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Sorensen: Answer for Charlotte 49ers basketball is ‘start over’

Whether Alan Major will return as the head coach of the Charlotte 49ers men’s basketball team is an open question. But should it be?
Whether Alan Major will return as the head coach of the Charlotte 49ers men’s basketball team is an open question. But should it be? jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

The Charlotte 49ers play Middle Tennessee on Wednesday in the Conference USA men’s basketball tournament. If this season and last season, and the three before that, are indicative, they’ll lose.

Alan Major, 46, is in his fifth season as Charlotte’s head coach. He’s on medical leave, his second since May. Ryan Odom coaches the team in his absence.

I know don’t know anybody who dislikes Major. But not a thing he has done indicates he’s an NCAA Division I head basketball coach.

The Charlotte coach has to sell the program. It’s easier for fans to stay home and watch Duke or North Carolina on TV or try to get a ticket to watch Davidson than to drive to Halton Arena. Major is not terribly outgoing, and he doesn’t sell his program the way Charlotte football coach Brad Lambert sells his.

Perhaps Major is a career assistant. That’s not a bad, gig as Dom Capers, a former Carolina Panthers’ head coach and current Green Bay defensive coordinator, will attest. Before coming to Charlotte, Major spent nine seasons under head coach Thad Motta at Xavier and then Ohio State.

Athletics director Judy Rose might already have decided to fire Major. Major was not at Charlotte’s final home game Saturday to say farewell to his seniors.

Rose was not available Monday for comment. But she did tell me last season that she “absolutely” had faith in Major. And she did sign Major to a three-year extension in 2013, perhaps the most baffling move in 49ers athletic history.

Charlotte made the NCAA basketball tournament in 1995, ’97, ’98, ’99, ’01, ’02, ’04 and ’05. But the 10-year absence feels longer. When you look at video of those NCAA teams you expect it to be in black and white.

Bobby Lutz, the associate head coach at N.C. State and Major’s predecessor in Charlotte, is a very good coach. But he failed to get the 49ers to the NCAA tournament in his last five seasons.

Charlotte isn’t Louisville, Memphis or Cincinnati. Conference USA lacks the caché of the ACC (Louisville) and even the American Athletic Conference (Memphis and Cincinnati).

But it doesn’t matter how glittery your conference is if your program is led by the right man. Of course the 49ers can win. Halton Arena is fantastic, and Charlotte generates increasingly good high school talent.

Gregg Marshall told me when he was at Winthrop that he wanted the Charlotte job. (At the time the 49ers still were contending for the NCAA tournament.) The timing was unfortunate because Marshall can win anywhere. He has developed one of the sport’s top programs at Wichita State, which is in, like, a field.

It’s unfair to say Charlotte must find somebody as good as Marshall or as good as Davidson’s Bob McKillop. McKillop is exceptional and his team, especially this season, is a joy to watch.

There are two D-1 programs in Mecklenburg County, and Davidson’s success is a daily testament to Charlotte’s lack of success. Picked to finish 12th in the tough Atlantic 10 (and with McKillop doing a good woe-is-me acting job before the season), the Wildcats finished first. Picked to finish fifth in Conference USA, the 49ers finished 12th.

What’s next for Charlotte? Start with this premise: Hire a head coach.

Odom could be good, but he’s not right for this school at this time. The 49ers have to look a little further. But they don’t have to look far.

Wofford’s Mike Young is excellent. Winthrop’s Pat Kelsey is big-time. N.C. Central’s Lavelle Moton is a force. High Point’s Scott Cherry can coach, but he played for North Carolina. It’s tough to envision a Tar Heel off University City Boulevard.

The 49ers don’t have to go out of state. But if they do a great candidate is Florida Gulf Coast’s Joe Dooley. All these guys are credible, and all these guys are good.

The hire is integral to Rose’s credibility.

If I needed a picture to illustrate the state of the program, I’d take my cell phone to Halton Arena and shoot a row of empty seats.

Sorensen: 704-358-5129; tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen

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