Sunday, May 26, 2024

Can Biff Poggi be the superhero of Charlotte football?

Francis X. “Biff” Poggi’s first spring as UNC Charlotte’s football coach was not going as smoothly as hoped.

The former hedge fund manager and Maryland high school football coaching legend was a few weeks into spring practice, and his team looked like it might be falling apart. The 49ers had three identifiable factions: holdovers from last year’s team; college transfers who had played for Poggi at St. Frances Academy in Baltimore; and transfers from somewhere else. They were at each other’s throats.

Tension was disrupting practice and handcuffing Poggi as he tried to assemble a first team. Fights broke out several days in a row, culminating in a battle that witnesses called an “absolute brawl.” The hyper-competitive Poggi lost his cool.

After order was restored, he sent everyone to the locker room except for the players.

This is not the kind of team we are going to be, the coach told his team before ordering a seemingly endless series of sprints back and forth across the field. Gassers, they’re called. The 49ers ran them until they dropped.

A team meeting followed. Poggi confronted the situation with brutal honesty and sincere concern — his coaching calling card. Issues were addressed. It got emotional.

The problem was solved  and the players learned that they were playing for an uncommon coach, one with real ability to lead and inspire.

“Things get very real very quickly with him,”  says Jonathon Jacobson, a successful Boston money manager who Poggi hired as assistant head coach and special adviser. “When it
comes to coaching football, Biff has that secret sauce. He really does.”

Pivotal moment

Charlotte — the athletic brand name for the UNC system campus in the Queen City — hopes Poggi’s sauce will turn 49er football into a tasty, lucrative dish. Leadership, in turn, is counting on football to increase the school’s visibility and boost Charlotte’s national stature as a top urban research university. Like it or not, these days a big-name athletic program can do just that.

The school hired Poggi (pronounced Poh-JEE) last December after nine lackluster seasons since the university agreed to add Division I football in 2008. (Games started in 2013.)

Lackluster might be charitable. The football 49ers have had one winning season, averaging fewer than four victories a year.  The program’s signature victory is a 2021 win over a mediocre Duke team that dumped its coach later that year.

Gene Johnson, a former telecom company CEO and leading UNC Charlotte booster, says, “You can say our football program has had limited success.”

The university hopes that is about to change as it approaches a pivotal moment. Despite Charlotte’s football record, the American Athletic Conference gladly accepted it to join East Carolina University and 12 other member-schools, starting this year. The AAC is considered more prestigious than Conference USA, Charlotte’s previous affiliation. Its football reputation is, by most accounting, below the Power 5 conferences that dominate college sports: the ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac 12 and SEC.

The university has a  $102 million campaign to raise funds for, among other things, the expansion of 15,300-seat Richardson Stadium on the Charlotte campus.

And, it has Biff Poggi, 64, as its coach.

He’s not a household name in North Carolina, but he qualifies as a semi-legend in his native Baltimore, where locals still marvel at the unlikely story of an investing guru who became a hotshot high school football coach and then a key assistant to Jim Harbaugh at Michigan. Poggi is compelling enough to have been featured in the New York Times bestseller Season of Life: A Football Star, a Boy, a Journey to Manhood and in a four-part HBO series that aired in 2020. Now, ESPN is preparing a longer series Poggi’s new job, slated to start in September..

Poggi played football at Pittsburgh for a couple of years, then transferred to Duke, where he graduated in 1984. Poggi began a career as a low-level college coach and then a high school coach and teacher but veered into financial services after his father-in-law, Joseph Mix, told Poggi he doubted that high school football pay could create the lifestyle he expected for his daughter, Amelia.

Charlotte’s startup football program has averaged four wins a year since 2015.

Aided by private investing lessons and an initial $25,000 stake from Mix, a successful global textiles executive, Poggi made millions at Samuel James Ltd., the investment firm he founded nearly 40 years ago in Baltimore. An early success involved hedging stocks before the 1987 market crash.

