CONFERENCE USA'S 2013-15 re-invention is long on larger television markets, short on football tradition. The newcomers won't have respect handed to them.The six new schools had a combined 2011 record of 35-26, which means zilch. From highest to lowest, we have Old Dominion 10-3, Florida International and Louisiana Tech 8-5, North Texas 5-7 and Texas-San Antonio 4-6.No meaning there, especially when ODU and UTSA were playing in the classification formerly known as I-AA.And then there was the 2011 record at North Carolina-Charlotte - 0-0. Betcha it will be 0-0 this fall, too.
And that makes the 49ers the most interesting case of C-USA's third rendition. Their inclusion doesn't give C-USA much respect nationally, but that isn't the point here.While the rest of the world harrumphs at a program starting from scratch in a city sprouting Cam Newton jerseys, the 49ers have big dreams. They have the will, and maybe the resources, to get the team going from zero to C-USA in three years.If you're not buying it, Phil Ratliff will sell you on it. Relentlessly."I've been recruiting this area for going on nine years," said the 49ers' recruiting coordinator. "Walking on this campus, it's a huge campus sitting on a thousand acres. You've got 26,000-plus students; within the next two to three years it's going to be more than 30,000. In the next five to seven years, it's going to push 35,000 to 40,000 students."They're building new buildings on campus like crazy."Ratliff is the former Marshall assistant, who spent the last six years as tight ends coach and bridged the Mark Snyder and Doc Holliday eras. I'm guessing the former Herd lineman and Spring Valley coach was the most well-known and well-liked Thundering Herd assistant among fans.
As Ratliff explains it, he and Charlotte were a perfect fit. First, the relationship with head coach Brad Lambert was strong, dating back to when the Lambert coached and Ratliff played for Jim Donnan at MU. Second, Ratliff's first love is the offensive line, which he will coach.Third, he is a natural for recruiting coordinator and has an intricate knowledge of the North Carolina terrain.Taking those factors separately, Ratliff's decision was easy. Uprooting from Marshall and leaving home was another matter. He has a daughter at Wayne High School and a son at Wayne Middle, all close to his native Louisa, Ky.Shoot, Ratliff is in the minority in these parts: He doesn't have relatives in North Carolina."To leave an alma mater you love, to leave a community you love, to leave your family, my wife's family, it was definitely [tough]," Ratliff said. "But you've got to look at it; I'm 41 years old, my heart's in coaching offensive line. It's just like anything else, you're a competitor, you want to try to do the best you possibly can.
"My goal is to be a Division I head football coach, and I wasn't going to do that by staying as a tight ends coach. I knew in my heart this program would move very fast and we'd be on the FBS level very quickly. ... So I just took an educated guess that this would happen."Ratliff started his new life Jan. 3, about 10 months after the university hired Lambert to launch the program. Lambert still has yet to hire four full-time assistants, a strength and conditioning staff and an equipment staff, among others.There hasn't been a need for an equipment manager, as the first player hasn't shown up to the first practice to don the first pads. The first 26 scholarship players signed in February and the coaches will bring in 40-45 walk-ons. "We could have had 500," Ratliff said.This squad, all redshirting, will have a somewhat regular preseason camp. The "season" will consist of intrasquad scrimmages, and there won't be a use for a scout team."We're able to work with them one-on-one, getting them ready for the next season," Ratliff said. "These kids won't be making any bad habits ... we'll get them right from scratch and teach them what we want, from an early age."The 49ers will play 2013 and 2014 as transitioning independents, playing FCS and Division II opponents. While doing that, coaches will have to juggle signing classes and midyear junior-college signings to get the classes properly staggered.
No surprise, but Ratliff called the first signing class better than expected. The 49ers did land one Rivals three-star prospect, defensive tackle Casey Perry of Durham, N.C. Most hail from North Carolina, and most of those from the Charlotte area, as you can imagine.Prospects are now able to see the stadium and adjoining 47,000-square-foot football complex under construction (you can, too, on a webcam at 49ersfootball.com). The stadium starts out as a 15,000-seat lower bowl, with the press box and concessions positioned to allow for the second-phase upper deck.The sale of seat licenses is well underway, and Ratliff expects 8,000 seats held for the student body.And now, Ratliff can sell Charlotte's fast-track 2015 entrance to the FBS, and to Conference USA. The formal announcement had an instant impact."In one day, our recruiting changed totally," he said. "Our emails changed, our phone calls changed. You walk into schools, and within this entire region, they all know. Now, these kids know they can come in and play in '13 and '14, getting ready to play in Conference USA."Ratliff will have his family moved southward in a couple of weeks, and before you know it, the 49ers will have Marshall on the schedule. It will be the Herd's closest conference rivalry since the Mid-American Conference days.Marshall is going to have to maintain its upward trajectory to get and keep an upper hand. Charlotte isn't planning to enter C-USA as a punching bag.Not with Ratliff in the 49ers' corner.Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or firstname.lastname@example.org