Scott Fowler

Q&A with Charlotte 49ers head coach Brad Lambert

Charlotte 49ers head coach Brad Lambert, shown in a 2014 file photo, says his team’s first season in Conference USA will be extremely challenging.
Charlotte 49ers head coach Brad Lambert, shown in a 2014 file photo, says his team’s first season in Conference USA will be extremely challenging. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Brad Lambert enters his third season as head coach of the Charlotte 49ers, who move into the highest level of college football this season and also into Conference USA. The 49ers spent their first two years as Football Championship Subdivision independents, going 5-6 in both 2013 and 2014 against weaker competition than they will face this year.

Lambert had to deal with a devastating blow earlier this month – the sudden death of 49ers offensive line coach Phil Ratliff after what was described as a “cardiac event.” Ratliff was 44.

Five questions with Lambert:

Q. The death of Coach Ratliff must have been so difficult for his family and everyone who knew him. How has the team handled it?

A. It has been a tough couple of weeks, having to navigate through that whole situation. I had known him for 25 years. He was a player when I was at my first coaching job at Marshall.

We are trying to take every step we can to honor him in the right way, to take care of his family and just kind of move from there. How would Coach Ratliff have done things? That’s what we keep asking each other.

The guy just lit up a room. He just made whoever he was with feel like they were the most important person around. It could be the guys at Jersey Mike’s – they didn’t really know him but they felt like they did.

He had a big heart. He was always positive. When I was having a bad day, I’d go sit in his office, because he’d make you feel good. It’s been a little tough not being able to go sit in his office.

Q. How will the team publicly honor Coach Ratliff?

A. It looks like we’re going to put a sticker on our helmet. Some other things, too. Everybody will honor him differently. He and I had a running deal with these white sunglasses he used to wear. He always wanted me to wear some and I told him I couldn’t and he couldn’t, either – that he was a tough guy, an offensive line coach, and those looked like his wife’s sunglasses.

He wore them anyway. I never would wear any. But now I went out and got me a pair of white sunglasses and I’ve been wearing them every day – just kind of my little way of honoring Coach Rat.

The 49ers open their 2015 season on Sept. 4 at Georgia State in Atlanta. Their first home game is Sept. 12 at noon vs. Presbyterian.

Q. Everyone has picked you to finish very low in your first season in Conference USA. What are your expectations?

A. The biggest difference for us is our first (recruiting) class is all redshirt juniors now. There are 28 guys in that class. And we have some seniors. Once we made this decision, we took the plan of we have got to be a fairly old team when we made the move to FBS. That was the same philosophy Coach Grobe always had at Wake Forest (where Lambert was a 10-year assistant).

We’ve gotten better on defense. We expect to go out and compete hard and play an exciting brand of uptempo football. I think we’re ready.

Q. For those unfamiliar with Conference USA, what are you getting yourself into?

A. It’s a league where the teams put up a lot of points. Western Kentucky, Marshall, Old Dominion – those are some good offensive football teams. It will be a tough task for us, no question. The general trend in college football is uptempo – keeping the pace moving, putting points up and not worrying about time of possession as much.

We’ve been in games like that. And as a defensive guy, some of that will make you pull your hair out (Charlotte allowed an average of 31.6 points per game last season). Defense is an area where we’ve got to improve. We expect to go out and play well on offense, where we’ve got a lot of our lead guys back.

The 49ers return both a rusher and a receiver who gained over 1,300 yards last season – RB Khalif Phillips and WR Austin Duke.

Q. You’ve got a beautiful on-campus stadium, and sometimes the students fill their part of it and sometimes they don’t. How do you keep them in the stands this year?

A. That’s kind of a national thing: How do you get students to the game and keep them there? We’ve moved the student tailgate lots up and got them closer to the game. I think you’ll see a surge this year because of the teams coming in, it’s a better brand of football. We’re in a league; they know what we’re doing now.

Last year we were kind of nomads. We didn’t have a league. And we’ll have some night games instead of all 12 o’clock starts. We’ve got lights. And we’re excited about our band, too. That will be another first. We’ve finally got a full band. So that will be another nice piece of student involvement.

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