things may not turn out exactly the way they have at other places, there's a few important lessons the players, staff and fans can learn.
1. Success might not come immediately...and that's OK. UTSA stormed out of the gates in their first season in FBS (2012), but not every program can have a national title-winning coach on the sidelines. Georgia Southern also had a quick start and saw their first FBS season end with them as Sun Belt champions under first-year head football coach Willie Fritz. You can probably make the case that it's more of the fact that Fritz has had success wherever he's been, beginning with D-2 Central Missouri and, after that, Sam Houston State (which he led to back-to-back championship games in 2011 and 2012). Even Old Dominion took its lumps before turning it around and ending the year at .500 while Appalachian State achieved bowl eligibility after a 1-5 start. If 2015 doesn't end with the 49ers having, at the very least, an even record, it shouldn't cause alarm. (It might end up to be more a Georgia State situation than a Georgia Southern one.)
2. Things might not be pretty some weeks. Point #2 ties in to point #1 a bit. Charlotte simply got its clock cleaned by a number of teams in 2014 (for example, a 59-34 loss to Coastal Carolina where the 49ers trailed 35-7 at the half) while suffering some very close losses to others (a 20-13 defeat to Elon being among them). In fact, five of Charlotte's six losses were by eight points or less. Credit to them for fighting back in many of those games, but the fact still remains that they gave up a ton of points and yardage in several of those contests, though. That won't cut it against the likes of many teams they'll face next year. We've made mention of Old Dominion's rough performances in 2014 and how they were able to bounce back; time will tell if the 49ers can do the same and show resiliency if and when things do get down.
3. Nurture the rivalries. UTSA has Texas State; Georgia Southern has Georgia State and Appalachian State; and Charlotte will soon have its own football rival. September 8, 2018 is already circled on the calendars of fans of both Appalachian State and Charlotte as the date of first time the two will meet on the gridiron. That's a natural, academic rivalry that has developed over the years that both sides should embrace wholeheartedly (it would do both athletic departments well to both develop a trophy of some kind and extend the series as far as possible). There's already a little bad blood between the 49ers and ODU as well after a game to be played between the two last month was scuttled in the summer.
4. Age is everything. Throughout the 2013 inaugural season that I had a chance to cover, as well as this year, Charlotte head football coach Brad Lambert stressed the necessity of "old" players—upperclassmen at key positions. He's been able to take a page out of UTSA coach Larry Coker's playbook to see what's been effective and what hasn't worked while building the team. Part of what Lambert's done is mine the JUCO ranks to bring in players to give them a boost at several spots, such as Butler CC teammates Nick Cook, a junior ILB, and Branden Dozier, a junior safety. (Dozier led the team with 82 tackles in 2014.) He also brought in transfers from other programs last year, such as former Air Force player Mikel Hunter, Wake Forest OL Daniel Blitch and Georgia State LB Mark Hogan, to help a young team find its legs. (Hunter recorded over 1,000 all purpose yards being used primarily as a receiver and return specialist; Hogan, who scored the program's first touchdown on a pick-six against Campbell in 2013, recorded 77 tackles and provided defensive and emotional leadership in the locker room; while Blitch ended his career this fall after his strong presence guiding a young offensive line.) Now, with his "young" players morphing into "old" ones, Lambert now can lean more on his "homegrown" athletes. Probably one of the things that helped Old Dominion in their late-season surge was the upperclassmen presence that was present in their locker room to help their teammates keep their heads up and keep moving forward. That certainly goes a long way and can't be overlooked at any program. (See point #2)
Will it be a more UTSA-esque FBS debut for Charlotte next year or one with shades of Georgia State? Time will tell. One thing's for sure: both the fans and players are ready for the next step of this journey.