Charlotte 49ers in for ‘culture shock’ in first season in Conference USA

Old Dominion linebacker TJ Ricks (47) goes after N.C. State quarterback Jacoby Brissett in a 2014 game.
Old Dominion linebacker TJ Ricks (47) goes after N.C. State quarterback Jacoby Brissett in a 2014 game. AP

Texas-San Antonio football coach Larry Coker has words of advice for the Charlotte 49ers as they prepare for their first season in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision and Conference USA

“They’re in for a little bit of culture shock,” said Coker, whose Roadrunners made a similar jump in 2012, the only program to make such a move faster than Charlotte.

The 49ers are playing just their third season of football, starting the sport in 2013 as Football Championship Subdivision independents. Two years later, Charlotte is in the sport’s big time.

Coker was one of several coaches 49ers coach Brad Lambert talked to as Charlotte ramped up its program. Under Coker, a former Miami coach whose Hurricanes won the 2001 national championship, UTSA started its program in 2011, moved to the FBS’s Western Athletic Conference in 2012 (going 8-4) before switching to C-USA in 2013. The Roadrunners were 7-5 in 2013 (playing a schedule made up entirely of FBS teams) and slipped to 4-8 last season.

“Obviously you’re playing better competition every week,” Coker said Wednesday at C-USA’s media day. “So you now realize you can’t just go out and play, you realize that you’ve got to be that much better in the weight room, during the summer and recruiting. It’s good because it raises everything about what you’re doing.”

Charlotte, which went 10-12 in its first two seasons against FCS and Division II competition, will play its first game against an FBS team when it opens the season Sept. 4 at Georgia State, another recent FCS start-up that moved up to the FBS’s Sun Belt Conference. The 49ers’ first C-USA game is Sept. 19 at Middle Tennessee.

They’ll take their lumps. But they will be competitive a lot quicker than people give them credit for.”

Louisiana Tech coach Skip Holtz

“In a perfect world, (Lambert) might have wanted a couple more years before moving up,” said Middle Tennessee coach Rick Stockstill. “But think about it: You’ve got a chance to be an (FBS) team and you’re just three years old. Those players and Brad have a chance to start something that people were writing about on napkins just a couple of years ago. They can go out and play in a bowl or even dream about being one of those final four teams (playing for a national title) some day.”

The 49ers, who have 17 starters back, will be an experienced team, with mostly redshirt juniors in the starting lineup, along with a sprinkling of seniors and transfers. But, again, that experience came against competition from college football’s lower echelons.

“It’s going to be the speed of the game that I think will be the big difference,” said 49ers offensive tackle Danny Book. “It won’t be hard to learn what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. Just adapting to the speed and strength will be big.”

Charlotte, Old Dominion and UTSA all started footall programs recently.

Charlotte and UTSA aren’t the only college football newcomers in C-USA. Old Dominion started the sport in 2009. The Monarchs played in FCS for four seasons, played one season in transition to FBS and joined C-USA in 2014 (going 6-6 overall, 4-4 in the league). ODU coach Bobby Wilder said the key for Charlotte will be patience.

“Charlotte is right where it needs to be, in the right league,” said Wilder. “But it’s going to take them a minute, and I can’t emphasize that enough. The worst thing that can happen is to be impatient, and to blame the coaches and players for losing some games early. Instead, they need to step back and just understand, ‘Everybody we’re playing should be better than us, a lot better than us, actually.’”

The 49ers have a new on-campus stadium, a sparkling field house that includes a state-of-the-art locker room, weight room and academic center. Lambert’s staff has stayed mostly intact (adding defensive coordinator Matt Wallerstedt this season).

10-12Charlotte’s record in its first two seasons.

“I think it’s difficult, what they’re doing,” said Louisiana Tech coach Skip Holtz, a former East Carolina coach. “I give the conference a great amount of credit, because they took Charlotte not for where they are, but for where they can be. They will do it the right way. They won’t take short cuts.

“But you can’t run a mule in the (Kentucky) derby. There are going to be bumps in the road for them. They’ll take their lumps. But they will be competitive a lot quicker than people give them credit for.”

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