College Sports

Decision to keep coach after 1-11 season angered fans. Here’s why 49ers didn’t fire him

Charlotte athletics director Judy Rose, left, and Chancellor Phil Dubois, right, introduce Brad Lambert as the 49ers’ football coach at a news conference in 2010.
Charlotte athletics director Judy Rose, left, and Chancellor Phil Dubois, right, introduce Brad Lambert as the 49ers’ football coach at a news conference in 2010.

Charlotte 49ers athletics director Judy Rose made one of the tougher – and more controversial – decisions of her career this week when she retained football coach Brad Lambert.

Rose elected to keep Lambert after the 49ers completed a 1-11 season. It came in the 49ers’ football program’s fifth year of existence, just their third playing in the Football Bowl Subdivision, the NCAA’s highest level. It also came one season after the 49ers had overachieved on the way to a 4-8 record in their second FBS season.

To some, Rose’s decision means Lambert justifiably will have a chance to bounce back from the one-victory season, continuing at a program that’s still in its infancy and for which he’s been the only coach.

The decision also infuriated a portion of Charlotte’s fan base, one that was already unhappy about the direction it felt the athletics department has taken under Rose, due mostly to sub-par performances in recent seasons in football and men’s basketball.

Keeping Lambert

Rose said she did not base her decision to retain Lambert on his win-loss record, which is 17-41 in five seasons (7-29 in FBS).

Rose says: “I would never do that in any sport and in any situation, where I will say you’ve got to win this number of games. You’ve got to look at the body of work. You look at this past season and it’s not acceptable. None of us expected this or are happy about it. If people think we are, that’s atrocious.

Judy Rose Mug
Judy Rose is in her 27th year as the Charlotte 49ers’ athletics director. Charlotte 49ers athletics

“But to change the coaching staff? Last year was a good year, better than expected. That’s part of the body of work, too. We don’t react to every situation as ‘this is the one time this happened.’ So next year, do I say it will take a certain number of wins or losses? Again, no, I will evaluate it in the context of the whole body of work.

“We made great strides last year and hoped to continue it this year. But I don’t think there’s a reason to let somebody go based on that one year.”

Note: Lambert’s original five-year contract has been amended twice. Once in 2013, adding three seasons (from 2016 to 2019); and again in February, adding a season through 2020.

Rose said having to potentially pay Lambert’s buyout of $770,385 (three times his annual base salary of $256,795) had “no bearing” on her decision to retain him.

A young program

Rose said she wouldn’t use the program’s five-year history as an excuse for the 2017 record, but that it’s a legitimate contributing factor.

Rose says: “I compare it to a child who had his fifth birthday. This may sound crazy. That 5-year old isn’t as good with decision-making and performing as a 12-year-old. The experience is not there. Hopefully we will get wiser and stronger as we grow older with the football program. We have had those discussions. Our goal is to be bowl-eligible, just like everybody else in the country.

“Brad is the architect of this program. He has made changes to his staff (including firing three coaches and demoting another this week). That happens across the country, every year, whether it’s a start-up program or an experienced one. He’s made changes when changes are needed. He hasn’t been afraid to do that.”

Note: Three recent start-up programs that have made the same jump to FBS as Charlotte have already played in bowls – Georgia State (third season), Texas-San Antonio (fourth) and South Alabama (third and fifth). The 49ers had a 4-4 record midway through the 2016 season but lost their final four games to fall short of the six victories necessary for bowl eligibility.

Attendance slide

Charlotte’s average football attendance dropped to 11,933 at Richardson Stadium (a 16 percent decline from 2016’s average of 14,192). That included an all-time low of 8,330 in the season finale against Florida Atlantic. Overall, college football attendance has been in decline, according to numbers through 2016, although not nearly at the rate of Charlotte’s this season.

Rose says: “Winning will help. We’re doing a lot of different things. We’ve met with the Chamber about having some (promotional) nights. We’ve got to have a good atmosphere out there. We’re talking with student affairs, because they have got to be involved with this.”

lambert photo
Charlotte 49ers football coach Brad Lambert leaves the field after Saturday’s 31-12 loss to Florida Atlantic in the team’s season finale. Charlotte completed its season with a 1-11 record. Benjamin Robson

Note: Rose said the 49ers are not in danger of falling below the NCAA-mandated attendance average of 15,000 (over a two-year period) for FBS programs, because all tickets that have been sold (and not necessarily are used) are counted. The 49ers’ athletic department, for instance, can buy tickets and have them counted toward the total.

Basketball slipping, too

Attendance at 49ers men’s basketball games has also slipped steadily in the past several seasons, averaging 3,975 in 9,105-seat Halton Arena in four games this season. As recently as the 2009-10 season, the 49ers averaged 6,321 per game.

Rose says: “It’s early in the season yet. It’s the same issue, though: We’ve got to play hard and put a product on the floor that people want to come and watch. And we need to win.

“I hired (third-year coach) Mark Price to hopefully get that changed. He’s a big-name person who’s competed at the highest level. He came in with very little here. Some of our players elected to leave the program before giving him a chance. So it was starting over for him. Our goal is to get back to (the NCAA tournament). If people think we don’t want that, that’s hard for me to fathom.”

Note: A crowd of 4,418 was at Charlotte’s home game Tuesday against rival Davidson, who beat the 49ers, dropping their record to 3-3. The 49ers will play the ACC’s Wake Forest next Tuesday in Halton.

The critics

Charlotte’s just-completed football season and the NCAA tournament 12-year droughtfor men’s basketball has made a significant portion of Charlotte’s fan base impatient with Rose, and in some very public ways.

An airplane flew over campus trailing a banner demanding Rose be fired before Charlotte’s homecoming game against Ala.-Birmingham in October. (That was ironically the 49ers’ only victory of the season). A few students held up “Fire Judy Rose” posters during Tuesday’s basketball game with Davidson.

Rose says: “Do I hear (the criticism)? Yes. I think people are passionate about athletics. I want our fans to be passionate. Is it hurtful? Sure it is. What someone says publically and having a plane fly over, it doesn’t make me smile. But people can speak in any manner they want. That’s in our Constitution.

“But it makes me work harder. It’s not going to deter me in any manner. I’ll continue to do what I’ve done and am expected to do and make tough decisions. I know I made the right decision (with Lambert) and as a leader I will take the heat.”

Rose’s future

Rose, 64, has been the 49ers’ athletics director since 1990. She said she’s not ready to step aside, nor, after 27 years in the job, does she think the athletics department might need a new direction.

Rose says: “I’m not going to answer that. How would you expect me to answer? If I thought that, I’d step away. That’s a call the chancellor can make. He’s my boss.”

Note: Rose, who earns $300,000 per year, according to an N.C. state employee data base, works without a contract.

Her message to fans

Rose says: “Stay on board with us, OK? I hear from them. We all do: the chancellor, Brad and me. Does it deter me in any manner if they’re upset with me or question my decision? It does not. I made my decision on sound knowledge of the program. I will stand on it and defend it.”

David Scott: @davidscott14

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