Charlotte faces Fordham on Saturday in a game that opens what is certainly a turning-point season for the 49ers’ six-year-old program.
Coming off a 1-11 season in 2017 that nearly cost coach Brad Lambert his job, the 49ers will be playing under the scrutiny of an increasingly impatient fan base and, more importantly, new athletics director Mike Hill.
“I feel really good up to this point,” Lambert said this week. “The last eight months, watching this group work, adding players in May and freshmen in July, I really like where this group is. Every year is a different team.”
Make no mistake, this season’s 49ers will need to be a lot different - in several ways - for Lambert to make it to his seventh season at Charlotte.
The arrival of Hill means Lambert - hired in 2011 to start the program and the only coach the 49ers have had - will be evaluated under a different lens than that of former athletics director Judy Rose, who retired in June after 28 years as the 49ers’ athletics director. Hill has shown he won’t hesitate to make a change if he feels it’s necessary, firing interim men’s basketball coach Houston Fancher before Hill’s introductory news conference in March.
“Football develops over the season,” Hill said. “It’s how we play, how we look, not just wins and losses. Brad evaluates things the same way. So we’ll know how we’re doing as the season goes along.”
Here are three issues to consider as the 49ers prepare to play their sixth season, and their their fourth in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision, college football’s highest level:
Young program: Reason or excuse?
Think about it: In 2012 - seven years ago - there was no season opener to prepare for at Charlotte because there was no team. A year later in 2013 and classified as a Football Championship Series (formerly I-AA) independent, the 49ers played their first game. Two years after that, in 2015, the 49ers joined the FBS’ Conference USA as conference realignment and expansion swept through college football.
As the 49ers’ program has evolved in fits and starts under those head-spinning conditions, they have gone 17-41, without having a winning season. In 2016, the 49ers went 4-8 (visions of a bowl invitation were doused by a three-game losing streak at the end of the season). That raised expectations for 2017 that the 49ers didn’t come close to meeting.
What the 49ers have done in quickly going from start-up to FBS isn’t easy and it is almost unprecedented. But 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).
“I appreciate the fact that at some point we’re going to have to shed the ‘new program’ label,” Hill said. “I also understand the situation that there wasn’t a football team here six years ago. So I’m looking it at through the viewpoint of the program being five years old and it’s trying to grow and have some stability. Coaching stability, that’s a consistent factor in successful programs, for what it’s worth.”
Changes for the better?
Hoping to shift the culture of the program, Lambert made several changes in the offseason. Some of them were structural: affecting practices, weight-lifting sessions and meetings. But he also hired five assistants, including offensive coordinator Shane Montgomery and defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer, both of whom are overhauling the systems played by their respective units.
Lambert, who is under contract through 2020, also decided to have the team elect four captains for the season, rather than use game-by-game captains as the 49ers had done in the past. The captains - junior running back Benny LeMay, junior linebacker Jeff Gemmell, junior offensive lineman Cam Clark and junior defensive end Tyriq Harris - help provide a consistent line of communication between players and coaches.
“It’s working right now,” Gemmell said of having season captains. “We’ll find out how well it really works once the games start.”
Will they come?
Granted, the 49ers’ on-field product hasn’t been stellar. But even in the early years when the 49ers were fresh and new, low attendance has been an issue for a fan base that was supposedly rabid to have a football team for which to cheer.
In 2017, Charlotte’s average attendance in 15,314-seat Richardson Stadium (smallest in FBS) dropped to 11,903 (a 16 percent decline from 2016’s average of 14,192), fifth lowest among 129 FBS teams. 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 2017, although not nearly at the rate of Charlotte’s last season.
About 2,500 temporary seats have been added to Richardson Stadium for Saturday’s game and next week’s showdown with Appalachian State. But, while the Mountaineers’ game is a sellout, tickets remained through Friday for Fordham.
New marketing programs are going into place under Hill and Chris Fuller, the 49ers’ recently hired deputy athletics director for external affairs. Among the more visible early initiatives: billboards around uptown Charlotte reading “Welcome To Our City” have gone up and the 49ers have teamed with Tailgate Guys, a premium tailgating service that will make it easier for fans to tailgate after arriving on the new light rail service to campus.
“There’s lots we can and will do to work on attendance,” said Hill. “First, though, we need to win.”
David Scott: @davidscott14