Meet Will Healy, the Charlotte 49ers new football coach
Will Healy sat in his car outside Austin Peay’s football stadium in Clarksville, Tenn., one chilly day last December. He watched as Governors players walked into the stadium for a meeting Healy – their coach for the previous three seasons – had called.
Healy knew the players understood why he had summoned them. Only a few minutes earlier, Healy had accepted the job as the Charlotte 49ers’ new football coach. Thanks to social media, the Austin Peay players learned earlier in the day that Healy was likely to get the job.
In Healy’s brief time at Austin Peay, he had transformed the Governors from perennial laughingstocks into a solid, respectable program in the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision. Still only 34, Healy’s upbeat personality and unique coaching style had made him a coveted coaching prospect on the higher Football Bowl Subdivision level. Charlotte snatched him up after former coach Brad Lambert was fired. Among FBS coaches, only Kent State’s Sean Lewis is younger at 32.
A step up professionally in every sense, Healy’s decision to leave Austin Peay for Charlotte had not been difficult. He was leaving an FCS program in a small Tennessee town with relatively scant resources for an FBS program with yet-untapped potential that sits in a major market.
Yet, as Healy got out of his car to tell to his soon-to-be former players the news himself, the task weighed on him.
“I couldn’t have been more excited about (taking the Charlotte job),” Healy said. “But there I was getting ready to talk to 105 kids that I’ve given my life to over the last three years and I’m leaving.
“In 10 minutes, I went from elated to crying.”
For Healy, coaching football is never going to primarily be about winning and losing games. That’s not to say he doesn’t understand the deal: He needs to turn around – and soon – a 49ers program that hasn’t had a winning season in its six-year history and struggles to attract fans to its stadium, the smallest in the FBS.
“The expectation (at Charlotte) is to always compete for championships, to win,” Healy said. “I don’t ever shy away from those expectations. I know what people want.
“Dabo Sweeney does it one way. Nick Saban does it another way. I didn’t take this job to run things the way Bill Belichick does. There’s no right or wrong way to do it. There’s just your way or it’s not going to work.”
One aspect of Healy’s way: making sure his players enjoy their experience in college.
When Austin Peay played at Central Florida in 2017, Govs players reportedly got massages on the team’s private jet, took a trip to Disney World and had their weekly walk-through on the beach.
And if Healy wants his program to be player-friendly, that also extends to a family-first atmosphere for his coaching staff.
As they did at Austin Peay, after watching film on Sunday during the season, the coaches’ families will come to the 49ers facility for dinner. Another day during the week will be devoted to a “date night” for coaches and their wives or girlfriends.
“By doing those date nights, it forces coaches to get out of the office and work shorter days – he doesn’t want us there until midnight,” said Carter Crutchfield, the 49ers’ recruiting coordinator and director of football relations who is engaged to be married this spring. “It forces you to get away and have a life other than football.”
Healy also welcomes his assistants’ kids to sit in on meetings, as his son Eli regularly did at Austin Peay (Healy’s wife Emily recently gave birth to their second son).
“Our family is very close,” Healy said. “But I’ve also watched guys pick this profession over what is their real profession, which is being a husband and a dad. This will either work or not for me. I know it sounds like a fairy-tale world. But I’m going to be fired as a football coach before I’m fired as a husband or a dad.
Healy’s “way” worked at Austin Peay, where there were few, if any, expectations.. The question now: Will it work at Charlotte, where he will be constantly and publicly scrutinized?
Dealing with failure
Not so long ago, Healy was a star at Boyd-Buchanan High in Chattanooga, Tenn., where he was an honorable mention all-state player who still holds the city’s career passing record with more than 7,000 yards.
Football had come easily to Healy to that point, at least at the level he was playing in high school. But there were warning signs he didn’t recognize that would ultimately make him face up to his limitations as a player and would ultimately steer him to coaching.
At the first all-star summer football camp he attended, Healy worked out with Chris Leak, an All-American from Charlotte’s Independence High who was headed to Florida.
“You go stand next to Chris Leak, and he’s throwing the ball like nothing you’ve ever seen,” Healy said. “Here I am, 5-9, 190 pounds and ran a 5.0 40. You figure out pretty quickly how good you really are.”
Air Force would be the only major college program to offer Healy a scholarship. He said he accepted it in large part because it was the first time a player from Boyd-Buchanan had been offered a full ride from an FBS program.
“I had success at a small school,” he said. “I wanted to play for the Ravens and I couldn’t believe (Tennessee) didn’t recruit me. I went to Air Force for totally the wrong reasons. But it fulfilled my ego as an 18-year old.”
Healy headed to college with that chippy attitude. Soon, he realized life at the academy wasn’t for him. He transferred to the FCS’s Richmond, where he expected to challenge for the starting job.
Healy carried no illusions at Richmond. He was willing to do the work it would take to win the starting quarterback job.
