Skip to main content

The little things are big things: How to build and maintain a new culture, according to Will Healy

Every season is a rollercoaster of sorts, but few were quite as rollercoaster-y as Charlotte's 2019 campaign.

Coming off a 5-7 mark in 2018, the 49ers won their opener over Gardner-Webb, lost a shootout to Appalachian State, blew out UMass, then lost a buy game to Clemson to move to 2-2. That losing streak moved from one to four with consecutive setbacks to Florida Atlantic, FIU and Western Kentucky, moving the team to 2-5.

That 2-5 record appeared headed to a certain 2-6 when Charlotte entered the fourth quarter with a 35-21 deficit to North Texas until the Niners mounted an 18-point fourth quarter to steal a 39-38 win.

That win sparked a 5-game winning streak, as a defense that had allowed five straight opponents to score at least 30 points suddenly limited four straight foes to 22 or fewer.

At 7-5, Charlotte advanced to the first bowl game in the program's short history -- in the Bahamas! -- where they were subsequently humbled, 31-9, by Buffalo.

There were a lot of football reasons behind Charlotte's wins and losses, but Will Healy says there were equally as many culture reasons as well.

Following his first year as an FBS head coach -- his first year at the FBS level, period, since his freshman season as an Air Force quarterback in 2003 -- Healy reflected on what he learned in this Q&A with FootballScoop.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

FootballScoop: What's your day-to-day look like right now?
Healy: (laughs) It is unique. I've got a 5-year-old and a 1-year-old, and so I've got a lot of respect for my wife being a stay-at-home mom. I think the toughest part about being at home and working is when you're there, your 5-year-old feels like you're neglecting them if you're working. It's been interesting to find a good balance between being present and making sure that we stay ahead of the game where we're not fighting all summer long to get back to square one.

I've spent a lot of time in the front yard. I've spent a lot of time finding things that are wrong around the house that I never knew existed because I wasn't here enough to be able to see it. I have really enjoyed the family time, being able to put the kids to bed every night.

I called Coach Brown and Coach Swinney and I was like, "I've read y'alls books on how to be head coaches but there's no coronavirus section, so I was wondering if you could share that." I guess that was left out.

FootballScoop: Do you think we'll have a season? What needs to happen between now and then for that to happen?
Healy: Listen, I am beyond frustrated with people who want to act like they know what's going to happen in August, when we're talking in March. Why are we trying to quick-call something that's months down the line? You know what, if we get there and that's the situation that we're in, then every one of us will handle it the best way we know how. Three weeks ago we had no idea we'd be in this situation and we're going to find a way to handle it the best way we know how.

We need some positivity in our life right now. We need people to assure that life is going to get back to normal at some point in time. Not to say that college football has any weight relative to what's going on from a national perspective, but I do think college football has been something that, in the past, has brought this country together and it could be a really bright spot as we get back to the new norm.

FootballScoop: What did you learn last year?
Healy: I learned more from my mistakes than anything else. We got into a rut after the first couple weeks, where we felt like the culture was where we wanted it to be and we could focus more on the football side, and I learned a really valuable lesson. We went on a downhill skid, and I couldn't sleep at night because I felt like a fraud as a head coach. What I was saying I wanted our culture to look like and how we were living it day-to-day, how I was living it day-to-day, were two different things. Whether we won or lost I was at least going to go down knowing the student-athlete experience and the culture looked the way I believed was the best way I know how.

We got back to that stuff in the second half of the season. It happened to correlate with winning, which obviously helps you push the envelope even more. Sometimes you're not fortunate enough for it to work out that way. The culture resets and the process resets each week, it definitely resets every year. It's never where you want it to be, so you've got to keep working at it. Just like it is right now being at home, what are your priorities? What do you want it to feel like when you walk in your building? That's the thing that you need to be making a point of emphasis on.

