When Gardner-Webb football coach Carroll McCray was growing up in Monroe in the 1960s and ’70s, finding a team to root for took some work.
“There wasn’t a pro team and there were no big-time college teams in the entire Charlotte area back then,” said McCray. “So you had to take your pick and pull for the Tar Heels or the Wolfpack. There wasn’t much to choose from but the big state schools.”
The landscape is different these days, with the NFL’s Carolina Panthers having taken hold. Division I college football, long a nonentity in the Charlotte region, is also showing signs of life with the Charlotte 49ers starting a team this season.
Add in programs like Appalachian State and even McCray’s Bulldogs – the 49ers’ opponent Saturday at Richardson Stadium – and the choices are more diverse now.
“These other teams have come along and given people in the metro Charlotte area somebody else to pull for,” said McCray. “You see people wearing different color shirts now.”
Vying for attention in the now crowded Charlotte-region football marketplace is the scarlet and black of Gardner-Webb, located 50 miles west of Charlotte in the Cleveland County town of Boiling Springs.
Gardner-Webb has only been a Division I program since 2000 and its enrollment of 4,900 is among the smallest in Division I football. The school’s most notable athletic achievement is a basketball upset of Kentucky in 2007.
The football program is beginning to carve out its own reputation. With two victories already against ranked teams this season, the Runnin’ Bulldogs (4-1) are ranked 24th nationally by the Football Championship Subdivision coaches and 25th by the Sports Network.
Leading the way is McCray, a 1983 graduate of Gardner-Webb who is in his first season at his alma mater. He replaced Ron Dickerson, who resigned in January after going 7-15 in two seasons.
McCray, 51, is a former assistant at Appalachian State and South Carolina with head-coaching experience at Austin Peay and North Greenville (S.C.).
With victories against FCS powers Wofford (3-0) and Richmond (12-10), Gardner-Webb has already made an early statement under McCray.
“It’s going pretty good, I guess,” said McCray, a former offensive lineman for the Bulldogs.
“We go by the week-by-week rule up here. The guys are doing what we’re asking of them and working the kinks out.”
Two of the Bulldogs’ top players are from Charlotte: junior quarterback Lucas Beatty (Olympic High) is eighth in school history with 4,030 yards, and senior cornerback Keon Williams (Providence) ranks 10th nationally this season with three interceptions.
“We’re not very far from Charlotte, so we’ve been able to attract quite a few good players from that area over here,” said McCray, an ordained Baptist deacon at his church in Taylors, S.C. “The (high school) football is really good over there on a lot of levels. It’s a fruitful ground for us.”
McCray said the Bulldogs’ recruiting territory is primarily the southeast.
That’s where they went to get junior linebacker Tanner Burch (a preseason All-American from Savannah, Ga.) and standout junior receiver Kenny Cook (Clinton, S.C.).
McCray acknowledged that the arrival of the 49ers makes recruiting the Charlotte area that much more challenging. Other current FCS programs such as Appalachian State and N.C. Central also make Mecklenburg County a recruiting priority.
“We want to build a program that is going to challenge in the Big South every year,” said McCray.
“So we’ll recruit anywhere. But it helps with our fan base and alumni if we can keep it as regional as possible.”
Scott: 704-358-5889; Twitter: @davidscott14
The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.
Have a news tip? You can send it to a local news editor; email firstname.lastname@example.org to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Charlotte Observer.Read moreRead less