UNC Charlotte Football Worth the Wait
Before he's coached a single play, Brad Lambert's already shown why he’s the right man for the job
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Offensive lineman Thomas La Bianca knew within a few minutes of his first phone conversation with Lambert, in 2011, that he would attend Charlotte. “You could just tell that he cares about you as a person and as a player,” he says.
As La Bianca has gotten to know Lambert, his admiration for the coach has grown. Lambert is a family man, with a wife and three children, and he talks to his players about their families, too. “Whenever I’ve been in the facility, he’s always asking: How’s my sister doing, how’s my mom doing, how’s my grandparents,” La Bianca says.
After lunch in the cafeteria, Lambert drives a Gator, which looks like a cross between an ATV and a golf cart, across campus. He passes dozens of players walking back to the field for his football camp. He seems to want to say hello to all of them.
The path Lambert follows leads to the football stadium. It gets bigger as he approaches. The field sits low in the ground, built so people in the seats can look out on campus and people out on campus can look down on the field.
Lambert drives past the statue of a football player at one end of the stadium. An identical statue stands on the other end. The statues, the stadium, and the facility offer proof that physically, the campus is prepared for the team’s inaugural game. The attendance of 14,000 at the spring game shows students and alumni are eager for the season to start. But is the team ready?
Because the 49ers are a first-year program and Lambert is a first-time head coach, it’s hard to know what to expect from one week to the next, or one play to the next. Even Lambert feels the uncertainty. He says that for all he knows, quarterback Matt Johnson might throw the ball out of the stadium. Lambert won’t know what kind of team he has until several games into the season. He’s waited so long already, what’s a few more weeks?
Lambert walks off the field at Jerry Richardson Stadium with black flecks on the side of his face. He spent the morning working with kickers at his camp. He held the ball as they kicked it, and bits of the artificial field flew up and stuck to his face. He brushes them away.
If the tension for Lambert early in his time at Charlotte was not having enough coaching to do, the tension since then has been to make sure he doesn’t try to coach too much. He has had to learn to delegate; the only segment of the team he coaches directly is the special-teams unit. “It’s hard when I walk onto the defensive field, because that’s like riding a bike. I want to coach those guys,” he says.
He had time to create a thick playbook but opted against that. Simple, he says, is better than complex. He knows the opener is more than just another game, but the more he treats it as just another game, the better he believes it will go.
Lambert already knows what he’ll do on opening day. With a noon kickoff, he’ll arrive on campus at 6 a.m. He’ll drink coffee until the players arrive. He’ll ride the team bus to the team hotel, eat, drink more coffee, and ride the team bus back.
“I lay awake at night sometimes and think about that moment in the locker room, before we ever hit the tunnel, before the smoke starts going, the crowd goes crazy,” he says. “It’s that moment where you realize everything that everybody’s done.”
He’s looking forward to that moment more than the game itself. He wonders what he’ll see when he looks out at his players that morning. He wants them to be calm.
He wants them to be themselves: He wants the quiet guys to stay quiet and the loud guys to speak up. He wants them to enjoy the moment, of course, but to remain focused on the game. In his pregame speech, Lambert won’t get too emotional, won’t go with a Hollywood-style motivational speech. Instead, he’ll talk about X’s and O’s, about blocking and tackling, about the hard work they have put in already and have yet to do, because hard work wins football games.
Matt Crossman is a freelance writer based in Charlotte. Reach him at mattcrossman.com, and follow him on Twitter at @MattCrossman.