“I had a great fall, great summer, I had a good rapport with the guys,” Healy said. “I did everything they asked. I’d wake up, read the Bible, do all the right things.”
Healy didn’t get the starting job.
“It was devastating,” he said. “How do you tell me that I did all the right things, but don’t reward me?”
Despite the disappointment, something clicked inside Healy. As successful as he’d been at his small Chattanooga high school and as easy as things had come, he realized none of that had truly prepared him for playing college football at the level to which he aspired.
“It turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said. “I had to grow up. I was babied. I hadn’t been coached hard. I thought I was better than I was. I shied away from competition.”
Healy used his time as Richmond’s backup quarterback as best he could, supporting the starter and even being elected team captain. He pitched in where he could, kicking three extra points (out of three) one season when the Spiders’ kicker was injured.
“That says a lot about his leadership skills and the maturity he had developed,” said Russ Huesman, who was an assistant coach at Richmond at the time.
Richmond won the FCS title in 2008, beating Montana in, of all places, Chattanooga. Although Healy didn’t play a down at quarterback that night, he was the first Spiders player to be handed the championship trophy.
‘I got a guy’
Healy needed one more credit to graduate from Richmond. He accomplished that during his final semester by taking a guitar course, learning how to play songs like “Let Her Cry” and “Landslide.” The rest of the time, he watched football film.
He briefly contemplated an offer to play pro football in Austria, an opportunity that would have also allowed him to do some coaching. He didn’t go to Austria, but by then, Healy knew he wanted to coach.
Healy got his first job out of college, following Huesman back to Chattanooga in 2009. Making $14,000 a year as a restricted-earnings coach, Healy was able to at least live with his parents to get by financially.
He took to his job with a fervor Huesman frankly hadn’t expected.
When Healy suggested the Mocs liven things up during practice by having music piped in, Huesman tried to wriggle out of agreeing to it by saying there were no speakers at the fields. Healy wouldn’t take no for an answer and found a way to raise money for the speakers.
“He’s a gung-ho dude,” Huesman said. “If we didn’t have the money, he’d go out and find it. If something was important to him, he’d make it happen.”
Healy also wanted to upgrade some of Chattanooga’s football meeting rooms with better furniture. Again, Huesman told him there were no funds for it.
Healy walked out of Huesman’s office, smiling.
“I got a guy,” Huesman recalled Healy saying.
Healy’s ability to “make things happen” apparently extends beyond his duties as a football coach.
“Golf outings magically appear at his feet,” said 49ers quarterbacks coach Mark Carney, who was Healy’s position coach at Richmond.
Carney also tells a story about a sold-out Chris Stapleton concert Healy attended with Crutchfield at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tenn. They were seated near the back of the arena but, as they waited for Stapleton to begin his show, felt water dripping on them from the ceiling.
Healy approached an usher and politely explained the problem, adding it was their first time attending a concert at the venerable venue.
“Boom, front row,” Carney said. “The usher took them right down and sat them down there. That’s just how it goes with Will.”
Said Crutchfield: “The longer I’m alive and around people like that, guys who are constantly positive, you see that they make their own luck.
“But he’s not lucky. It’s a testament to his character. Things fall into place for people like that.”
A Yankee Stadium phone call
Healy spent eight seasons at Chattanooga, eventually rising to become the Mocs’ recruiting coordinator and passing-game coordinator. When the head-coaching position at Austin Peay came open in 2016, Healy applied and got it.
He’s probably only half joking when he says, “I was the only guy crazy enough to want the job.”
The Governors’ program was a shambles, winning just one of the previous 46 games. After a winless first season, Healy recruited what was regarded as the best class in the FCS and led the Governors to an 8-4 record in 2017. Austin Peay narrowly missed a spot in the FCS playoffs that season – a snub that still irks Healy – and he won the Eddie Robinson Award as the top coach in the FCS.
Despite the Governors dipping to 5-6 in 2018, Healy’s stock remained high. Healy, in fact, was already on the radar of Charlotte athletics director Mike Hill, who had let Lambert go with a week remaining in the season.
Healy, however, wasn’t Hill’s first choice. After an awkward courtship with James Madison’s Mike Houston ended with Hill withdrawing a job offer to Houston (who soon thereafter was hired at East Carolina), Healy became Charlotte’s next target.
Healy was in New York at the time, taking a tour of Yankee Stadium with some Austin Peay boosters. Hill called Healy as the group walked through the stadium’s memorabilia room, telling him he was now Charlotte’s top candidate. Hill told Healy an offer was likely forthcoming, and to return to Clarksville immediately to make arrangements.
That’s where Healy found himself that December afternoon, sitting in his car outside Austin Peay’s stadium.
The next day he was in Charlotte, being announced as the 49ers’ new coach. It was time to get to work.
