Coach Biff Poggi turning over college football at Charlotte

Charlotte coach fired up after only getting asked 3 questions (0:19)

Charlotte football head coach, Biff Poggi, leaves his news conference in frustration after only receiving three questions. (0:19)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Amy Poggi remembers the first time her husband, Biff, wore a cutoff T-shirt on the sideline during a televised game.

It was during St. Frances Academy of Baltimore's 2019 season opener at Central High School in Miami, which was televised by ESPN. Poggi was packing his bags for the trip to south Florida, and she noticed him wearing one of his favorite T-shirts with cutoff sleeves and a way-too-deep V-neck.

"I'm thinking he has a polo shirt in his bag because all the other coaches were wearing polo shirts," Amy Poggi said. "I didn't really think too much about it. But when I turned on the TV when they were on ESPN, I saw him in that cutoff shirt.

"I thought to myself, 'Oh no. What did they think of his wife letting him go off looking like that?' But if they knew him, they would understand it. You just don't tell Biff, 'Hey, don't do that.' It sometimes can backfire."

That's exactly what happened at Poggi's new school earlier this year. When UNC Charlotte chancellor Sharon Gaber and athletic director Mike Hill saw Poggi wearing a cutoff T-shirt during a news conference, they asked his personal assistant to make sure the coach didn't wear one in public settings.

After Poggi learned of the request, he not only wore them in practices and news conferences but even in the official team photo. His players booed when he showed up in a polo shirt and refused to take a photo until he changed. Poggi wore a cutoff T-shirt in front of a national TV audience when the 49ers lost at Maryland 38-20 on Sept. 9. He'll be donning one again when Charlotte plays at Florida on Saturday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN+).

The university bookstore is selling sleeveless Under Armour versions of Poggi's shirt, and they're almost sold out.

"Biff is unique," Hill said. "That word is often abused, but I can safely say that Biff is unique, and I think his wardrobe reflects that on game day. What's happened is no surprise. It's become part of his persona, which our students love. It's a unique look, and it's unapologetically Biff Poggi."

Hill said Poggi suggested during his job interview he was going to wear a tie, black shoes and khaki pants on the sideline during games. Hill knew better.

"I was at Florida and Coach [Steve] Spurrier had his visor, and you've got Jim Tressel and the sweater vest and [Bill] Belichick has his cutoff hoodie," Hill said. "Coaches have their look right, and that's Biff's look."

Poggi's fashion statement could be worse. He acknowledged he shaves his upper body before preseason camp.

"I don't tolerate heat very well and it's hot down here, so I want as little stuff on my skin as possible," Poggi said. "During the hot weather, I'm always shaving that stuff off. It's just I don't want to drop dead of heat exhaustion in front of the players."

Poggi, 63, has spent much of his life challenging the status quo, whether it was in the cutthroat financial world or equally competitive coaching profession. There were no shortcuts along the way to his first FBS head-coaching position. Whether Poggi was building a hedge fund start-up, guiding Baltimore high schools to state titles or helping his good friend Jim Harbaugh turn around Michigan, he rolled up his sleeves, even if he wasn't always wearing them, and went to work.

Trying to build Charlotte into a consistent winner isn't going to be any easier.

"I like trying to fix things," Poggi said. "So much of what we did in business was seeing opportunities that others didn't see, or seeing opportunities that were really messed up that others did see, and trying to fix them, and that's the most rewarding thing to me."

The Charlotte football program was certainly broken. It was resurrected in 2013 after a 65-year hiatus, and the 49ers played their first two seasons as an FCS independent. After climbing to the FBS and Conference USA in 2015, the 49ers never won more than five games in a season under coach Brad Lambert. He was replaced by Will Healy, a hotshot FCS coach from Austin Peay, who guided Charlotte to a 7-6 record and its first postseason game, the Bahamas Bowl, in 2019. Then the bottom fell out and Healy was fired after a 1-7 start in 2022.

Poggi, who had spent the previous two seasons working as Michigan's associate head coach, was hired Nov. 15.

"If you get the Alabama job, I mean, you've inherited a Lamborghini," Poggi said. "I'm not so interested in inheriting Lamborghinis."

Because Charlotte's program is so new and so far behind more established programs in the FBS, Hill knew the 49ers had to think outside the box when hiring a coach as they prepared to take another step up in competition in their first season in the American Athletic Conference.

"I see him as an accelerant that we needed, and really a disruptor of the status quo," Hill said. "We saw it as potentially a high-reward hire."

The 49ers were like a beat-up stock car when Poggi took over. He completely transformed his roster, bringing in 70 new players, including 48 fourth-year transfers. Interestingly, 28 of Charlotte's new players were with Poggi when he coached at St. Frances Academy from 2017 to 2020.

