I’ve been covering University of Memphis sports for a decade now, and Saturday’s football season finale is the first time I’ve felt relieved by a season’s conclusion. There’s been disappointment before (2006 football), even heartbreak (2005 basketball), but this is the first time on my watch a Tiger team was overmatched — clearly inferior — from a season’s start to finish.
Along with relief, I ache for Larry Porter, his coaching staff, and particularly his players. I played for a few miserable teams — senior year in high school, my basketball team went 4-16 — so I have a degree of empathy for suiting up, listening to a game plan, and going to battle knowing you don’t have a chance. Such was reality for the 2010 Memphis Tiger football team and, sadly, the lasting reality for 21 seniors honored last Saturday before the final drubbing of their college careers.
The lone mystery to the 2010 campaign will be how the Tigers managed to beat Middle Tennessee for their lone win. (The Blue Raiders are 5-6 entering their season finale next weekend.) This was a team that went through a four-game stretch in the middle of the season in which the games were decided before halftime. (The Tigers’ deficit at halftime from the Louisville game to the Tennessee game: 35, 18, 32, 33.) The Tigers averaged but 14.4 points a game, while giving up a school-record total of 478 (or 39.8 per game).
It was a starless team, too. No player near 1,000 yards rushing or receiving, Marcus Rucker the top playmaker with all of eight touchdowns. Senior linebacker Jamon Hughes became a star in the way every natural disaster produces heroes. Hughes compiled more tackles (147) than any Memphis player since 1980. But what an ugly stat upon which to hang your helmet. Had the Tiger defense managed a few more stops each game, Hughes could have been resting his tired body — accumulating fewer tackles — and watching his teammates on the offensive side of the ball give him a chance to win.
I’m relieved to see the season end, if only for a temporary silencing of the twin refrains I heard so frequently over the last three months. The first: “You gotta give Coach Porter a few years to turn this around.”
Of course you have to give a football coach time to turn a team around. But what good did the sentiment do Porter — or those 21 seniors — this season? Think beyond this season and consider how the team’s juniors — young men like Frank Trotter, Ron Leary, and Jermaine McKenzie — might feel about “a few years” to turn this thing around? College athletes, particularly today, don’t necessarily have a few years. They have this year, this season, this weekend. And it was agony every weekend — save that glorious aberrant win on September 18th — for the 2010 Tigers.
The second common refrain? “The University of Memphis has to give up football. It will never happen here.” This is a selfish sentiment, with more to say about a fan’s devotion to a program than it does the program itself. Serious changes are needed with the Tiger program. (The stadium is too big, probably by 50 percent. But the school and city seem stuck in a partnership that helps neither.) But give up football in the heart of the Mid-South?
Whether or not the University of Memphis ever competes for a BCS championship — or even qualifies for a BCS league — football is as much a part of a southern college’s fabric as sorority row or homecoming. Perhaps the U of M has thought too big. Maybe a move to Division II should be on the table for discussion. Costs could be cut, overhead trimmed, expectations mercifully reduced. But the school would still provide an opportunity for young athletes good enough to play college football to do so at the highest level 99 percent of the football-playing population ever can. There would still be a team to cheer for the devoted few who were spotted — even after halftime! — at the Liberty Bowl all season long this fall. Tell those fans football should be eliminated at the U of M. I sure couldn’t.
I’m excited to see where and how Larry Porter picks up his program. I’m excited to see if Ryan Williams can become the college quarterback we caught glimpses of in this season of defeat. I’m excited to see the next conference win — it will happen — and the possibility of a winning streak, even if but two games. And I’m excited to see the new blood Porter (the acclaimed recruiter) brings to town. This excitement will build, oh, about eight months from now. But today . . . relief.