CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Charlotte, the school that produced Cedric Maxwell, an unlikely Final Four appearance in 1977 and consistent NCAA basketball tournament teams ever since, wants to try its hand at football.
But it will only happen if the school raises a lot of money, quickly, in a lousy economy.
The school's board of trustees voted on Thursday to accept chancellor Philip Dubois' recommendation that Charlotte start a football program by 2013. But the unanimous vote came with qualifications: the school must raise about $45 million to pay for coaches, scholarships and a 12,000-seat, on-campus stadium.
So as Dubois and athletic director Judy Rose stood smiling in front of a backdrop with a new 49ers football logo and in front of a podium decorated with a green helmet, they both understood the difficult work ahead to end Charlotte's distinction as being one of the largest schools in the country without football.
"This is a transforming moment for this university," Dubois said. "We really need this community's support, so we hope they'll be there when we need them."
Initial support has been solid. Through Wednesday, the school had received commitments for 4,167 personal seat licenses at $1,000 each, nearing the goal of 5,000. But the school still needs major donors or sponsors to fill the rest of the void to allow the team to begin play in the lower-tier Football Championship Subdivision. The school's goal is to eventually play at the highest level of Division I.
It won't be easy. The city of Charlotte, the second-largest banking center in the country, has been hit hard by the financial crisis. Charlotte-based Wachovia was recently gobbled up by Wells Fargo, and Charlotte's Bank of America is struggling.
"I am the eternal optimist. We'll raise that money," Rose said. "And we're going to have a stadium on this campus. We can't do it without everybody involved, but who would have thought we would have had 4,167 [PSLs] at this point? ... I truly believe this will define this university."
The state school formerly known as UNC-Charlotte has been rapidly growing for years. It now has 22,000 students, with estimates that as many as 40,000 could be on campus in 20 years. For decades, groups have clamored to start football, and the school decided to take the plunge now despite the uncertain economic times.
"I wish we had started football in the '70s," board member Gene Johnson said. "If we don't start thinking about it now, it won't happen."
Rose said she dreams of following South Florida's path. A decade after forming a team, the Bulls moved to the Big East Conference and have been ranked in The Associated Press Top 25 the past two years.
Charlotte's sports teams have bounced around numerous conferences. The 49ers three years ago moved from Conference USA to the non-football Atlantic 10.
If the money is raised, Rose would need to find a conference for the football team and then hire a coach in 2011, who would put together the first recruiting class a year later. The team could begin play in the fall of 2013, possibly at Charlotte's Memorial Stadium until a campus stadium is built.
"For our athletic program today this decision today is comparable to the decision made years ago that we would become a research and doctorate-granting institution," Rose said. "Two milestones in the evolution of this university, and today is our day."