Early struggles might have been expected. Charlotte's new players came from Michigan, North Carolina, South Carolina, Pittsburgh, Ole Miss, Notre Dame, Iowa, San Diego State and nearly everywhere else in between.

Poggi calls his team the "Island of Misfit Toys," referring to the kingdom of broken and flawed toys that "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" and his friends encountered during the classic Christmas special.

"Nobody wants us," Poggi said. "You got all these portal guys, you don't get in a portal unless it goes bad for you. Either your coach lied to you where you were before or you weren't as good as you thought or something didn't work out. And the team we had last year, the 50 guys we kept, they haven't had any success at all. I'm an old-fart coach that's been looked over for 63 years, so nobody wants me, either. So we're all in it together. We're the spotted elephant and the freaking train with the square wheels on it."

It's been a rocky start so far. After a 41-25 loss to Georgia State on Saturday dropped the 49ers' record to 1-2, Poggi said he is demanding better results. The team's lone victory was a 24-3 win over FCS program South Carolina State in the opener.

"This falls on me. I'm telling you right now, I'm on a warpath," Poggi told reporters after the Georgia State game. "I just met with our coaches, and we're going to get it done the way I want it done -- or either I'm not going to be here, or they're not going to be here. I am not doing this for the rest of the season.

"I'm the head coach. I'm the guy that hired these guys. I'm the guy that set the vision. I'm the guy that brought the players in. I'm going to change my approach going forward. Coaches are going to be graded much more strictly. They're going to be on a much tighter leash. If you don't like that, we'll get you another home. But I'm not doing this anymore."

FRANCIS XAVIER "BIFF" Poggi grew up in a lower middle-class household in Baltimore's Little Italy. The youngest child of Diana and Gabriel Poggi didn't have much interest in school -- he was expelled from eight schools by 11th grade for fighting, playing hooky and other sorts of misbehavior.

After he was booted from the eighth school, Calvert Hall, a boys Catholic high school, he wasn't enrolled in classes for more than a year.

"I was labeled as a troublemaker and then not intelligent, couldn't handle him, couldn't take any direction," Poggi said. "I don't think it was any of that really."

Poggi's life took an unexpected turn when a friend of his father's connected him with Alex Sotir, the football coach and athletic director at the Gilman School, a top all-boys high school that was known for preparing children of the city's elite for the Ivy League.

"My mom, who loved me to death, laughed and said, 'They don't take boys like Biffy at Gilman,'" Poggi said. "'That's for banking executives and old-money people.'"

They did take Poggi, and by his senior year at Gilman, he was a 6-foot-5, 260-pound offensive tackle. Poggi signed with Pittsburgh to play football for Jackie Sherrill. Dan Marino, Mark May, Russ Grimm, Jimbo Covert and Hugh Green were among his college teammates. Poggi hurt his knee as a freshman in 1979 and after two seasons transferred to Duke, where Spurrier was the offensive coordinator.

Duke also is where Poggi met his wife, Amy. After the couple married, Poggi worked as an assistant coach at Brown, The Citadel and Temple. By then, they had one son and another one on the way. When Poggi's mother was diagnosed with cancer, they returned to Baltimore. He became a volunteer coach and teacher at Gilman, making $8,000 annually.

Amy's father, Joseph Nix, was concerned Poggi wouldn't make enough money in coaching. Poggi had shown an interest in the stock market and Nix, a successful global textiles executive, taught Poggi the ins and outs of Wall Street.

With a $25,000 investment from Nix, Poggi launched Samuel James Limited in 1986. By the time he turned over its operations, to a few of his former players 30 years later, it was worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Poggi never drifted far from the football field. Even while managing the fund, he worked as an assistant coach at the Gilman School. He was his alma mater's head coach from 1996 to 2015 and coached each of his three sons. Gilman won 13 state titles in his 19 seasons. In 2016, Harbaugh hired him as an off-field analyst. Poggi's son, Henry, was a fullback for the Wolverines.

Poggi had a soft spot for another Baltimore high school, St. Frances Academy, located in a low-income area of the city. In 2008, while Poggi was coaching at Gilman School, he wrote St. Frances a $60,000 check to help fund its fledgling football program.

After just one season at Michigan, Poggi returned to Baltimore to take over St. Frances Academy's team in 2017. Poggi said he and his wife personally funded scholarships for 85 of his players.

