Over the years, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte has had many sports teams, but never a football team. On August 31, 2013, the school kicked off its football era as the 49ers hosted the Campbell Fighting Camels from the Pioneer Football League in a Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) game.
UNC Charlotte was founded in 1946. At that time, the school was known as the Charlotte Center of the University of North Carolina (CCUNC). It was a two- year night school and conducted its classes at Central High School. CCUNC did field a football team as well as other sports teams from 1946-1948. The school’s sports teams were known as the Owls.
The school became Charlotte College in 1949 and football was dropped due to the fact that only 15 players showed up for football tryouts that year. The total enrollment at the school in 1949 was only 40 students.
Fast forward to 2006; serious discussions began about the possibility of fielding a football team. The school’s Board of Trustees approved the addition of a football team on November 13, 2008. Head football coach Brad Lambert was hired on March 1, 2011 and on April 28, 2011, a ground breaking ceremony was held that marked the beginning of construction on a brand new 15,314 seat stadium on campus. The stadium was built so that it can be expanded to 40,000 seats in the coming years. A Spring Football game was played at the stadium on April 20, 2013 and was attended by 13,950 fans. The Green team defeated the White team 26-3.
On June 11 of this year, it was announced that the stadium would be named Jerry Richardson Stadium after the owner of the NFL Carolina Panthers. Richardson had made a $10 million donation to the university to help get the football program started.
UNC Charlotte became a member of Conference USA in all sports (except football) in 2013 and has an enrollment of over 25,000 students. The school had previously been a member of the Atlantic 10 Conference from 2005 until earlier this year. The football team will play in the FCS (formerly Division I-AA) in 2013 and 2014 as an Independent team not affiliated with any conference. In 2015, the football team will become a member of Conference USA in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) which was formerly known as Division I-A. Even thought the football team will not be a member of Conference USA until 2015, the conference logo is already in place on the football field.
I have friends who have been teaching at the UNC Charlotte for many years, so when I saw that the first game was scheduled for August 31, I knew I wanted to be a part of the school’s football history. My youngest son and I made the 12 plus hour drive from Michigan the day before the game. The stadium looked to be in pristine condition when we entered. It is a beautiful facility. There was a slight problem, however, with the hand-held scanners being used to scan tickets at the stadium gates. Some people had purchased tickets online and when they printed off ticket receipts on their home computers with a bar code, the scanners had a little difficulty reading some of those bar codes. We found our seats in Section 111 and settled in for what we hoped would be a great game. We were not disappointed.
Of course, the game was a sellout, packed with student, alumni and fans eager to support their new football team. In a sea of green and white (the school colors) my son and I seemed a bit out of place for the fact that we were both wearing blue shirts.
During the pregame festivities on the field, and elderly gentleman was driven out to the center of the field on a golf cart and introduced to the crowd. His name was Carroll York and he was celebrating his 86th birthday. But that was not the only thing that was special about Mr. York. As it turns out, he played on the CCUNC Owls football team in 1946 and 1947. It was a fitting way to honor the past and the present in Charlotte college football.
It was cloudy, but hot when the game began. Soon after, the sun came out and the heat index quickly rose even higher. The clouds came back a little later and then it rained for about 10-15 minutes in the third quarter. We were unprepared for the rain and got soaked, but it did help cool things off for a bit. That is, until the sun came back out again.
As for the game itself; Freshman kicker Zack Ferguson kicked off the game for the 49ers and sent the ball through the back of the end zone. The enthusiastic crowd certainly did not have to wait long to see history made by the new hometown team. On just the second play from scrimmage, Campbell quarterback Brian Hudson was intercepted by Charlotte linebacker Mark Hogan, who return the ball 32 yards for the first ever 49ers touchdown and a 7-0 lead. (That play would be featured the next day on ESPN as Number 10 on the Top Ten Plays of the Day)
Charlotte got its first offensive touchdown on its next possession as wide receiver Justin Bolus caught a one-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Matt Johnson. The ensuing two-point conversion gave Charlotte a 15-0 lead. The 49ers scored again on their third possession and took a 22-0 lead at the end of the first quarter when receiver Austin Duke caught a 19-yard pass for a touchdown.
In the second quarter, Charlotte added two field goals by Blake Brewer of 35 and 20 yards respectively and a 15-yard rushing touchdown by Kalif Phillips to lead 35-7 at halftime.
There was no marching band to play at halftime, but the school does have a drum line that performed on the field during pregame ceremonies and from the stand for the remainder of the game.
The second half consisted of anther Blake Brewer field gold, this time from 40 yards, in the third quarter and a pair of touchdowns, a 47-yard touchdown pass to Trent Bostick, also in the third quarter, and a 33-yard touchdown run by JR Nesmith in the fourth quarter to make the final score 52-7 in favor of Charlotte. The official attendance at the game was 16,630 thanks to a standing room only crowd. Soon after the game was over, students and fans rushed onto the field to take part in a post game celebration with the team.
So, on a day when the Charlotte 49ers football team was baptized by rain and baked in the August sun, a new tradition was established. It was only one game and there is no telling how the rest of the season will unfold, but for this one day at least, college football fans in Charlotte were as happy as they could possibly be.