The birth of a program
The Charlotte 49ers’ last home game didn’t go the way Athletic Director Judy Rose wanted. That game, an upset loss to Division III Wesley College two weeks ago, ensured that the football team would have a losing record in its inaugural season.
Michael Smith talks about Athletic Director Judy Rose, who led UNC Charlotte's football program from the idea phase to the playing field.
|The 49ers took the field this fall after several years of preparation.
UNC Charlotte is now a full-fledged, football-playing school, not just a startup with a vision.
Rose has walked the grounds at UNC Charlotte since 1975, first as a basketball coach and, since 1990, as the AD. She was the first woman to serve on the NCAA men’s basketball committee, she helped recruit a men’s Final Four to Charlotte, and she built an on-campus basketball arena.
But she’s never experienced anything like the last three months. Some of Rose’s peers thought she was crazy to start a football program. They told her so.
“What I quickly found out is that I was spending 90 percent of my time on a sport we didn’t even have yet,” said Rose, 61. “And now that we have football, everybody tells me that I’m going to spend 90 percent of my time on it the rest of my career.”
“You know, sometimes, it seems that way,” she added with a laugh.
Charlotte football will be a work in progress for several more years. A recording of the school’s fight song plays over the loudspeakers at Jerry Richardson Stadium because it doesn’t have a marching band yet. The brick stadium will need to add lights next year and eventually expand beyond its 15,314 seats. And entrance into Conference USA in 2015 will immediately increase the demands on a football program that didn’t expect to play at the Football Bowl Subdivision level so soon, if at all.
With football, Rose’s to-do list never seems to shrink. It’s been a complete job-changer. To her, it’s worth it.
“The general public believes every football program makes money,” Rose said. “We know we’re not going to make money off football for a long time. That’s not why we’re adding it. We’re adding it to complement the growth of the university. Perception-wise, it makes you more of a complete university and more of a complete athletic program.”
UNCC announced in 2008 that it would start a football program. Two years earlier, Rose’s intuition told her to start getting ready. The momentum for football among students and alumni was palpable, even then.
“I saw the handwriting on the wall,” Rose said. “There was enough grumbling that, even though administration was fighting it at the time, I thought it would happen.”
Rose and three members of her senior staff — Kim Whitestone, Darin Spease and Mike Hummer — began meeting at Whitestone’s house near campus two years before the school officially decided to add football. Whitestone runs internal operations, Spease handles business, and Hummer is in charge of the athletic foundation.
|Charlotte kicked off its season — and its program — at home on Aug. 31 vs. Campbell.
Spease said most of the time was spent deciding whether to build a new football-only stadium, which they eventually did, or to retrofit a soccer or track facility. They looked at renting a downtown football stadium or a minor league baseball stadium in nearby South Carolina. They thought about how football crowds would affect nearby grocery stores and other
|AD Judy Rose (in green dress) and other key players in the development of the program walked to midfield for the coin flip before the inaugural game.
“We really explored the question of whether Charlotte, a big pro market, would support a program, especially if we weren’t playing at the highest level,” Spease said.
Every time they came up with an idea or a question, one of them would write it on a sticky note. Eventually, Whitestone’s living room became wallpapered in the neon notes.
“I don’t think anybody in university administration knew that we were meeting, and they didn’t need to know,” said Rose, who toured Old Dominion’s facilities and consulted with former North Carolina State football coach Dick Sheridan during her preparations. “We had to be prepared, in case we did add football. … I didn’t think we were wasting our time.”
One of the eye-popping moments early in the process came at a campus meeting for the committee on space allotment. Football had just been approved and a vice chancellor asked Rose how much new office space athletics would need to accommodate the new sport.
“I blew their minds. I told them we’d need 37 offices,” said Rose, who was seeking to double the amount of office space athletics had in the past. “They looked at me like, ‘What?’ You talk about getting somebody’s attention.”
As Rose often says, adding football wasn’t an athletic department decision, it was a university decision. In the two years leading up to the first kickoff, Chancellor Philip Dubois appointed committees to tackle issues such as academic affairs, student affairs, traditions, the need for a band and how to deal with UNCC’s neighbors.
“We didn’t know what fans’ expectations were,” Rose said. “Are they expecting pregame concerts? And what about our neighbors at Harris Teeter and Kohl’s, especially the ones with parking lots nearby? So we brought them into our conversations.”
“Initially, coach said that’s too far,” Rose said with a laugh. “We had the strength and conditioning coach step it off to see how far it was. Seriously! He agreed it wasn’t that far.”
One issue UNCC had not contemplated was playing at the FBS level. The 49ers intended to start in the Football Championship Subdivision, or the former NCAA Division I-AA, and stay there. That’s how they budgeted the program. So when Conference USA surprised Rose with an invitation 18 months ago, she took it to Dubois.
Moving to FBS would mean about 25 percent to 30 percent more in costs. Scholarship limits in FBS are 85 per team, compared with 63 in FCS. They would also need to cast a wider net in recruiting, which means more resources for travel. And with more players theoretically coming from out of state, UNCC would have to pay the more expensive out-of-state tuition. Expectations for coaches’ salaries also would change at the FBS level.
