2023 Look Ahead — Coach of the Year: Biff Poggi brings much-needed hope to 49ers

The first-time college head coach brings a winning mindset to Charlotte

Biff Poggi, pictured in 2018 when he was coach of St. Francis Academy in Baltimore, will look to build the 49ers into a winner in Charlotte’s first season in the AAC. (Kevin Richardson / The Baltimore Sun via AP)

It’s not often that a college football team finishes with a 3-9 record right before transitioning to a stronger conference, but that is where the Charlotte 49ers find themselves heading into 2023.

After eight years in Conference USA, the 49ers will start their American Athletic Conference campaign next fall under the new leadership of Francis “Biff” Poggi — the North State Journal’s pick for 2023 Coach of the Year — who is taking over after Will Healy was fired after four seasons in Charlotte.

Healy’s rise — the team’s first bowl appearance in program history — and fall — the Niners lost 18 of their next 26 games — led to the 37-year-old being dismissed in late October after a 1-7 start to the 2022 season. Offensive line coach Pete Rossomando served as interim coach for the next four games, leading Charlotte to a 2-2 record.

Less than a month after the end of the season, Charlotte introduced Poggi, 63, as the man charged with fixing the 49ers while also adjusting to a new conference with more competitive opponents.

“We are not rebuilding but reshaping,” Poggi said at his introductory press conference. “The AAC is the best Group of 5 conference in the country, there’s no doubt about that. It’s a very exciting opportunity. Our goal is very simple: We want to win the AAC and we want to win it repeatedly, and we want to get to the College Football Playoff. That’s why I left Michigan and that’s what I’m expecting to do here. You should be asking what’s your timetable. My timetable is now.”

As associate head coach of the second-ranked Michigan Wolverines, Poggi — in his second season in Ann Arbor — helped the team to a 13-1 record and a spot in the College Football Playoff as coach Jim Harbaugh’s consigliere, right-hand man and personal mentor.

A history teacher-turned-hedge fund manager is certainly not your typical college football coach, but the former Pitt offensive lineman’s confident demeanor is what Charlotte believes it needs right now as the program limps into a new conference with a lot of question marks on the roster.

Poggi’s reputation as a born motivator and natural leader grew even stronger after two seasons with the Wolverines. Before joining Michigan, he gained notoriety as a high school football coach in Baltimore, where he led Gilman School to 13 state titles before founding the football program at St. Frances Academy.

It’s no secret that Poggi has his work cut out for him with the struggling 49ers, but UNC Charlotte Chancellor Sharon Gaber and Athletic Director Mike Hill have high expectations for what the Duke alumnus can bring to Niner Nation and University City.

“We are extremely fortunate to welcome Biff Poggi as our head football coach,” Hill said in November. “He is a transformational leader, has a sterling reputation as a coach and has had phenomenal success at the highest levels of college and high school football.”

Poggi has said he will hit the transfer portal hard as he attempts to transform the 49ers into a physical, run-heavy football team that can also stop the run. The Niners finished 10th in Conference USA last season in both rushing yards per game (116.1) and rushing yards allowed per game (205.8).

With senior quarterback Chris Reynolds and senior wide receiver Victor Tucker leaving, Poggi has two big holes to fill going forward. Bolstering the defensive secondary will also be a priority.

It’s all a tall task for Poggi, but the 49ers’ new coach hasn’t yet met a challenge he’s unwilling to take on.