Crowd-surfing, strobe lights and blaring music: The hottest spot in Charlotte belongs to the football team

NCAAF

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — There is a madman loose in the locker room. He’s screaming and shirtless and he has a dad bod.

Around him, there is chaos. Strobe lights flash. The bass thumps and the crowd rises and falls with each beat. Cellphone cameras light the room, and players crouch between the tops of their lockers and the vaulted ceilings above. A sign is held aloft, passed between outstretched hands, hovering just above the madness. It reads: Club Lit.

The shirtless man is Will Healy. He’s the proprietor of Club Lit and has also just finished crowd-surfing, which began with him wearing the mascot’s head and tossing it into the crowd.

He’s also Charlotte’s 34-year-old head coach.

“Some people think it’s a clown show,” Healy, FBS’ third-youngest head coach, said. “But it’s genuine for me, and it’s genuine for us as a team.”

There’s plenty Healy wants people to know about Charlotte 49ers football, and the first thing is that it’s no clown show. This team won seven games — including its past five — and is playing in a bowl game for the first time in the program’s seven seasons. And it’s not just any bowl game. They’re going to the Makers Wanted Bahamas Bowl (vs. Buffalo on Dec. 20 at 2 p.m. ET on ESPN), which for a team like Charlotte might as well be the Rose Bowl.

There’s talent here, too — from sophomore QB Chris Reynolds (21 TDs, 10 INTs) to defensive end Alex Highsmith (second nationally with 21.5 tackles for loss and 14 sacks). But Healy also knows that there aren’t many folks eager to learn about a 7-5 team in Conference USA with no real football history to speak of, so selling all the genuinely good things about the program requires some marketing — a flashy bit of branding to pique your interest.

All of that brings us to Club Lit.

“That was one of the goals when we got here, is it’s all about branding,” said Carter Crutchfield, Charlotte’s director of football relations. “People only know what you tell them. You’re in the city of Charlotte, we have so much to sell, but we had to find an identity. Club Lit really turned into a viral thing.”

That wasn’t exactly the plan when it all started, of course. The genesis of Club Lit was simply to find a way to get players who hadn’t won much to be excited about Saturdays, and that all began at Healy’s last stop, which just so happened to be, by most any metric, the worst Division I college football program in America.

Healy was not yet 30 when he took over as head coach at Austin Peay, a program that had lost 34 of its last 35 games prior to his arrival. The team proceeded to drop its first 13 games under Healy, too. That 13th loss — a 31-10 defeat to Miami (Ohio) — was especially galling. The team had practiced so well that week, but by Saturday, there was nothing in the tank. The players were listless. Healy held a meeting with his leadership council the next day. He wanted to know what went wrong.

“Coach,” one player said, “we haven’t had any reason to be excited about Saturdays in a long time.”

The point was simple: Winning isn’t easy, and anyone who thinks otherwise has never suffered through 29 straight losses. So when, a week later, Austin Peay finally won a game — 69-13 over non-scholarship Morehead State — the Governors celebrated like they’d just won the Super Bowl.

That’s the moment the seed was planted for Club Lit.

“The energy in that locker room is ridiculous, man. It’s something I’ve never seen before. Hearing the coaches speak, the players — even the mascot is riled up.”

DJ Alan White

Healy took over Charlotte’s program a year ago with a similar plan to celebrate every win in style. The staff batted around ideas, but took notice of a similar post-win celebration held by the Chicago Bears. Crutchfield combined that with a bit of guerrilla branding he’d seen on social media dubbing the school “Char-lit,” and the idea came into focus. Crutchfield reached out to a local DJ who worked with the Carolina Panthers and suggested a plan.

“They wanted a way to reward the players for a win,” said Vinny Esposito, owner of Split Second Sound. “They just said, ‘Can we make this happen?'”

Esposito was game for anything, so he came up with a battle plan. He assigned one of his proteges to the job. The DJ would show up at halftime. If Charlotte was winning, he’d start setting up the sound system and lights. If the score held, the party started the moment players entered the locker room. If it didn’t — well, that gets a little complicated.

“The last thing I want to do is still have it set up [after a loss] and just add to the disappointment,” said the DJ, Alan White.

So White left early during Charlotte’s 45-27 loss to Conference USA champ FAU, and things were touch-and-go throughout a back-and-forth 39-38 win over North Texas. But for the most part, the plan went off without a hitch. Charlotte finished 5-1 at home this season, due in no small part to the excitement created at Club Lit.

“It had a big driving factor in motivating players, something to look forward to in the locker room after a win,” White said. “The energy in that locker room is ridiculous, man. It’s something I’ve never seen before. Hearing the coaches speak, the players — even the mascot is riled up.”

The energy translates well to social media, too. Video clips of the post-win celebrations went viral, with a shirtless Healy floating across a sea of hands as music blared and red and green beams of light whipped around the space. This was a college football locker room?

Creating viral moments is the ultimate form of guerrilla recruiting for a program like Charlotte, which lacks the history or national prestige to have its pick of top talent and needs a little help getting the word out. Club Lit won’t be what ultimately sells a recruit on the program. That’s Healy’s job, and one he did exceptionally well at Austin Peay. But getting that first glimmer of interest, convincing a kid to listen to the sales pitch for Charlotte — that’s where Club Lit’s presence in Twitter and Instagram has a real impact.

“I’ve got people hitting me up trying to come here now,” said DB Marquill Osborne, a transfer from Tennessee. “They see Club Lit and they’re interested before they even know about the program.”

Reynolds was home for a visit during the 49ers’ off week in November and went to see his old high school, an hour or so outside Charlotte. He’d just engineered a 28-21 win over UTEP, and again the party in the locker room made the rounds on social media. Word had clearly spread north up Interstate 85, where his old team was riveted by the clips they’d seen from his new team’s celebrations.

“They all came up to me asking what Club Lit was all about,” Reynolds said. “The word spreads, and everybody asks about Coach Healy and what we’re doing.”

Of course, there have been a few setbacks along the way, too. When Charlotte lost its Week 2 game at Appalachian State, the Club Lit sign was accidentally left in the Mountaineers’ visiting locker room. That was the last the 49ers saw of it. So a new sign was procured.

The popularity the program is enjoying can be a double-edged sword, too. Charlotte nabbed a prized recruit who was present during one locker room celebration, but the higher profile that comes with success also sparked some interest from bigger-name programs. The recruit flipped to a Power 5 school just before signing day. Charlotte isn’t sneaking up on anyone these days.

But as the 49ers’ late-season success took root, the viral videos from Club Lit offered the program something it never had before: an identity. This team had fun, but the fun only came after wins, and so the transitive property applied here. Charlotte was a team that won.

“When you win, you just want to do it again,” Reynolds said. “I feel like every time, not only did our wins get better, but Club Lit got more fun.”

Esposito said he’s already seen other programs interested in copying the idea. Club Lit t-shirts are now for sale at the Charlotte bookstore. The plan is to renovate the 49ers’ locker room for 2020, and Healy wants to center the design around the club atmosphere.

The real renovation work, however, has been on the field. That’s the big thing Healy wants fans to take from Club Lit. That neon sign, it only flashes when the team wins, and he’s hoping this year’s bowl trip is just the start of a lot more winning, a lot more Saturdays with the neon buzzing.

“It’s blown up,” Healy said. “Campus is enjoying it. It’s been on GameDay and all kinds of stuff. But more than anything, our guys are fighting to make sure that neon light is on in Club Lit.”

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