I learned a lot about how to handle a bowl game. I don't think I did a great job of managing signing day with the bowl game. I think that some of me was excited that we were there, not committed to winning a football game. We ran into a buzzsaw in a really, really good, well-coached Buffalo team that humbled us quickly. Not to say it would have affected the outcome, but I thought the day-to-day operations, I could definitely improve on. It was my first bowl game, period. So how to manage that early signing period and a bowl game, and then what you do to prepare and make sure your guys are confident in what your game plan is.

I hope that every year I'm in this I feel like I was a complete moron the year before because I've learned so much, and I feel that way after Year 1 at the FBS level.

FootballScoop: You mentioned you got into a rut. What led you to that conclusion and how did you get out of it?
Healy: Some reflecting after we got beat handily on the road at FIU. We had issues on the sidelines. Not people griping at each other, not any of that stuff. FIU would get a first down on 3rd-and-1 and the air on the sidelines would just deflate. Guys would kinda go, "Oh, we're beat" and we went back to that defeatist mentality. After FIU we played Western Kentucky and I remember being on the road and we were in a pregame meal, and I looked around and we had two guys with hoods on and another guy with headphones in. Part of our culture is you don't have a hood on when you're inside and you talk to your teammates when you're in pregame meal, you don't have headphones on or anything like that.

So, not only are they sitting at the table with that stuff, but also there's seven people around them that didn't care enough about our culture to say anything to them. My pregame talk had nothing to do with how to win a football game. It was, "Obviously we're not getting it, because not only is Person A wrong for it not being important enough for them, but the seven people around him aren't interested in defending our culture enough to tell him how to get back on the right track. We've got a long way to go. I don't know how we expect to win when we're not doing the day-to-day things right to give ourselves a chance to have that result." The way the sidelines looked, how energetic and positive we were through times of adversity, that was the coaching point much more than a scheme.

We started to get it. Western Kentucky ran away from us late. But we were a lot more competitive, we were into it a lot more. We still needed to find ways to win games. But now you can really preach how that positivity worked, and how the sidelines looked different than what it had in the past. Now you can start to show culture clips on how quickly you get your hand up on third down. How much are you into the game? How much are you relaying information to your teammates and fulfilling your role? The day-to-day process became important to us.

FootballScoop: How do you manage the constant vigilance its required to maintain a culture while not coming across, for lack of a better term, like a nag?
Healy: Again, this is me. This is just what I think is the best thing to do. I want them to understand perception. We're at Charlotte. We're growing a fan base, we're growing a program. We need people to pull for us. We need fans to say, "That's a person that I want to pull for." That's part of that. Them understanding why I'm asking them to not have a hood on in class, or why I'm asking them to not have headphones on. I want you to be talking to your teammate. I want you to continue developing relationships with your teammate. I don't want anything that's going to be distracting or where we're walking through the line at the Niner Walk people don't feel like we're interacting with them. Having a hood on may change people's perception. Not that that's why we're living, to make everybody happy. But I want to make sure that we're the most accessible program in the country and sometimes that perception may change if we're doing some of these things.

Making sure we're explaining why we're asking them to do it is important, and once they start to get that they're more apt to saying, "I may not necessarily agree with it, but I care enough about this culture and I care enough about Coach Healy and the relationship I have with the rest of the staff that I'm willing to do it because I think he's got a bigger plan than just how I am as a football player."

FootballScoop: You've touched on this already, but it's something I had planned to ask ahead of time so I'm going to go ahead and ask it. How do you self-scout yourself as a head coach?
Healy: I think you rely on others to give you feedback, but I go through the week and say, "How did I handle this situation? What was the outcome? Did I see signs of us not executing in practice that led to the game? Did I speak up fast enough? Did I make sure that no stone was left unturned during the week? How did that disciplining moment turn out? How did that week of practice turn out? How did that schedule turn out?

You judge, not always based on the outcome but did you get most out of the players and was it the right way to handle it? A lot of times after the fact as a young head coach you learn as much going through it, like with the bowl prep. You can have a bunch of people give you advice on how to handle it, but until you go through it I don't know if you really feel like you know how you should handle it. A lot of it is learning on the fly but being humble enough to understand you don't have it all figured out, and then being confident enough in your ability to overcome it that you're willing to take criticism from the people around you who you know love you enough to tell you the truth.

