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Waiting for the first 49ers freshmen
The new Charlotte 49ers head football coach has no players to coach.
“Hardest part of the job,” he says.
So Brad Lambert dreams of the day when he will again have players dropping into his office in the morning and sweating through drills in the afternoon. He often finds himself staring at the ceiling at night, wondering what all of this is going to look like.
“Who are those guys going to be?” Lambert says. “Who can we beat in recruiting? That’s the sort of thing that keeps me awake.”
The 49ers will play their first-ever football game in a little more than 26 months - Aug.31, 2013, at home against Campbell. That game will mark the first of a three-game homestand that will spark thousands of tailgate parties. It will be a big deal.
Between now and then, Lambert and his staff will recruit two full classes of players and open a 15,000-seat stadium on the campus, 10 miles north of uptown Charlotte.
For now, though, Lambert must be content with the stacks of DVDs in the football conference room. Each one represents the highlights of a particular player he wants to recruit. The DVDs are carefully arranged by position, and the stacks at quarterback and at the offensive- and defensive-line position tower a bit higher than the others.
That’s by design.
“Your line of scrimmage and your quarterback - that’s what I believe you start with when you build a team,” Lambert says.
In person, Lambert, 46, laughs easily and smiles often. When asked what sort of cornerback he was at Kansas State, he says “not very good.”
He was actually second-team all-conference one year. But he quickly points out Kansas State only won nine games in the five years he was there (one of them was his redshirt season).
As a player, Lambert’s career ended on the Kansas plains. He was a 5-foot-10, 155-pound walk-on when he began at Kansas State. He ended his time there as a scholarship starter, but he was too small for the NFL. He has been an assistant coach practically ever since, most recently Wake Forest’s defensive coordinator.
Not many people recognize him when he walks through a door. Lambert is trying to change that one conversation and one speech at a time, slowly becoming the friendly face of a 49ers football program that still has thousands of tickets to sell.
The 49ers hired Lambert on March 1, putting their faith into an untested head coach to run the high-profile startup. He has had three offices at Charlotte since, each one of them a little better than the last, and is now ensconced in a place so new that the flat-screen TV on the wall wasn’t hooked up yet when I visited.
“It’s like buying a new car all the time,” Lambert says. “You need a desk? They take a new desk out of the box. Need a computer? They take a new computer out of the box. That will be good from a recruiting standpoint, too. We can tell people, ‘You’re the first one to dress in your locker. You’re going to be the first one to wear your helmet.’ There’s something to that.”
Lambert has had a few prospects unofficially visit the campus and expects more before long. He can show them where the stadium will arise now - it broke ground April 28 - and tell them how the equipment will gleam in the sun. What he can’t do is give them a place to play in 2012. Everyone who signs with the 49ers next February will be automatically redshirted.
“You have to jump that hurdle, there’s no question,” Lambert said. “All of these guys are used to being ‘the guy’ at their high school. They want to play. At least this will be a little different redshirt situation in that they don’t have to watch their buddies playing on Saturdays.”
That first class - mainly freshmen, but not all - will be significant in several ways.
“The nice thing about a startup program is there’s no older class that’s been coached by somebody else,” Lambert says. “There’s no bad habits. We’ll indoctrinate them. Then they’ll influence the young guys as we go along.”
What style will he play? The offense will be balanced, Lambert says. On defense - which has always been his specialty - he really warms to the question.
“We want to make people think we’re playing with 12,” he says. “We won’t tolerate not running to the ball aggressively. We want to knock somebody down, every play. Help ‘em up. Then knock ‘em down again the next play.”
While the 49ers already have a full 11-game schedule set for 2013 and 2014, what they don’t have is a conference. They plan to play in what was formerly known as Division I-AA for an undetermined period of time before making the leap to what was formerly known as Division I-A, but haven’t been able to join the Southern Conference or the Big South as a temporary football-only member.
The remaining options: Play in the powerful Colonial Athletic Association or else play as an independent.
“I kind of take that as a compliment,” Lambert says about the rejections from the Big South and the Southern Conference. “They might be a little nervous to play us.”
With or without a conference, however, Lambert knows when his first game is and where it will be played. Which of those DVDs turn into real live players, though?
That’s what he keeps wondering.
By Scott Fowler, Charlotte Observer