Tom Sorensen

Sorensen Classic: The moment I knew Charlotte was a football school

When the Louisville Cardinals and coach Rick Pitino visited Halton Arena on Feb. 12, 2004, they left with a 77-71 loss, and the city was left impressed.
When the Louisville Cardinals and coach Rick Pitino visited Halton Arena on Feb. 12, 2004, they left with a 77-71 loss, and the city was left impressed.

Editor’s note: This column originally published on March 6, 2012.

In the old days, this was the time of year when fans of the Charlotte 49ers would send me angry emails complaining that the Observer devoted more type to the North Carolina-Duke basketball game than to Charlotte-Xavier.

I was accustomed to it. They sent similar emails in November, December, January and February.

No more. The refrain I hear almost exclusively from Charlotte fans now is: Can’t wait until football starts.

Like the fans, I miss what the 49ers were. When Cincinnati and Bob Huggins and Louisville and Rick Pitino came to town, Halton Arena was full of people, passion and noise.

And the students didn’t have to provide all of the enthusiasm. Charlotte came out. Fans who had no connection to the school saw good basketball in a great campus gym.

The 49ers made the NCAA tournament so often we expected it. They advanced in 1995, ’97, ’98, ’99, ’01, ’02, ’04 and ’05.

They have not returned. When their conference fell apart, they were not invited to the Big East. Cincinnati and Louisville were. Each had football, and each could deliver the local market.

Charlotte scrambled and found the Atlantic 10, which plays good basketball and is a big deal for fans who live in or near Philadelphia.

Bobby Lutz, whom Charlotte fired after the 2009-10 season and is now an assistant at resurgent N.C. State, liked to approach high school stars that the local team – Cincinnati and Louisville, say – did not recruit and tell them they were good enough for Charlotte and good enough to show the schools that ignored them that they had made a mistake.

The A-10 eliminated that. What was Lutz going to do, go to Olean, N.Y., and say that St. Bonaventure was wrong?

Alan Major, who replaced Lutz, is a nice guy and he might be a good coach. In this, his second season, there’s still no way to know.

The 49ers were 10-20 last season, and Major did a brave thing in kicking his best player, Shamari Spears, off the team. The program was bigger than any player, and Major proved it.

He’s entitled to another season before any reasonable fan decides he’s the wrong man to fix the program.

Charlotte is 13-16 this season. The 12th-seeded 49ers open the Atlantic-10 tournament at fifth-seeded St. Joseph’s tonight.

The 49ers are expected to go as quietly as their fans have been about basketball.

Kickoff is 17 months away. Charlotte is the only football school in the country that has yet to play a football game.

Tom Sorensen is a retired Charlotte Observer columnist. Sign up for his newsletter, and follow him on Twitter: @tomsorensen

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