Finding players was his obvious first task. It’s something he did well at Austin Peay: The Governors’ drastic turnaround was attributed to Healy’s ability as a recruiter.
“He trains your eyes to look for a little bit of a better player,” said Crutchfield, who came with Healy from Austin Peay.
Healy says there are similarities in recruiting Austin Peay and Charlotte. Healy will announce another group of recruits Wednesday, which is a second national signing day.
“Different level, similar philosophies,” Healy said. “If a player is picking a place that’s more established, instead of Charlotte or Austin Peay, you have to make it really hard for him to say no. They may say no, you still get beat, but make it hard so that they go back and still are saying great things about this university.
“You get a kid to come visit here and he can feel it. Then he’s around our staff and he can feel like they’re a little different. We’re around him and he’s a little different. Then you go after him.
“One thing I’m confident about is we can recruit. I’m confident people will be excited about Charlotte football and it will become a cool place to play.”
Recruiting locally will be a priority of Healy’s.
The 49ers listed 28 players from the Charlotte region on the 2018 roster; of them 13 were from Mecklenburg County. The 49ers have successfully recruited Charlotte in qualitative terms – among the top players in program history are current tailback Benny LeMay (Butler) and former wide receiver Austin Duke (Independence) and linebacker Karrington King (Charlotte Catholic).
And three more Mecklenburg County players - defensive back Trey Bly (Myers Park), linebacker Jaylon Sharpe (Rocky River) and defensive back Bryson Whitehead (Hough) - committed to Charlotte before Lambert was fired. But there is a sense among some local coaches that the 49ers haven’t always made themselves known as a recruiting presence.
“I don’t know how the last staff did it,” Healy said. “I just know that from our perspective, (recruiting Charlotte) is a priority. Not just to make everybody happy and to put fans in the stands, but because there’s great football here. We can’t let guys that play high school football here leave without putting up a fight and making it hard on them.
“Wherever they’re going, whether it’s Alabama, Clemson or wherever it is, it doesn’t mean we can’t throw our name in the hat. Those guys going to the ACC or SEC, we still need them to have a perception of Charlotte football that it’s a great place, that they love the staff, that they’ve got great facilities in a great city and people are talking about it.
“Whether they’re a five-star (prospect) or negative-five star, we need them to go back to their high school and say this is a great spot. Maybe they’re best friends with a five-star and he hears that for the first time. We’ve got to raise awareness of how great a place this is.”
‘We’re all invested in each other’
Healy believes he can accelerate the 49ers’ improvement that came under Lambert in 2018, when the 49ers went 5-7 after a 1-11 season in 2017. The 49ers will return 13 starters.
Healy says he’s not much of an Xs and Os guy, and delegates that side of coaching to his assistants. He will bring new systems to the 49ers, however: a spread-option offense and a 4-2-5 defense.
“I wouldn’t say I’m impatient, but I feel comfortable in exceeding expectations,” Healy said. “At Austin Peay, all I had to do was be better than win more than one of 46 games. I felt good about that. If I’m Kirby Smart and I’m going to Georgia, that’s a tough job to take. You need to win 11 games there.
“So much about taking a job is can you exceed what happened in the past.”
Healy isn’t the first coach to incorporate music into his practices (Lambert piped in tunes during his practices at Charlotte, too). But having a musical backdrop is part of an atmosphere Healy wants to create that makes practice both fun and productive.
“I pride myself in having the most energetic and enthusiastic practices in the country,” Healy said. “A little bit unorthodox. We’re going to practice hard, so we can push through whatever conditions we find ourselves in. So we can focus when everything around seems to be chaotic.”
Constructive criticism, delivered in an encouraging way, will be a hallmark of Healy and his staff.
“Fast, physical, energetic, passionate and positive,” Healy described how he wants his coaches to coach. “We don’t want to berate kids. We’re not going to cuss them up one leg and down another to get the best out of you. They know I care. If you’re not doing what you’re supposed to be doing, you will know about it. But there are different ways of showing it. You will still know I love and care about you and want you to reach your aspirations when you walk off that practice field.”
Healy will install cameras on Charlotte’s practice fields to monitor the 49ers’ body language. He will even have his players practice how they celebrate big plays.
“You know how you see a guy make a sack, and he runs to middle of the field and creates more attention to himself?” Healy said. “We’ll practice celebrating together. Our players will think: ‘I am committed to celebrating your success.’
“We want to create a football program where the culture is so much that you can’t wait for your teammate to have success so you can celebrate that. It doesn’t mean that a player can’t celebrate, or that a wideout doesn’t want the ball.
“It’s just a culture where we’re all invested in each other.”
David Scott: @davidscott14
Charlotte 49ers football key dates
Wednesday: National signing day (spring).
March 12: Spring practice begins
April 13: Green-White spring football game, 4 p.m.
Aug. 31: Season opener vs. Gardner-Webb.
Sept. 28: Conference USA opener against Florida International.