Charlotte football coach Brad Lambert isn’t sure what to expect when he steps inside Kansas State’s stadium later this week.
He knows that may sound silly, considering he grew up in Hoxie and played defensive back for the Wildcats in the 1980s, but it’s true. K-State football has changed so much since his college days that he’s not sure he will recognize the place, even though it’s his alma mater.
“I haven’t been back there in so long for a game,” Lambert said in a phone interview. “It’s crazy how long it has been. I toured some of the facilities maybe 10 years ago, but that’s it. All I have to go by is what I see on TV and what our defensive coordinator, Matt Wallerstedt (a former K-State player and coach) tells us. He gave us an idea on the atmosphere. He said we are going to be surprised by how loud it is and how much the crowd gets into it. I am excited to see it.”
The gameday environment will be dramatically different from what Lambert remembers. When he suited up for K-State, from 1984-87, Lambert didn’t play in front of many rowdy home crowds. He played in front of many empty seats during the Jim Dickey era, before Bill Snyder arrived in 1989 and built the successful winner fans support today.
His favorite memories include an interception against Vanderbilt in his first game as a freshman and the positive vibes that lingered from K-State’s first bowl trip in 1982. But the Wildcats only won six games while he was in school.
When he leads the 49ers onto the field at 11 a.m. on Saturday, it won’t be a trip down memory lane.
“It’s phenomenal to see what has transpired,” Lambert said. “It is a little different for me, because I was there before (Snyder) and I know how bad it really was. The job he has done is just phenomenal. It’s possibly the best coaching job anyone has done in college football, based on what they have done and how consistently they have done it. They have won for a long time.”
This will be a homecoming game of sorts for several members of the Charlotte coaching staff.
K-State will also be a familiar setting for Wallerstedt, a former Wildcats linebacker who went on to coach for the school under Ron Prince, and Charlotte director of football operations Trevor Lambert (Brad’s nephew). Trevor worked under Snyder as an equipment manager before graduating from K-State in 2008.
It is a fun connection for them to discuss before the game begins. They all have family from nearby towns coming to the game.
Still, they realize things might not be so cheerful once kickoff arrives.
“I don’t think they give anyone a warm welcome,” Lambert said. “That’s the way it’s supposed to be. I’m looking forward to everything about the game, except for the team we have to play. They have a top 20 team for a reason. They have got great coaches, great players and they looked great in their first game. Hopefully we play well and put ourselves in a position to win, but it’s going to be a tough chore.”
Charlotte remains an infant program in the college football world. It played its first game in 2013 as a FCS independent and later moved up to the FBS level in order to join Conference USA. Lambert is the only coach in team history. His record is 16-31.
The job comes with lots of challenges, but Lambert loves it. There is something special about building a program from the ground up, and he thinks the 49ers have a good foundation in place.
So does Snyder.
“I have great respect for what they have done, and, as much as anything, how they have done it,” Snyder said. “They have all the appropriate thoughts in mind. I don’t know much about their program. We haven’t competed against them before. But I know the three (K-State) coaches that are there. They are good people, and they have an excellent feel for the game.”
Lambert hesitated to schedule K-State when former athletic director John Currie suggested the game a few years ago, telling him that “I like Manhattan, but I don’t want to go back that bad.”
But as time went on and he saw his players win some games, he agreed.
Charlotte is coming off a 24-7 loss to Eastern Michigan and enters this game as a 35.5-point underdog. Still, the 49ers are thinking upset. That would make it a truly special trip home for Lambert.
“It’s going to be a tough challenge, but it’s also going to be a great game for our team,” Lambert said. “We are looking forward to it.”
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett