Change in the Air

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Tommy West is among the most genuinely decent men I’ve written about as a journalist, and that includes the many sources and subjects I’ve met outside the sports arena. Which makes the countdown to his almost-inevitable ouster as University of Memphis football coach especially difficult. Last week’s embarrassing loss to East Carolina on a damp Tuesday night, in front of an all-but-empty Liberty Bowl (and on national television to make things worse), will likely be the game West’s critics recall as the shouts for a replacement grow in volume. The outcome surely indicates a growing chasm between the Tiger program and Conference USA contenders. And if the U of M cannot contend for a championship in a second-tier conference, ticket sales will continue to sag and the likelihood of joining a major conference will drop. The first person accountable for the team’s sagging performance, of course, is the head coach.

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If West is indeed dismissed, though, athletic director R.C. Johnson and university president Shirley Raines had better have a candidate who personifies improvement in mind. This would seem to make common sense: don’t let go of a known quantity — however he may be struggling — without a better option behind the curtain. The last time Johnson dismissed a football coach (Rip Scherer, after the 2000 season), he had West — with credentials from his days running the Clemson program — behind that curtain as Scherer’s defensive coordinator. Due respect to current coordinators Clay Helton (offense) and Kenny Ingram (defense), neither is remotely buzz-worthy. And neither would sell an extra ticket if named head coach.

The Tiger football program has so many leaks, on such a large scale, that a head-coaching change would be merely a sponge on a listing ship. A new coach cannot shrink the Liberty Bowl. (4,117 fans may look small in a stadium that seats 30,000, but in the 60,000-seat Liberty Bowl?) Boosters line up to give money to the the school’s basketball program (which is reflected in salaries like the one John Calipari enjoyed for nine years). The football program is in the hands of a smaller group of diehards, with pockets not as deep. And while a basketball team can be made with four or five top recruits, a football team’s two-deep roster requires 44 capable players recruited in the heart of SEC country. Sound like a job you’d get in line for?

You won’t find in this space suggestions for a successor to Tommy West. Unless you know the names on Johnson’s speed dial, coaching candidates are speculative at best, random rumor at worst. And either way, entirely unfair to the man still challenged with winning four football games this year.

Empty seats scream in a football stadium. As Johnson and Raines respond to those screams, we’ll see how mindful they are of a one-man fix being nothing short of fantasy.

• The closing of Memphis Motorsports Park by Dover Motorsports is a disturbing development, and not just for Mid-South race fans. There’s a Darwinian quality to sports entertainment in the new economy, just like any other industry. But sports facilities are especially susceptible, as they rely almost entirely on the two words – long companions — that have come to be somewhat of an oxymoron: discretionary income. As recently as 2006, MMP was thriving, with total attendance in excess of 600,000. But despite hosting an annual event on NASCAR’s second-tier circuit (currently the Nationwide Series), the park’s business model collapsed under dwindling profits. And consider the facility was run with fewer than 30 employees. Current Sprint Cup drivers Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, and Carl Edwards all won in Memphis, but star quality simply doesn’t sell like it once did. Certainly not enough to fund a yearlong operation like MMP.

The next local litmus test will be AutoZone Park, where the front-office has been turned inside-out and overhead reduced dramatically in the hopes of closing the gap between dwindling revenue and operating expenses. As much as summer baseball — like race weekends — feels like a given in our community, the enterprise is a matter of business. Here’s hoping the new management team at Third and Union has a tighter grip on profitability than Dover Motorsports did at MMP.

• I find the St. Louis Cardinals’ hiring of Mark McGwire as hitting coach to be especially dubious. Consider: the Cardinals are entrusting the tutelage of their hitters — including the best steroid-free (to this point) hitter in the game, Albert Pujols — to a former player who is on the Mt. Rushmore of the game’s “Steroid Era.” McGwire has been a virtual hermit since his retirement after the 2001 season, his biggest splash being the embarrassing testimony he delivered before Congress on St. Patrick’s Day in 2005. Now, all of a sudden, he’s prepared to face cameras and writers, day-in and day-out, for seven months, with questions about steroid use filling every thought bubble in every ballpark where the Cardinals play?

McGwire has built a reputation as a hitting guru from his home in California, and you’d like to think this will be a reunion with a happy ending. But with Pujols climbing the home run chart — and closing in on free agency — you have to wonder if proximity to a former player held guilty in the court of public opinion for cheating the game is healthy for either party.

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