On the revenue side, the 49ers could generate bigger guarantees when they play schools from the five power conferences. FCS schools often are paid $300,000 to $500,000 to play the bigger schools, but those revenue numbers increase to $1 million or more in some cases for FBS schools.
The chancellor cited his concerns about the budget limitations and said, “Judy, we can’t do this.”
She responded: “We can’t NOT do that. We have an opportunity. Do you know how many people would love to be in this position? … Athletes are risk-takers and we’ve got to do this.”
In May 2012, Conference USA announced that the 49ers were in.
Add up the numbers and UNCC figures it started football for $45 million in facility costs alone, while also adding 30 new employees, counting coaches, staff and support positions.
The football stadium, including design costs, ran $27 million, while the Judy Rose Football Center cost $13 million. There was $3 million spent to move intramural fields, which used to be on the site of the stadium, and another $2 million in furnishings and fixtures.
Any additional items, such as lights or expenses related to stadium expansion, will have to be raised privately.
|Charlotte’s $27 million stadium is named for Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, below left with Rose and coach Brad Lambert.
The 49ers averaged 15,541 in their inaugural season, an attendance number that includes everyone in the stadium, even workers, which is why the average exceeds capacity. But administrators know that a few bad weather days could hurt the average.
Fundraising has been one of the 49ers’ early success stories.
Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson paid $10 million for stadium naming rights. Richardson and another Charlotte business icon, banking pioneer Hugh McColl, combined to donate an undisclosed amount for field naming rights, which previously were being sold for $2.5 million. A gift of an additional $2.5 million from Charlotte businesswoman Dale Halton bought naming rights to the football building, which houses offices, a weight room and training space.
Halton, who also has naming rights to the school’s 9,100-seat basketball arena, in a surprise move conveyed the naming of the football center to Rose, her longtime friend. Rose was the one who convinced Halton to make the football donation in the first place, having no idea her name would end up being the one on the building.
Typically, donations of that size are celebrated with a party at the chancellor’s home on campus. On the night to honor Halton and her gift, Rose, members of the athletic department and the chancellor’s guests gathered for the ceremony.
Rose expected the night to go like all the rest. Dubois, the chancellor, would say a few words, then he’d invite Rose to say a few words and introduce Halton. Then they’d unveil a rendering of the building.
On this night, though, Dubois talked and talked. Rose kept waiting for the invitation to speak, which never came.
“It’s not like him to go off script like that,” Rose said.
Finally, Dubois asked Rose to unveil the building. Perplexed that she wasn’t asked to speak, Rose pulled the cover back, revealing the new football center. But instead of looking at the rendering, Rose was watching for Halton’s reaction. So everybody but Rose noticed her name on the building.
The whole room got a laugh when Dubois told Rose to look at the rendering. She finally did and her mouth dropped at the surprise.
“Judy made the ask and the donor turned around and named the building for the person making the ask,” Dubois said, beaming as he watched the 49ers play Wesley from the chancellor’s suite. “When does that ever happen?
“We might be the only place with a football building named after a woman. But Judy IS the athletic department. She’s raised the money for every athletic facility we have on campus. I can’t think of a better tribute.”
By the time Rose hugged Lambert after the loss to Wesley, it had to have been her 400th hug of the day. Dressed in a green suede jacket, Rose hugged the football players during the team’s pregame “49er Walk,” she hugged donors in the hospitality area and she hugged old friends and new as she made her way around campus in the hours before kickoff.
Football truly has been a way for students to connect and alumni to reconnect, she said.
“We’ve got to get you a 49ers jacket,” Rose said to one man who was wearing a North Carolina jacket and eating wings at a tailgate spot.
Making her way toward the stadium, she stopped to give the president and AD from East Tennessee State, a school looking to relaunch football, a tour of the building named in her honor. Then she swung by a premium parking spot where her husband, two sisters and other family members were tailgating.
“Ken,” Rose said to her husband, “did you get out the cheese ball?”
After a quick bite of chicken and some of her sister’s homemade potato salad, Rose was on the move again. She had to be on the field in a few minutes to shake hands with the senior football players — all six of them.
Football has been both a blessing and a challenge for Rose. She sees the toll it takes on her staff and she worries about burnout.
At the same time that she was getting the football program off the ground, two of her best friends, former Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt — Rose was an assistant coach for Summitt at Tennessee in the 1970s — and North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell, battled serious illnesses. Summitt has Alzheimer’s, while Hatchell has leukemia. Rose feels guilty for not being by their side more than she has.
But she also realizes that her plate has overflowed during this inaugural season of football. And it’s just the start.
“This season really has exceeded my expectations,” Rose said, as the 49ers were 4-6 heading into last Saturday’s season finale at Morehead State.
“We’re going to improve,” she concluded. “There are things we’ll do better. I do want to see our student crowd improve. But we’ve seen this university rally around football, and it’s been fun to watch.”