The football itch never left, though. After establishing his firm, Poggi got back into coaching at his alma mater, The Gilman School, an elite Baltimore prep school where the annual tuition is now $36,000. He won 13 state titles there, dominating Maryland’s private league. After quitting Gilman, he used his money, contacts and skills to build a superpower at St. Frances Academy, a tiny Catholic, inner-city Baltimore school. Buoyed by transfers from Maryland and out-of-state schools, the Panthers were so good
that traditional opponents — including Gilman — refused
to play them.

Poggi’s success at Gilman had prompted University of Michigan coach Harbaugh to hire him as a special adviser and assistant head coach in 2016. Poggi returned to Baltimore a year later, then worked at Michigan in 2021 and 2022. He had
met Harbaugh when Michigan recruited Poggi’s son Henry. Harbaugh credits Poggi’s counsel with helping reverse the Big 10 school’s fortunes. Michigan ranks No. 2 in preseason polls.

Still, hiring Poggi as a first-time college head coach is a roll of the dice, concedes Mike Hill, UNC Charlotte’s director of athletics. But that is exactly what the still-nascent Charlotte program needs, he says.

“In the end, what most intrigued us about Biff was that he was different,” says Hill, who hired Poggi’s predecessor, Will Healy, in 2018.  “We’re a young institution, competing against schools that are far more mature, especially in terms of football programs. We felt like we needed an accelerant, something to move us forward in a great leap. We think Biff can do that.”

It won’t be easy. Poggi and company must build a football program when 131 Football Bowl Subdivision programs are in a monetary arms race to achieve notoriety, higher enrollment and increased alumni giving.

At Charlotte, it’s part of the drive to become an “R1” research university, the Carnegie classification system’s designation for the nation’s leading research campuses. That’s a top priority for Chancellor Sharon Gaber.

Football may hold a key to reaching that status. “Football is very important,” says Dennis Bunker, a Charlotte developer and incoming chair of the university’s board of trustees. “There are any number of top research universities that also have major football programs. It brings visibility, alumni loyalty and interest.”

UNC Charlotte has been “a best-kept secret for a long time. We don’t want to be best-kept anymore,” Bunker says. “We’re doing great things here. It’s time to sync the reality with the perception.”

The national football race is accelerating because of dramatic changes in the college football landscape. Players can now be paid cash beyond their scholarship benefits, and, thanks to newly liberalized transfer rules, switch schools at the drop of a $900 helmet.

Football budgets at the largest schools — Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and others — are approaching $100 million a year. UNC Chapel Hill and N.C. State University have budgets in the $30 million-plus range, according to the Knight-Newhouse College Athletic database. Charlotte’s football budget was about $12 million last year, or slightly above the median for teams in Conference USA, its former conference. The AAC median last year was more than $19 million, although that figure is inflated by Houston, Cincinnati, and the University of South Florida. Those three schools had the league’s biggest budgets before jumping to the Big 12 this year.

Charlotte faces a classic chicken-and-egg question: Which comes first for the 49ers? The funding it needs to build a big-time program, or the big-time success it needs to attract fans and donors? Charlotte’s teams have generally excelled in Conference USA, except for football and basketball, which produce the bulk of revenue.

Charlotte is increasing its football operating budget for the coming year, including boosting its total coaching salaries by about $1 million. Still, its football spending will be near the bottom of the AAC.  Poggi has a five-year contract with an initial salary of $1.25 million, making him among the lowest-paid coaches in the AAC. He’s giving back about half of that to help with assistant coach salaries and the athletic foundation.

“We’re going to be comparable to the teams in our conference, especially those other teams that are coming in with us (University of Alabama-Birmingham, Rice, North Texas and Florida Atlantic),” says Hill. “We will have to increase our revenues across the board, but almost half the league looks about like we do.”

The majority of UNC Charlotte’s $41.4 million athletic budget — about $21.5 million  — comes from student fees. Donor contributions make up about one-fifth, with giving increasing for five straight years under Hill’s leadership. Gate receipts are relatively miniscule. In 2022, Charlotte made nearly as much from payouts during visits to opponents with stronger football traditions as it brought in at home games.

