Biff Poggi on lessons learned and what’s next for Charlotte 49ers’ football program

It was always going to be a tall task for Biff Poggi to turn the Charlotte 49ers’ program around in one season.

But how you view Poggi’s first season depends on where you’re sitting and how much stock you put into the 63-year-old’s preseason comments, which created optimism that Charlotte fans hadn’t felt since the team secured its first Power Five victory, against Duke in 2021.

In a season filled with more lows than highs, Poggi saw lessons learned at every corner and vowed not to make those mistakes again in his second season, which started the morning following Charlotte’s loss to South Florida in its season finale.

Charlotte 49ers head coach, Biff Poggi, hoped for a better outcome Saturday against Navy. Navy scored twice in the second half of Saturday’s matchup against the Charlotte 49ers. Winning 14-0. The Charlotte 49ers (1-4) faced off against the Navy Midshipmen (2-3) on Saturday Oct. 14, 2023. Charlotte celebrated the tenth year for the football program at homecoming against Navy.

“I thought that being a head college coach, I wouldn’t be able to coach the way I coached the teams at Saint Frances and Gilman (high schools). I coached those teams with an iron fist,” Poggi said. “Very regimented and a lot of discipline. What I’ve found out is that’s exactly what a college team needs. Yes, I was at Michigan, but it’s different. It’s different when you’re running the program. ... We have a whole laundry list of things to add to our process. It will be completely different.”

The dichotomy of preseason and postseason press conferences rang true, turning the calendar back to a chilly December morning when Poggi laid out the 49ers’ simple goals at his introductory press conference.

“Our goal is very simple. We want to win the (American Athletic Conference). And we want to win it repeatedly. And we want to get to the College Football Playoff. That’s why I left Michigan, and that’s what I’m expecting to do here. My timetable is now.”

Poggi quickly learned that there was a much-needed balance between the caliber of talent, character and discipline in a group of individuals that culminated in a winning culture. And the 49ers didn’t have that for much of the season, if at all, according to Poggi.

His first season resulted in three victories and nine losses, including the high of beating in-state conference opponent East Carolina in Greenville and the lows of losing five consecutive games at home and failing to beat an FBS program at Richardson Stadium.

Charlotte’s season saw promise, competing with both Maryland and Florida on the road, overtime thrillers with Tulsa and AAC-heavyweight Memphis, the emergence of walk-ons at multiple positions, and a formidable defense that kept Charlotte afloat all season. But it also saw internal struggles boiling over on national television, continuous offensive malaise, dwindling crowds as the season waned, and disappointment — even surprise, from Poggi himself.

Poggi’s goals have been clear since he stepped foot in the Queen City, but if he could do it again, he would change quite a few things, leaning towards the “brain surgery vs. band-aids” comments that he made following a blowout loss on senior day.

And it starts with recruiting.

“The biggest mistake I think I’ve made is that I wouldn’t have brought as many kids in from one single high school like Saint Frances. It really makes the culture even harder to grasp,” Poggi said. “I thought that would work because we needed players, and it was late in January (when Poggi arrived in Charlotte). We had to get guys, and I knew these guys, and I knew they’d come. It took us a while to get over the hump, culturally — and maybe (we’re) still not even over it. Although, I think from Tulsa on out, we did much better.”

So, what kind of individual does Poggi want on his roster?

“If any player asks me about NIL, playing time, how our locker room compares, how our stadium size compares — then I immediately do not want that kid. If anybody is not interested in going to class and not taking a major that actually matters — I’m not interested in that kid,” Poggi explained. “I don’t care what school you come from. I’d rather have a kid who is happy to be here, and I had to learn all of this. We didn’t really do the portal at Michigan, which was a luxury.

“I would not go from Power Five down (now). Those kids are very entitled, and it didn’t work out for a reason. And they’re a big headache, quite frankly. They act like they’re doing the program a favor, and really, we’re doing them a favor.”

49ers’ defense trending up

After three consecutive seasons of the 49ers’ defenses ranking in the basement of the FBS, coordinator Ryan Osborn’s dramatic turnaround in his first season provides optimism for the future. .