FootballScoop: You weren't pleased with how you handled the bowl prep, but how do you possibly wrap your arms around playing a bowl game in a foreign country, while also handling Signing Day, all with two weeks to prepare?
Healy: I think that were things I could have done to convince our football team that we were prepared better than what we were, from an organizational standpoint. A lot of the stuff I learned, to be honest with you, is from how Lance (Leipold) handled it at Buffalo. When you're staying at the same hotel as another team, from what I hear is a unique experience, those guys are going to walk around and talk about how much per diem they got. Our guys went to a bowl game with no gear. Our guys walk by the Buffalo guys with all this brand new gear and all that type of stuff while our stuff is still being ordered, and it was my fault. Buffalo guys got more per diem than our guys, so our guys are like, "Are we running it the right way? Are we really giving our players the best experience they can have or is coach just full of smoke?" How many practices did we have, before we left and when we got there?

Not that it's got to be like it's the national championship game, because I want them to enjoy the trip and want to work all year long to get back there, so I don't believe in over-grinding them during that time. But I do think there are ways that I could have made sure that a staff and a group of players felt like they were better prepared, and that the experience those guys had when they were there was second to none.

FootballScoop: From the outside, it looks like Charlotte has real potential to become something like the next UCF. Is that fair?
Healy: I agree with you. There's a lot of schools I look to as examples, there's a lot of really good schools in our league that have had consistent success. That's the point of building a program, that there's consistency. Not one year we win 10, the next we win four. We've got to build it to where every year we're in a conversation for conference championships and we're winning bowl games. I do think what UCF's doing, what Memphis is doing, obviously App is a school that's had tremendous success at the Group of 5 level. There's a lot of really good examples around the country of things people have done to change the face of a university. It's happening at a lot of different Power 5 schools, too, but what UCF has done, what they did when Scott Frost was there and what they've continued to do is they've changed what people think of an entire university.

What App State did by beating Michigan in 2007 changed the face of an entire institution.

I think we can do a great job as ambassadors for a university by putting Charlotte on the map, by people wanting to come see our university and pull for our program. We've got an unbelievable city, great resources, really good facilities that are continuing to grow. I do look at somebody like a UCF and say, "That's where I want to be." And I think it's a legit possibility at a place like ours.

FootballScoop: How do you prep for the interview process while you're already the head coach at Austin Peay. Guys spend their entire lives prepping for that first head job, but you were busy coaching your own team when the Charlotte job came open. So, it's not like you spent six months prepping for this one.
Healy: It's different going from an assistant to a head coach (versus) being a head coach already. You need to understand the differences in the job, maybe, but you don't have to make a head coach's manual anymore because you've been through a lot of those situations.

I handled the interview process a little differently (the second time around). I didn't put a head coach's manual on somebody's desk; I wanted you to understand, all right, throw a situation at me because at this level you don't have time to read a manual, you're going to have to make some impulse decisions that you feel like are the best way to handle it. If you've been through it, like a bowl game now, like certain situations in disciplining players, the recruiting cycle, how to handle a staff, how to hire or fire a member of your staff, then you've learned from how to handle it and you can off the cuff say, "This is how I feel like I would handle this situation." I think the biggest thing for me, is it a place I'm passionate about moving my family and working every day? And are they going to be committed to give you the resources to go where they say they want to go.

I made a point of emphasis when I interviewed for the Austin Peay job and when I interviewed for the Charlotte job, "This is me." I know that I'm going to answer questions that are not going to be politically correct. I'm not just going to tell you what you want to hear just so I can get the job because I feel like life's going to be miserable when I get there if I've sold myself off being somebody different than who I really am. This is me, it's either a fit or it's not. I was at a place at Austin Peay where it if it didn't work out with the Charlotte job I was really happy going back and building on what we'd started. I'm really happy at Charlotte and if it doesn't mean you're the head coach of the New York Giants one day, then I'm really happy where I am and I don't need to look for another job.