More cash is on the way. The AAC has a better TV deal than Conference USA, though it’s minimal compared with the Power 5 affiliates. AAC teams with full shares of the conference’s TV distributions received nearly $7 million last year, compared with the $1.6 million Charlotte secured last year from CUSA. Charlotte and the other new schools won’t receive a full AAC share for several years to come. Hill wouldn’t discuss specifics or confirm the reported $2 million entry fee levied by the AAC.

Everyone agrees that more investment is needed for the 49ers to become a big-time football school.

Ruffled feathers

When he was hired last spring, Poggi said he was comfortable with UNC Charlotte’s commitment to football. Chancellor Gaber and university leaders favor an aggressive leap forward, and the community seemed a willing partner.

The tone shifted in a June talk-radio interview, when he criticized the community’s laggardness in writing checks for the football team. “That’s beginning to ruffle my Italian feathers,” Poggi said on Charlotte’s WFNZ radio.

Hill says fundraising is going just fine, declining to share details. The capital campaign, which will mostly pay for more stadium seats, suites and a new football locker room, is “making good progress.”

That facility work is needed. Richardson Stadium’s capacity barely clears the NCAA’s requirement that FBS teams average 15,000 attendees, at least once every two years. The stadium is named after former Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, who pledged $10 million in 2013. Several universities, including Charlotte, don’t appear to have met the attendance threshold, but bookkeeping on ticket sales and attendance allows for some creativity, and besides, it’s not clear there’s a real penalty for low attendance.

UNC Charlotte Chancellor Sharon Gaber and Athletic Director Mike Hill hired Poggi, who got kudos from coaches Jim Harbaugh and Nick Saban.

The real reason attendance needs to grow is to bring in more dollars and create an experience that will unlock donations, both now and in the future. Charlotte fans will have a great place to party this season: Before Poggi’s hiring, an anonymous donor gave $10 million for the “Forty-Ninth Acre,” a large tailgating area near the stadium.

Poggi’s presence is boosting ticket sales, donations and enthusiasm, Hill says, without being more specific. “But look,” he adds, “it is a process. In the end, developing and cultivating authentic relationships, that’s how you get to where you want to go. It’s like planting a tree. It’s not going to become a full-blown oak right away.

“Of course,” Hill says, “time is the enemy of any business deal. Biff would be the first one to tell you that.”

Poggi knows dollars and fundraising. He pulled in millions for his hedge fund, which he still chairs, and he and his wife have donated millions to charities themselves. At St. Frances Academy, he paid the full or partial tuition (about $10,000 a year) for 40 or more players for several years, according to the local diocese. All told, Poggi says he gave about $2.5 million to the school.  He also endowed the Poggi Pediatric Orthopaedic Fellows program at Johns Hopkins University’s medical school in Baltimore.

“It’s very expensive to run a Division I football program, especially at the level we’re going to be at, so we have to raise a bunch of money,” says Poggi. “That means those rich guys, they have to understand the value that this brings to the city of Charlotte, to the university.”

Top initial priorities for Poggi are “investing in our product.” He wants higher salaries for his assistant coaches, better facilities for his players.

Poggi and Jacobson, who’ve been friends since they were Gilman classmates, have raised lots of money in their financial  jobs.  Jacobson worked for Harvard University’s investment arm and was CEO of Boston-based Highfields Capital Management, which invested more than $10 billion.

“If you give me the opportunity to explain the value proposition, I think we’ll do well,” Poggi says.

Gene Johnson believes early gridiron success under Poggi will prompt a strong response, especially from the university’s 80,000 alumni in the Charlotte region. He recalls the Charlotte basketball team’s Final Four appearance in 1977, led by Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell. “We had people standing in lines on campus to make a donation. I’m bullish we can get there again.”

Adds Bunker, “Back then, the bandwagon was full. I have no doubt that when we start winning, that will happen again.”

What about NIL?

Conventional funding is not the only issue these days, thanks to the NCAA’s new Name, Image, Likeness (NIL) programs that allow players to be paid directly for endorsement and branding “work.” Sports pundits suggest that any school that wants to compete must have a strong NIL program to attract talented athletes.

