NSJ Newcomer of the Year 2019: Healy takes Charlotte football where it’s never been

Charlotte coach Will Healy helped the 49ers to their first winning season in his first year at the helm. (Richard Shiro / AP Photo)

Dec. 5, 2018: Will Healy steps up to the podium to be introduced as the second head coach in Charlotte 49ers history. He replaces Brad Lambert, who was never able to enjoy a winning season with the 49ers.

Healy, the second-youngest coach in FBS at 33, was a risky hire. He arrived with just three years of experience as a head coach, all at the FCS level.

“People are sometimes scared to make a hire,” athletic director Mike Hill told the media. “It’s a little like coaches playing not to lose. That doesn’t win championships. We’re going to run this program here with fearlessness. We’re going to be fearless in our decision-making. Our institutional courage will be to go with our instincts. He’s the right guy.”

Healy won over the room, as well as the players when he met them, with his intensity and enthusiasm. He promised to “take the next step and do it in a hurry.”

Oct. 26, 2019: The next step appears to still be a distance away. The 49ers are 2-5 and on a four-game losing streak during which they’ve been outscored by 101 points, 175-74.

At home against North Texas, the Niners quickly fall behind 14-0. Entering the fourth quarter, Charlotte still trails by 14, 35-21.

The Niners erupt for three touchdowns in the final 12 minutes, the last on a 34-yard pass with 18 seconds remaining to give Charlotte a 39-38 comeback win.

“We talk about it all the time. Belief before behavior,” Healy said. “If you put a lot into it, then it’s going to mean so much more to you when you win. … I don’t know if we ever doubted our ability to get back in it. This football team is improving drastically day in and day out. Games like this help.”

Nov. 23 or 24, 2019: The party is in full swing at Club Lit. Since the remarkable comeback against North Texas, Charlotte hasn’t lost, and, on a rainy evening in Charlotte, the 49ers knock off Marshall, scoring 14 unanswered fourth quarter points to rally and post their sixth victory of the year.

For the first time in program history, Charlotte won’t have a losing season. For the first time in program history, Charlotte is headed to a bowl.

Healy was ready to make his entrance at the team’s celebration at Club Lit.

“I felt like I had to do something different,” he said after the fact, on the TV interview. “Going to a bowl for the first time in school history, beating a team playing for the conference championship at home on Senior Day, I thought, ‘You better bring your best.’ So I went a little Lee Corso-style.”

Corso is the longtime ESPN announcer known for donning the mascot head of the team he picks to win on “College Gameday.” So Healy went in search of the head of Norm the Niner and headed into the club wearing the oversized noggin.

He was stopped by some of his players. Something was wrong.

“When I walked in and had the head on, the guys said, ‘This can’t be Coach Healy, because he still has his shirt on.”

Off came the shirt, on went the head, and the party raged on.

One week later, after Charlotte finished the regular season with its fifth straight win, Healy again entered a room to face his team wearing an odd getup. This time, he had on swim fins, Bermuda shorts, a tank top and scuba mask.

He stood in front of the silent room for a beat, then whipped off the snorkel and mask and hurled them into the crowd.

“We’re going to the Bahamas!” he shouted.

The 49ers traveled to the islands for the Dec. 20 Bahama Bowl, which was played after press time. Win or lose, however, Healy led the 49ers to a transitional season in his first year on the job, instilling a winning culture and taking home the North State Journal’s 2019 North Carolina Newcomer of the Year Award in the process.

He’s not done yet.

“This should become the expectation,” he said. “Let’s move from bowl expectations to conference championship expectations and winning bowl games instead of just going to bowl games.”

“You think about where they’ve come from to where they are now,” AD Hill said. “This is historic for this program, for this university. We’re so proud of them.”

All it took was not being afraid to hire the right guy.