“What we’re all about these days is the recruiting business.”
— University of Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson, November 9th
LSU running backs coach Larry Porter will be named the new head football coach for the U of M Sunday at a public press conference, to be held at 3:00 in the Mike Rose Theatre on campus.
The search for Tommy West’s successor came down to a pair of candidates: Porter and Washington Redskins defensive assistant Jerry Gray. If the top qualification for the new boss is recruiting, as R.C. Johnson suggested three weeks ago, the choice simply had to be Porter, the former U of M tailback. Porter has built his reputation on the hunting down and capturing of top prep talent (though Louisiana happens to be as fertile with football talent as any territory this side of Florida). Whatever skills Gray has developed in more than a decade as a pro coach . . . recruiting is not among them.
Beyond this obvious distinction between Porter and Gray, there’s another — maybe just as obvious — that would seem to give Porter an edge: he’s familiar with what he’s getting into. Gray played in college for Texas and in Los Angeles with the Rams as a pro. He’s been in the nation’s capital most recently, and has seen some dysfunction under Redskin owner Dan Snyder. But he doesn’t know University of Memphis football, or the love/hate/apathy the enterprise has come to embody among Mid-South sports fans.
Porter knows the program, one that will always play second-fiddle to the school’s basketball team, a fact that can be whined about as a burden to the football coach’s mission, or one that can be swallowed and accepted as bitter as it might taste. Porter played for some decent teams under Chuck Stobart, but during a time Penny Hardaway seemed to make every headline locally, let alone nationally. Porter will not be disoriented or confused the first time he runs out of the tunnel at the Liberty Bowl and sees 30,000 empty seats. He’ll know the job is to sell as many of those seats as he can, but in an environment — and among a population — conditioned to watch its football on TV first, if not in an SEC stadium. How exactly would Jerry Gray have sold the Memphis program to prize recruits with the jarring difference he’d see between NFL crowds and those at the Liberty Bowl?
Porter has twice been named National Recruiter of the Year by Rivals.com. That honor — again, based on R.C. Johnson’s public sentiment earlier this month — had to be the dealmaker. If Porter wanted the job, it was Johnson’s responsibility to give it to him.