As Year Eight of the Tommy West era at the University of Memphis kicks off this Saturday, the words "Tommy West era" seem more appropriate than they once did. Now the dean of Conference USA coaches, West has three more seasons under his belt at Memphis than any of his 11 C-USA counterparts can claim at their current institutions. (And how about this for U of M stability: no school in C-USA or the SEC has had the same football and men's basketball coach as long as the eight years Memphis has had West and John Calipari in charge.)
The catch, though, in evaluating West's growing legacy for the Tiger program is that he has yet to win a conference title or to even reach the C-USA championship game. Of course, with all the turnover in this "mid-major" league, UCF's George OLeary -- coach of last year's champs -- is the only current coach who has had his hands on the trophy.
West -- and anyone associated with the Tiger team -- would like to see matters change in 2008. Having taken the program to four bowl games in five years (twice the number Memphis had seen in its history prior to his arrival), West recognizes a league championship as the necessary next step in closing the gap between a perennial C-USA contender and the big boys that compete for national championships.
Says West, "I want to have this program positioned so if we get in a BCS conference, we don't struggle for five or six years; we're ready to compete."
A victory in Oxford this Saturday would be a stride or two in that direction. Sure to be energized by the arrival of former Arkansas coach Houston Nutt, Ole Miss will treat the Tigers like SEC teams always have: as the snot-nosed cousin begging for a backyard brawl, but hopelessly underweight. The Rebels, though, are not expected to contend in the SEC's top-heavy western division, so the underweight cousins will consider Vaught-Hemingway Stadium a staging ground for their own launch party.
Tiger fans will get their first glimpse of Arkelon Hall, the junior-college transfer West insists is a pass-first quarterback, one blessed with a receiving corps that could be the envy of C-USA. Mobile for a big guy (6'3", 220), Hall will supplement a green backfield led by transfers Curtis Steele and Charlie Jones. But his primary responsibility will be finding an open receiver among the pack led by juniors Duke Calhoun and Carlos Singleton and seniors Earnest Williams, Steven Black, and Maurice Jones.
An experienced offensive line -- led by preseason All-C-USA pick Brandon Pearce at tackle -- should keep Hall's adjustment to Division I-A football relatively free of grass stains. (Memphis allowed but 14 sacks a year ago, and hasnt allowed as many as 15 sacks since 2003.)
West says his chief concern is his defensive backfield. Memphis was ninth in pass defense among C-USA teams last season and will face an early test when Rice comes to the Liberty Bowl -- with all-conference quarterback Chase Clement and wideout Jarett Dillard -- on September 6th. With four seniors in the secondary mix (Brandon Patterson, Tony Bell, Michael Grandberry, and LeRico Mathis), experience may reduce the big-play susceptibility that kept West's teeth grinding last year.
West considers UCF the team to beat in C-USA's East division. (The Knights were picked to play Tulsa for the league championship in the preseason coaches' poll.) So circle November 22nd on your calendar, Tiger fans. Any visit to Oxford is a big game for the Memphis Tigers. UAB, Louisville (prime time, Friday night!), and Southern Miss are always grinders. But if a league championship has become the top priority for the dean of Conference USA coaches, beating the champs is the top challenge for 2008.
"I want to coach until I can't compete anymore," says West. "And I want to win a championship here. That was my goal when we started. I want to see that through."