Will Healy getting on SEC coaching radars 'crazy to even think about'

Charlotte first-year football coach Will Healy, shown here during a loss at Clemson in late September, has guided the 49ers to the first bowl game in their short history. / AP photo/Richard Shiro
Charlotte first-year football coach Will Healy, shown here during a loss at Clemson in late September, has guided the 49ers to the first bowl game in their short history. / AP photo/Richard Shiro

Midway through the 2015 college football season, Will Healy was in his seventh year as a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga offensive assistant coach and had multiple thoughts racing through his mind.

Should he take over a Chattanooga-area high school in order to fulfill his desire of becoming a head coach? Should he get out of coaching altogether and find a different avenue to provide for wife Emily and their newborn son?

Now fast-forward to present day, when Healy was mentioned for the recent Southeastern Conference openings at Ole Miss and Missouri and is getting his first Charlotte 49ers team ready for next week's Bahamas Bowl against Buffalo. Oh, and he's in the early months of a five-year contract that pays him $700,000 annually.

"I don't know if I've taken a breath long enough to let any of this set in," Healy said. "It's been a whirlwind, and I don't even know if that's a strong enough description. Even when you have success, you're answering that next question in a recruit's home, which is, 'Are you going to be here?' It doesn't feel like you've been able to relax and enjoy what's happened this year.

"We had success at Austin Peay and are now in another job building, and a lot has happened in four years. I was in Chattanooga wondering which direction I would head and if there would ever be an opportunity to be a head coach, and now I'm answering questions if I'll be coaching in the SEC next year. That's crazy to even think about."

Crazy is a good place to start when detailing Healy's last four years, which began with Austin Peay tabbing the former Boyd-Buchanan all-state quarterback as its head coach on Dec. 20, 2015. Healy was a risky hire, given that he never had even been a coordinator, and he was taking a gamble by inheriting the worst Division I program this country had to offer.

The Governors were 1-34 during the three seasons before Healy's arrival, and an 0-11 debut for Healy in 2016 dropped that mark to 1-45. Austin Peay lost its first two games of the 2017 season to the FBS duo of Cincinnati and Miami of Ohio but then obliterated its 29-game losing streak with a 69-13 rout of Morehead State.

That eruption catapulted Austin Peay to an 8-4 second season under Healy that included a 7-1 record in Ohio Valley Conference games, and he was rewarded with the Eddie Robinson Award as the top coach nationally in the FCS. The Governors backslid to 5-6 last year, but that still marked the program's first consecutive seasons with five or more wins since 1984-85.

When Charlotte athletic director Mike Hill hired Healy last December, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney was first in line to praise the move. Swinney has guided the Tigers to a pair of national titles despite having never served as a coordinator either.

"This guy is as sharp as they come," Swinney said. "He's about all the right things. He's going to be awesome. Those players will love him, and I really believe that he will build something special there in Charlotte. He's one of the bright young coaches in the business, but more importantly he's a great person with a great family.

"Charlotte knocked it out of the park."

There were swings and misses early this season, as Charlotte stumbled to a 2-5 record out of the gate that included four straight losses entering the final weekend of October. A 2-6 mark seemed inevitable when the 49ers trailed North Texas 35-21 early in the fourth quarter, but they rallied for a 39-38 triumph and then topped Middle Tennessee State 34-20 the following week.

The 49ers won those two games at home and then traveled to UTEP, where they fell behind 14-0 before rallying for a 28-21 win. Charlotte, which entered this year with an abysmal 12-36 mark as an FBS program, clinched its first-ever bowl invitation with a victory over Marshall and then polished off a 7-5 regular season by winning at Old Dominion.

Healy is having to balance bowl preparation with next Wednesday's early signing period, which was chaotic enough before the recent SEC speculation. Ole Miss introduced Lane Kiffin as its new head coach Monday, and Missouri did the same Tuesday with Eli Drinkwitz.

"To be honest, I had to explain what was going on more with my wife than anybody from a recruiting perspective," Healy said. "It's important to know that I'm committed to being at Charlotte and that I love being in Charlotte. It would have to take the perfect opportunity for me and my family and for our staff to leave.

"The only reason these rumors have happened is because the players in our room bought into what we are doing, and we won five straight games. I'm honored to be in those kind of conversations, but nothing was real enough to make anybody concerned."

There is certainly some sizable security with his boss, as Hill recently told the Charlotte Observer, "We are going to take care of Will Healy."

Charlotte and Buffalo will kick off this bowl season next Friday with a 2 p.m. start on ESPN. The 49ers have the highest-rated recruiting class in Conference USA, and the Austin Peay program that Healy built has advanced to the quarterfinals of this year's FCS playoffs.

It's all added to the dizzying success that Healy - who dressed up in scuba gear before making the Bahamas Bowl announcement at a team meeting - has produced despite his 20-26 career record. The next time an SEC school courts him, it could be with a lot more significant intention.

"Can you imagine what Nick Saban would do looking at me at SEC media days?" Healy said. "He would say, 'Who's this 12-year-old that this other school hired?' It was crazy to have to fend off some of those rumors, but I am very happy where I am.

"There is something to be said for the quality of life we have. Emily and I are very happy raising a family in a city that we can enjoy."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.

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