The University of Memphis announced the dismissal of football coach Tommy West at a press conference Monday in the school’s Athletic Office Building. With three games remaining in West’s ninth season at the helm (he’ll remain on the sidelines through the end of the season), athletic director R.C. Johnson had seen enough to warrant a parting of ways. West enters his final three games with the Tigers owning a record of 49-58, having won only two of nine game this season (and only one over a top-division opponent, UTEP). His win total is third in Tiger history, behind Spook Murphy (91) and Ralph Hatley (59).
“I want to, first and foremost, thank Coach West for the years he’s given us,” said Johnson. “Coach West is class, dignity, and style. He’s elevated the program, which we asked him to do.”
You need only look at the common Tiger opponents between 2008 and 2009 to see how and why the university chose to sever the relationship with the longest-tenured coach in Conference USA. A year ago, the Tigers lost to Ole Miss by 17. This season, they lost to the Rebels by 31. Last season, Marshall beat the Tigers by a single point; this year the Thundering Herd won by 11. Memphis lost to UCF by seven in 2008, by 18 this season. And while the U of M beat Southern Miss last season (36-30), they lost to the Golden Eagles by 20 last month. While Memphis actually lowered its margin of defeat against East Carolina (from 20 to 19), it did so in front of a crowd that would have fit in the Elma Roane Fieldhouse. The gap between the Tiger squad and its competition is growing. The first step in slowing this trend, as always, is a coaching change.
The West era will hardly be considered a failure, particularly with the passage of time. Before West became coach in 2001, the Tiger program had played in two bowl games. He took them to five. (Second-tier they may have been, but ask West’s predecessors Rip Scherer or Chuck Stobart if they would have accepted a second-tier bowl invitation.) The most decorated quarterback (Danny Wimprine), running back (DeAngelo Williams), and receiver (Duke Calhoun) in U of M history all played under West and established marks that should remain in the Tiger record book for years.
But the Tigers have yet to win a Conference USA championship, the one blemish on West’s body of work that will be impossible to erase. If the Tiger program can’t compete for a second-tier league title (that qualifier again), discussion of a new stadium — on-campus or otherwise — is like selecting a tux without a prom date. The nationally televised loss to East Carolina on a rainy Tuesday night in late October — with fewer than 5,000 fans in the Liberty Bowl — was perhaps the loudest statement on this current season of free-fall for West and his team. To give up 56 against hated Tennessee in the Tigers’ next outing was merely kicking the corpse.
Shortly after Johnson’s comments at Monday’s press conference, West took the podium, and he didn’t need a microphone to be heard. “It’s not easy when you get fired,” he said. “It’s not a good day at the office.” For the next five minutes, West gave what amounted to a pep talk to the Memphis football community: boosters, fans, and media. It was a pep talk that grew in volume with each message.
“I’ve been here nine years, and I have a lot of good memories. We have some really good fans, but they have to step up now. When you’re the head coach, you can’t say some things, because it’s sour grapes. Now is the time to stand up for your program. I’m the seventh straight coach to stand up here and say this [having been fired]. History will repeat itself, folks, if they don’t do something about it. But our fans have to demand that the new guy be given a level playing field. Stobart stood here and he was a bad coach . . . but good enough to beat Southern Cal. Rip became a bad coach . . . but he beat Peyton Manning and Tennessee.
“At some point, we have to do the things necessary to make this program what we want, or do away with it. It’s too painful, for coaches, players, and people. Every day I’ve been here has been a fist fight.
“The other thing I’d say is, you have to take the negative out. I’ve coached a lot of places, and there’s a negativity here that, in the end, eats you up. In today’s game, it’s harder than it’s ever been to win. Don’t be negative. Ask what you can do to help the football program. Go to a game, and bring somebody with you. Give the next guy a fighting chance. Instead of writing the sarcastic articles, why not call me and ask what you can do to help this program? To our fans, demand that the next guy get a fighting chance, or give it up.”
As for the search for West’s successor, Johnson said he had no one in his “hip pocket,” but that he’d already been contacted by interested parties. “The goal is simple,” stressed Johnson, “to get the best coach available, as quickly as possible.” When asked why the decision was made with three games remaining on the schedule, Johnson emphasized recruiting. As for the influence of boosters, Johnson said, “If I went based on pressure from our boosters, I’d be doing something every day.”
Johnson added that head-coaching experience isn’t absolutely necessary among the criteria for the new coach. But skills as a recruiter most certainly are. “What we’re all about these days is the recruiting business,” he said. As for selling points for his football program, Johnson mentioned the “great city, great university, great media coverage, and a great airport.” He noted that recruits, by NCAA regulation, must now be flown commercially.
“If I had an answer for who will come in and win,” noted Johnson, “I’d bottle it and sell it. You have to go with your gut a little bit.”