Poggi's first St. Frances team went 13-0 and was ranked No. 4 in the USA Today national poll. The Panthers outscored their Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association conference opponents so badly, 342-50, that many refused to play them anymore. Administrators cited safety concerns and complained about Poggi recruiting players from out of state. Nineteen of his starters received scholarships in 2017 to FBS programs such as Alabama, Duke, Indiana, Maryland, Mississippi State and West Virginia.

Poggi returned to Michigan in 2021. After going 10-3 and playing in the Orange Bowl during the 2016 season, the Wolverines lost four games or more in three of the next four seasons. Worse, they'd dropped eight straight games to rival Ohio State. Harbaugh hired Poggi as his associate head coach.

That year, the Wolverines ended their long drought against the Buckeyes with a resounding 42-27 victory, won a Big Ten title and reached the College Football Playoff. They finished No. 3 in the final Associated Press poll with a 12-2 record. They went 13-1 and defeated Ohio State again, 45-23, last season.

When Charlotte hired Poggi, Harbaugh called him a "trusted agent and known friend." In a post on X, former Michigan punter Brad Robbins wrote on July 26 that Poggi was "responsible for a large amount of the Michigan turnaround as of late... MORE than anyone knows. Impacted everyone around him and worked behind the scenes."

"Whatever Jim learned from me, and I don't know if he learned anything, I learned 50 times more than that from him," Poggi said.

Before the 49ers started spring practice in March, Poggi gathered his patchwork team and told his players every one of them had been selected to play for him.

"The 52 [players] we've kept, I've handpicked you." Poggi told the players. "The 70 that we've brought in from the portal, I picked you."

The 49ers hadn't chosen to play with each other, though, and the first few spring practices were rough. Returning players told the new ones that they shouldn't be talking so much, while the new ones complained the old ones should be listening more because they'd never had success. Fights were as common in practices as Poggi's cigar smoke.

"We play a physical sport. There were a couple practices where things got physical," safety Wayne Jones said. "That's the nature of the game. Yes, it went a little too far at times, but I think those instances were needed to bring us closer together as a team."

Four former St. Frances Academy players are starting at Charlotte, including quarterback Jalon Jones, who was Jackson State's starter in 2020. He transferred once Deion Sanders and his son, Shedeur, arrived the next season. Eight more former St. Frances players are on the 49ers' two-deep depth chart, including defensive end Eyabi Okie-Anoma, a five-star recruit who played at Alabama and Michigan, and Jonathan Wallace, a 381-pound defensive tackle.

"It just speaks to who he is as a man more than who he is as a coach, you know what I mean?" said Charlotte defensive line coach Wayne Dorsey, who worked under Poggi at St. Frances. "Guys left St. Frances and went to different places and kind of got frustrated with the process, kind of tired of coach talk. They know [Poggi] is a straight shooter and a very honest, honorable man."

Charlotte's players also know Poggi has their backs. At AAC media days on July 25, Poggi repeatedly slapped a podium and was upset that reporters asked him only three questions.

"That's it? Three questions?" Poggi said. "Maybe that's because you have us ranked last, that's all what you think of us. So, we get that message, thank you."

Poggi abruptly walked off the stage. A sign is displayed prominently in Charlotte's team meeting room of predictions for its 2023 season: 12% chance to make a bowl game, 0.5% chance to make the AAC championship game and a 3-9 record. Players and coaches are wearing T-shirts with 2.5 printed on the back -- the over-under win total set by Las Vegas oddsmakers.

According to Poggi, Charlotte's players are required to take a multi-week financial literacy course. Upperclassmen are encouraged to complete an eight-week internship during the summer. More than 20 worked at Bank of America, Truist, Lowe's, Home Depot and other Charlotte businesses this past summer. Home Depot founder Ken Langone and Lowe's CEO Marvin Ellison have spoken to the team. Poggi gives his players eight weeks off during the summer to focus on something other than football.

"I think he really believes, and I think it's true, having known him for 45 years, that this is really his life's calling," Charlotte assistant head coach and special advisor Jonathon Jacobson said. "First of all, he's really good at it. But second of all, I think it's very purposeful for him. And that's why I'm here, by the way, because I think it's just very inspirational and it's a hell of a legacy to basically shape and mold young men into adults."

Jacobson, who attended the Gilman School with Poggi, co-founded an investment firm in Boston that managed more than $10 billion for university endowments, foundations, pension funds and other institutional investors. He was semi-retired when Poggi asked him to join his staff at Charlotte.

"I think his vision is that he's trying to make football what college sports should be, which is an avenue to prepare kids for the next 40 years of their lives and have them be productive members of society, good fathers and good husbands," Jacobson said. "He wants to prepare them for life, as opposed to the lottery ticket of playing in the NFL and retiring with an NFL pension, which we all know what the odds of that really are."