Charlotte has a collective, albeit a nascent one. Charlotte private equity investor Matt Magan started the Goldmine Alliance for the 49ers with a “six-figure” gift. It is providing small stipends to some 49ers, but obviously must grow to have a real impact.

By comparison, Wake Forest University’s “Roll the Quad” NIL group is granting “multiple players” on the Deacons’ football and basketball teams with at least $100,000 annually, Triad Business Journal reported in July. It’s largely funded by seven Wake Forest boosters  including auto dealer Don Flow, developer David Couch, hotel owner Mit Shah and sports marketing executive Ben Sutton. At other elite football programs, some players have received seven-figure payouts.

“Biff’s a legend in Baltimore,” says Magan, who grew up there. “I’ve been to a few events here (that Poggi has attended) and the atmosphere is electric.”

NIL money is exacerbating the great divide between college football’s biggest programs and the have-nots. But Poggi insists a big NIL fund isn’t key to Charlotte’s success. He calls NIL “the biggest canard out there.”

That’s because most football coaches have an uncanny ability while recruiting young men, he says. “They can spend about 30 seconds with you and your parents, and they will know exactly what you want to hear,” says Poggi, “ and then they will make sure you hear it.”

Poggi says the fact that more than 8,000 student-athletes entered the NCAA transfer portal this year, officially signaling their desire to transfer to another program, demonstrates the endemic mendacity of big-time recruiting.

“You don’t get in the portal unless promises have been broken,” Poggi says. “That’s how it works.”

Win now – or fire me 

Poggi wants to build a football program based on the same fundamentals and values that carried him to success at Gilman and St. Frances, and which were detailed in “Season of Life: A Football Star, a Boy, a Journey to Manhood.” Care for people. Make their lives better. Prepare them for life.

Only a tiny percentage of college players succeed in the NFL, notes Poggi.

“Football is great, but there’s what, 60 years or something (of life) after that?” says Poggi, an offensive lineman during his playing days. “You’d better find something you love just as much, or more, than athletics. I tell the kids that all over the country are smoke-filled bars, full of former athletes telling everybody how great they were and nobody cares. …. We don’t want to be a supplier of that. That niche is already filled.”

Instead, Poggi envisions a legion of street-savvy ex-49ers ready to tackle the real world. He launched an internship program for players with Charlotte-area businesses, and he is requiring team members to attend twice-weekly financial literacy classes that include how to handle credit cards, but also describe the language of Wall Street.

A Q&A series for players to meet executives has included Lowe’s CEO Marvin Ellison; Kieth Cockrell, president of Bank of America’s Charlotte market; and famed financier Ken Langone. The Queen City’s global role in finance gives the university and its football team an off-the-field advantage over most rivals, Poggi contends.

Great ideas to be sure, but none will matter if the 49ers don’t win on the field.

Poggi thinks that will happen this fall because he’s completely overhauled the roster from last year’s 3-9 team that surrendered a whopping 39 points per game. Seventy-five players, including players who graduated or expended their eligibility, are gone. He’s brought in 52 new players, including 37 transfers from other colleges. Twenty-one transfers, and 25 new players overall, are St. Frances alums.

The new Charlotte team is undeniably bigger and stronger than its predecessor. Whether it’s better remains to be seen.  Poggi assembled a fairly young staff made up mainly of coaches who are getting their first big taste of responsibility. Poggi met most of them during his Michigan tenure. They handle details while Poggi focuses on managing the organization, coaching the coaches, and loving the players.

Poggi says the 49ers will mimic Jim Harbaugh’s strategy with a physical style of football that emphasizes running the ball, good defense and elite kicking. “If you’re looking for a bunch of 62-59 games, this is not the place to be,” jokes Poggi. “We’re going to win, like, 14-3. We’re going to set football back 100 years.”

It’s a formula that’s worked for him in Baltimore, and he thinks it will work in Charlotte. The 49ers will win the AAC this year, he said in mid-August. The Athletic picks them last.

If it doesn’t work, he fully expects to suffer the consequences.

“We have lots of big-time, really good football players here and they’re invested. If we’re not successful, I would encourage Mike Hill to walk down the hill and fire me immediately. Because this team should win right from the start.”

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