After ranking 127th in the nation and last in Conference USA in Will Healy’s final season, the defense progressed to 60th in the FBS and seventh in the AAC — climbing 67 spots. Charlotte was second-best in the AAC in passing yards allowed, surrendering 212.7 yards per game. And when the defense bent, it generally didn’t break, allowing redzone touchdowns just 51% of the time, good for 23rd best in the nation.

While injuries tapered production late in the season, Osborn’s defense held Florida to just 22 points on five field goals in The Swamp, held East Carolina to just seven points, made two game-winning stands, and gave the offense opportunities to capitalize on short fields by generating 17 takeaways on the season.

Opponents operating in up-tempo offenses proved too much for Charlotte’s defense on multiple occasions, and Osborn addressed the “elephant in the room” following the heart-breaking overtime loss to Memphis, which eliminated the 49ers from bowl contention.

“There are some positions that we have to do a great job at the end of the year evaluating and find out where we need some more quality depth. I would say the safety position is that position,” said Osborn. “We’ll get to work and bring in some good quality players for next season.”

Poggi told the media that Charlotte would host 45 of the “best junior college players” over the next three weeks, as Charlotte must fill the shoes of two of its best defensive players — Nikhai Hill-Green and Eyabi Okie-Anoma.

“Defensively, we’re going to add at pretty much every position because we lose guys. We’ll add a couple of edges, and we have a couple coming (to campus) this week who are lights out,” said Poggi. “We’ll add a couple of linebackers, and we’ll probably add four interior defensive linemen because we need it. We’ll probably bring in four safeties and four corners.”

Uncertainty on 49ers’ offense

The offense is a completely different story.

First-year coordinator Mike Miller has been under fire all throughout, starting with Poggi’s rant following the third game of the season.

“These are very simple things. We tend to make the game way too complicated. I think everybody wants to be the next whiz kid that’s the next 32-year-old head coach of the Rams one day. I’m not interested in that,” said Poggi. “I just met with our coaches, and we’re going to get it done the way I want it done — or either I’m not going to be here, or they’re not going to be here.”

The 49ers scored an average of 17.5 points per game, ranking 124th in the nation. It was an uphill battle from the season’s first possession, highlighted by Charlotte’s quarterback struggles, compounding injuries, and troublesome play-calling.

The 49ers played five quarterbacks on the year, led by Jalon Jones and walk-on Tyler Ivey operating in a two- quarterback system starting in the third game of the season. The offense flashed with the 49ers on the brink of being eliminated from bowl eligibility, with outings of 33 and 38 points in consecutive overtime contests. But slow starts and continuously playing from behind doomed Poggi’s idea of a run-first offense, totaling just 27 first-quarter points on the year paired with the nation’s worst third-down conversion percentage of 23.7%.

Poggi has made it clear that Charlotte will scour the portal for quarterbacks and the program plans to retain Ivey, promising him a scholarship following the comeback victory against Tulsa. But an upgrade is in line, and fast.

“Our quarterback position is our quarterback position. We desperately need an upgrade at that position,” Poggi said. “And that’s just the truth.”

Lessons learned and what’s next

When asked about potential offseason coaching changes Poggi took a long pause.

“I want to evaluate everyone on the staff. And I want to do it in a methodical, non-emotional way. I need to go back again and watch every snap on both sides of the ball and special teams. And see the strengths and weaknesses of our schemes and play-calling,” he said.

The roller-coaster that was Poggi’s first year didn’t come close to the expectations of the multi-millionaire hedge fund manager. But if he’s learned anything, it’s that he won’t make the same mistakes again.

“This is all a process. As I said in my last press conference, this has been a huge learning experience for me. I’ve learned more in the last year than probably I’ve learned since I started investing.”

Poggi closed the final media availability of his first year on a hopeful note, hinting at big news coming on Dec. 20, national signing day.

“We’re well along at recruiting some unbelievably good players. Now, we’ve got to get them. At the end of December, we’ll have some really exciting news on that,” the coach said. “The interesting thing about it is that after this season, we have so many kids, really good players, that want to come to Charlotte.”