“Innovative, charismatic, the future.”
That’s how one coach who knows Will Healy well described the 34-year-old head coach of the Charlotte 49ers. No, that’s not an XFL team. The University of North Carolina at Charlotte has had a Division I football program since 2013. In 2015, Charlotte joined the FBS ranks in Conference USA.
The 49ers’ first four seasons as an FBS program were ugly: 5-7, 1-11, 4-8, 2-10.
After the 2018 season, Charlotte hired Healy, the peach-fuzzed reigning FCS national coach of the year who just revived FCS doormat Austin Peay into a playoff team. In his first season at Charlotte, Healy has clinched the team’s first winning season at 7-5. They’ll take a five-game winning streak into the Dec. 20 Bahamas Bowl to play Buffalo.
Will their head coach be around by then?
Healy has emerged as a player for the Missouri job, according to multiple sources. Is he a front-runner? A backup plan? That’s hard to gauge at this stage. But he’s someone athletics director Jim Sterk is checking out this week. Healy’s name is surfacing for other jobs, too. Notably, Ole Miss.
He doesn’t turn 35 until January, but the former college quarterback is widely considered one of the rising coaches in the industry.
Just ask Dabo Swinney. Here’s what Clemson’s coach said about Healy’s team before they played in September. Keep in mind, Clemson had already played three Power 5 teams before facing Charlotte: Georgia Tech, Texas A&M and Syracuse.
“The biggest thing I'm impressed with is just how well-coached they are,” Swinney said. “They have got a great scheme. Schematically this is probably the biggest challenge for our defense, just in what they do structurally: multiple personnel, multiple formations, create a lot of challenges, communication-wise, alignment-wise, creating extra gaps, play action. They're just well-coached and they know what they're doing, really know what they're doing. So from a scheme standpoint, this is a challenge. This is the best rushing team we have seen in three games. Their ability to run the ball, and how they are coordinated to run the ball, this is the best team we've seen in three games.”
Clemson crushed the 49ers 52-10, but Healy’s team is starting to catch on nationally, especially after a couple viral moments for the young head coach. After home victories, the 49ers turn their locker room into a dance club called Club Lit. Healy joins in the festivities, sometimes shirtless.
Here’s how Healy recently explained the Club Lit phenomenon.
“It's incredible the number of people that have reached out about our success. I think this week was a national story. We got a lot of publicity. I think it's unique. Some people are going to love it; some people are going to hate it. But I think it's us. That's me. I love celebrating success. I love finding ways to make them realize how hard they worked for that success on Saturday and how much you need to enjoy it. I don't think it's a time to go in there and say, ‘Hey, man, we did this, this and this. We must get better at it.’ We're not going to talk about winning a game until Monday. We're going to enjoy winning the game on Saturday and Sunday. I think it's unique to us. I think our guys have really enjoyed it. It's kind of a sacred place to them. It's funny because when I came in, I had a Norm (mascot) head on but I had my shirt on. Everyone was just like, ‘I guess Norm just got dressed. Took off his blowup muscles and he's in there hanging out with us.’ When I took my shirt off and everyone knows my physique, I think it was obvious that they knew who it was. Then I threw the head off whenever I was crowd surfing a little bit. I knew it had to be something different.”
Different describes the head 49er. Here’s his career in a snapshot: He comes from a football family in Chattanooga, Tenn. Dad and grandpa played at Georgia Tech. His late uncle Chip Healy was an All-American linebacker at Vanderbilt and a third-round pick by the St. Louis Cardinals. Will was an all-state quarterback at Boyd Buchanan High School, signed to play at Air Force and later transferred to Richmond, where he was a team captain as the backup quarterback on the Spiders’ 2008 national championship team. He jumped right into coaching the next year as an offensive assistant at Tennessee-Chattanooga.
After seven years there, he landed his first head-coaching job at Austin Peay, a program that was 1-34 in the three years before he arrived. Healy’s debut season was no better: The Governors finished 0-11. The losing streak reached 29 games before a 2017 victory in what became an 8-4 season, a major breakthrough. After a five-win season the next year, Healy took the Charlotte job and started his next revival.
Let’s get to the pros and cons …
• He’s got the personality that attracts the millennial generation. Here’s what another coach told me about Healy this week: “He’s got the same charisma and similar shtick as P.J. Fleck, but he’s a more genuine person.” Also, “He’s universally loved by high school coaches in the Southeast.”
Mizzou could use a dynamic personality as the face of the program, not just to win the introductory press conference but to sell tickets, pump some life back into the program and inject that personality onto the recruiting trial.
Here's testimony from a familiar name. After leaving Mizzou in 2017 following some off-field issues, former Ladue High School standout Nate Howard transferred to Austin Peay to play for Healy.
