Though the two words have been used a lot more since Athletic Director Mike Hill took the helm, the idea of the “Gold Standard” that the Charlotte 49ers are striving to achieve isn’t a new one. And while it isn’t a new concept, the way it has been approached has been quite different.
When Charlotte finally began the football program that it has today and hit the field in 2013, it was a big deal. When the second head coach in program history was hired, it was a big deal. When what many expected to be the team’s fourth conference loss turned into an upset, it was a big deal.
No, a change was never going to happen overnight and Head Coach Will Healy and his program knew that. Still, a game like that is not to be taken lightly. It represents more than just a game-winning touchdown in the last 30 seconds and a last place pick holding their own with a first place pick. The difference is that they didn’t just hang in there, they won. As Healy said, there was “no better time to prove a point than this week” against North Texas.
The Charlotte 49ers are now 3-5 overall and 1-3 in Conference USA, but that single win was against conference favorite North Texas. While Charlotte was picked to finish last in the East Division in the C-USA Preseason Poll, North Texas was picked to finish first in the West Division. It’s a fact that Charlotte winning that game was probably unexpected by most.
Nonetheless, a season-best 589 total yards from the Niners and a 34-yard connection between Chris Reynolds and Victor Tucker allowed for their first C-USA win. Of course, that isn’t all there was to it, because it never is.
“I don’t know if we ever doubted our ability to get back in it, and I think a lot of times when you have football teams that are struggling, you tend to go with ‘here we go again,’ because it happened to us,” said Healy. “Today, it just felt different. All week it just felt different. This football team is improving drastically day in and day out. Games like this help, but I think that the preparation and the process of which these guys went about things after just losing four in a row is what made today possible.”
Preparation is key and it doesn’t stop when players leave practice or when coaches go home for the day or when everyone finally leaves the locker room after celebrating a big win. From game one to now, there are certainly plenty of things that as a team and as individuals, the 49ers have to work on and have to do better.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day. We know the things that we have to work on and we come in every day in practice and just work on them and then get better,” said Tucker. “We know once we get better, the results will take care of themselves.”
It seemed like prior to the season, when Healy was hired and as everyone settled in to this new atmosphere surrounding Charlotte Football, that while everyone thought the 49ers were about to have this unbelievable season, they were also forgetting what tough feats the program was actually up against. Not that a tough schedule or history should scare anyone into not believing, but it’s as if the expectations created were taken just a little too seriously and a lot of people aren’t giving the Niners any grace. First of all, energy isn’t everything. Healy knows this, as does the rest of the program. But the right attitude and the right atmosphere do make a difference in how all of the other things pan out or improve. The right fanbase and the right crowd in the stands can completely change how a team looks on the field but not without the rest of the proper puzzle pieces to fit in place. The right energy allows all of those things to come together and help a team to build the program that they hope to, and not only that, but just to win the next game.
“I think the energy has been great. Nobody has put their head down. Everybody knows that in the games we’ve lost, we’ve been a couple of plays away, so once we make those plays, hopefully the results can change,” said Victor Tucker.
A tough schedule is not a free pass for a team to lose, but as said countless times, a winning program isn’t built overnight and certainly not typically in just six seasons along with numerous coaching staff changes. Charlotte not only faced the Mountaineers for the second time in program history, but also took on the National Champion Clemson Tigers, both away from home turf. While it was somewhat of a moral victory, Healy and his team don’t really like to look at the loss to App State that way. To them, it was nice and all but a loss is a loss on paper. The loss to Clemson though, while a much more brutal scene in which Clemson played a school-record 111 players, provided some valuable experiences for the Charlotte 49ers. It may have sparked a losing streak, but the Niners have been working to learn from it and improve per usual. A perfect opportunity to remind everyone of that, turned out to be a win over the Mean Green.
“I think it’s a big win and we’re going to enjoy it tonight and then we’re going to get together on Monday and talk about what we need to do to beat Middle Tennessee. Not win three or four, not go undefeated the rest of the way, but buy into the process that we’re putting forth each and every week,” said Healy. “Let’s have a better week of practice than we did last week, let’s pay attention to details, prepare more, do the right things on and off the field and build a program that lasts, not just have a big win.”
Taking it one play, one game and one day at a time is necessary, especially when trying to turn what is essentially an underdog program into one that fans would like to see go to a bowl game for the first time. It’s not impossible and it’s certainly a goal in mind for players, coaches and fans alike, but there are other, smaller goals for the program in mind as well.
“I’ve felt the same way I do right now since week one,” said Healy. “It’s not panic time. I think there’s a sense of urgency to win now, but there’s more of a sense of urgency to me to create a culture and create winning that lasts. And to build this program to where winning is something that is number one: reality, and number two: something that is an expectation.”