Friday, May 24, 2024

Charlotte football coach makes impression before he even speaks

Charlotte football coach Francis “Biff” Poggi made an impression Tuesday as guest speaker for the Rotary Club of Charlotte before even saying a word.

Dressed in gold Nike athletic shorts and a white “Charlotte football” T-shirt – customized with missing sleeves and a slash in the neckline – the 64-year-old hedge fund manager-turned-college coach garnered comments such as “real deal” from Rotarians more accustomed to sport jackets and buttoned-down shirts.

“Excuse me for my dress,” Poggi says as he took the podium to speak, “but I just got off

Charlotte football coach Francis “Biff” Poggi speaks to the Rotary Club of Charlotte on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2023, at Noble Smoke barbecue in Charlotte.

the field, and I dress like this all the time.”

Several of the 200 Rotarians gathered at Noble Smoke barbecue would cheer as Poggi referenced the club’s tradition of starting meetings with the Pledge of Allegiance and the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and him noting what to expect at the start of 49er football games.

“I can guarantee you that we will play the national anthem. The team will not be in the locker room. There will be nobody kneeling or anything like that,” says Poggi, who seemed to get off to a good start with a majority of his audience before even talking football.

Poggi came to Charlotte as a first-time head college football coach by way of an assistant coaching job at the University of Michigan under Jim Harbaugh and building his resume in Baltimore as a head high school football coach at two private schools he helped turn into athletic powerhouses. Before then, he raked in millions managing a hedge fund, which he still chairs.

In Charlotte, he takes over a team that has had only one winning season since re-starting its football program in 2013. The 49ers have lost more than twice as often as they have won, resulting in limited fan support. Poggi brought in 52 new players this year and promises they’ll play an old-school, run-first style on offense with a physically tough defense that will keep scores low. He expects the team to start winning now.

“I didn’t leave Michigan to come here and not go to the CFP (College Football Playoffs), because that’s where we were the last two years, and I liked it,” says Poggi.

Retired public relations professional Ellison Clary, left, speaks with Charlotte football coach Biff Poggi at Rotary Club of Charlotte meeting held Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2023, at Noble Smoke barbecue.

Charlotte begins its season Sept. 2 against South Carolina State at the 15,300-seat Richardson Stadium on the Charlotte campus. The same night at Bank of America Stadium, the Carolina Panthers play on Sundays, the UNC Tar Heels and University of South Carolina Gamecocks play one another in a game that has attracted ESPN’s iconic “GameDay” show.

During a question-and-answer period, several Rotarians started their comments by stating their allegiance to other college teams. If it irked Poggi, he didn’t show it, but he did address it.

“We’re Charlotte guys. We now live in Charlotte, make our careers and lives in Charlotte and it makes sense to support the home team,” says Poggi. “The city of Charlotte needs the University of Charlotte to be successful. Charlotte needs football to be successful and we can’t do it without help.”

Several months ago, Poggi created waves when he called out Charlotte businesses and leaders for not supporting the local team financially. When asked about that, he says support is coming, and added he needs to watch his words more carefully.

Poggi says he shares both prayers and Scripture with his players, saying the team motto isn’t sport cliches like “Determination” or “Hard Work,” but rather “Building Men for Others.” He says most of his players will not play professionally, but they will become fathers and husbands, members of a community.

“We never coach with today in mind,” Poggi says. “We coach with a 25-year look. What’s it going to look like for this team in 25 years, and what (do) I want to see when they come back? We want to develop men of empathy and faith, who are good husbands and fathers and members of the community.” He says he loves his team, his first as a college head coach. 

“If you do come by, you have to meet our kids because they’re really unbelievable,” he adds.

Poggi took questions from the audience. Here are some of his responses.

Graduation rates: He gets an academic report on each player at 1:30 p.m. each Thursday. He then color codes the report: Green is good, yellow and red not so much. Players with yellow and red in their reports don’t practice, Poggi says, and players who don’t practice don’t play.

He admitted some players wanted to challenge his system. He says he held firm. “All of a sudden, in the spring, we’re coaching 120 Albert Einsteins. Grades have skyrocketed, so I expect our graduation rate to be 100%.”

North Carolina high school talent: Before taking the Charlotte job, Poggi asked a graduate assistant at Michigan to look at the Power 5 football players in the big football conferences – ACC, SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, and the Pac-12 – over the past five years and how many of them lived within 90 minutes of Charlotte. The number: More than 200. “Some of the best in the nation,” says Poggi.

How many of those players are on Charlotte’s roster: Zero. Poggi says he aims to change that with getting Charlotte’s best players to stay home to play. 

What do you tell your players when adversity comes? Poggi referenced a parable Jesus told his disciples as recorded in the book of Matthew. “We’re trying to build a program not on sand, but on rock,” says Poggi. “We know waves are going to come, torrential downpours and all that stuff, and if you’re built on sand, you’re going to get wiped out. If you’re built on rock, you’re going to be able to withstand that.

“What we tell players all the time is this is life. Life is hard, and it’s a marathon, not a sprint. So a temporary setback is not as important as how you respond to that setback and what you do going forward.”

That final question, by the way, came from former UNC wide receiver Hakeem Nicks, a former Charlotte Independence player who won a Super Bowl ring with the New York Giants, which made him a first round draft choice in 2009. Nicks told Poggi he had done his research on him and considers himself a “big fan.”

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