"He’s a great guy and coach," Howard said Tuesday. "One of my favorite things about him is how much he values celebrating success. It’s a big deal and is contagious in this industry. Being a young coach makes him relatable and understanding. There’s no question he’ll be jumping around in the locker after a (win) but also will be the first to admit a mistake on his end, which says a lot about a coach. He truly cares about his players becoming better on the field and off. I enjoyed playing for him. ... He set standards and a culture in a way that’s clear to everyone."
Another perspective: He’s a Dabo guy. Healy’s never worked under the Clemson coach but he believes he’s the archetype for coaching in 2019. Here’s a story Healy told reporters earlier this fall:
“I was in Alabama recruiting and I got a call from a Clemson area code. This guy says ‘Hey, this is Dabo Swinney.’ And I'm thinking, this could be Kenny who called me, one of my friends at home. And he starts talking and I'm thinking to myself, man, this guy does a great impersonation of Dabo. And he continues on and starts talking about one of his (graduate assistants) and I'm like, this is actually Dabo Swinney on the phone. We continue talking and he's talking about one of his graduate assistants that wanted to come work with us at Austin Peay. And we finish the conversation and I say, ‘Can I ask you something?’ He says, ‘Sure, go ahead.’ And I told him, ‘Thank you for what you've done for this profession and the hope you've given me that you can do it your way and still be successful.’
“I feel like anyone like Dabo Swinney who is on top of the profession and people want to be like Dabo, they want to treat their players the right way, they want to develop great relationships and that it's about something greater than football and it makes this a greater profession. But I was 0-11 at the time so I think he really appreciated my input.
“So I get off the phone and I immediately call my wife, and I said, ‘Hey, Emily, you'll never guess who just called me.’ And she says who? So I replied, ‘Dabo Swinney.’ And she says, ‘This is disgusting. I can hear the smile on your face.’
“I just have so much respect for how he runs his program and how he treats his players. I've talked a lot this week about the two guys that are on top, you have Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney. Nick Saban loses coaches every year and still gets back to the national championship consistently. Dabo Swinney doesn't lose a coach at all and creates consistency and has a program that lasts and has won the national championship game. So, there is not one particular way to do it, but I really like the way Dabo does it. He's been great to me, anytime I have a question he is able to give great insight and he lives it.
“I went to the FCA event here and I sat in row Z, and I heard everyone talk about how many Clemson, North Carolina and South Carolina fans there are, but nobody wanted to talk about Charlotte fans. But if he had a church here I would be there every Sunday, and most importantly he just lives it.”
• He’s turned two programs without any shred of recent success into winners. That will surely impress Sterk. For a job like this, a candidate who’s turned a loser into a winner — in a short time in both cases — could resonate more than someone with a bunch of high-profile stops on his career bio.
• He can recruit. That doesn’t mean he’s outhustling Nick Saban or Kirby Smart for the same players, but he’s changed the caliber of player coming to Charlotte. The 49ers’ 2020 class ranks No. 79 by 247Sports.com. That’s hardly jaw dropping … until you consider that Charlotte’s five previous classes ranked No. 132, No. 111, No. 114, No. 119, No. 126. Healy’s current class includes 14 players from seven different states, including a couple three-star prospects with Power 5 offers, and ranks higher than classes compiled by Illinois, Arkansas, Boise State, Houston, Utah, SMU, Florida Atlantic and all three service academies. There’s a couple local connections, too: Trinity Catholic pass-rusher Darion Smith is committed to Charlotte. Lutheran North coach Carl Reed is an Austin Peay graduate and has an established relationship with Healy, too.
After an 0-11 debut season at Austin Peay, he somehow signed the nation’s No. 1-ranked FCS recruiting class in 2017. At Chattanooga, he served as recruiting coordinator for a program that went from 1-11 to 9-4.
• He’s never spent a day playing or working for a Power Five conference program. Should that be a red flag? He originally signed with a Mountain West school (Air Force) and has coached at a Conference USA school (Charlotte), but has otherwise spent the bulk of his career at three FCS programs: Richmond, Chattanooga, Austin Peay.
• Can he form an SEC-caliber staff? His offensive coordinator is Alex Atkins previously coached at Tulane and Georgia Southern. His co-defensive coordinators Marcus West and Brandon Cooper are young with only one stop between them at a Power Five school. At Mizzou, they'd be matching wits against some of the best coaches in the game on both sides of the ball. Healy might have to upgrade his staff with some more seasoned tacticians.
• What about the age factor? That might have been a concern years ago, but there’s less of a stigma in coaching these days. Call it the Sean McVay effect. Healy is a year older than the Los Angeles Rams third-year coach, whose success has opened the door for other under-40 head coaches in the NFL. A handful of thriving coaches in college football are still in their 30s: Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley, 36; Appalachian State’s Eliah Drinkwitz, 36; Memphis’ Mike Norvell, 38; Minnesota’s Fleck, 38. Healy’s also older than each of these men when they landed their first head-coaching job in the NFL: Don Shula, John Madden, Jon Gruden, Bill Cowher, Mike Tomlin.