After Norvell


Would you have had his Memphis football team not reach the American Athletic Conference championship game three years in a row? What about the Top 25 rankings, first after a 10-3 season in 2017 then this season, when the Tigers have risen to 15th in the nation. What about those first-team All-Americans Mike Norvell coached on their way to the National Football League? That kind of fun does wonders for a young football coach’s resume.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Mike Norvell

Norvell took Memphis football to heights the 104-year-old program never reached before his arrival four seasons ago. It’s precisely the kind of success that attracts attention from “Power 5” programs, those from, say, the ACC that play in bigger sandboxes (read: more TV revenue and such) with more spare toys (read: five-star recruits in line outside the training facility). Justin Fuente heard the siren call from Virginia Tech after merely four seasons at Memphis, and two of those ended with losing records.

After going 38-15 in his four years in blue and gray, Norvell had plenty of shine for Florida State. Until the last couple of years, FSU was one of the top 10 or 15 brands in all of college football. For $3.7 million per year, Norvell — still only 38 years old — is moving his family of three to Tallahassee, where a national championship is more likely than it is for a program that must play all but perfectly to claim merely one of 12 New Year’s Six bowl berths. (Take away a dubious call near the end of the Tigers’ loss at Temple and Memphis would indeed have a perfect season to date.)

There’s room for sorrow here, as Norvell has been a model Memphian, stressing “fit and family” since his introductory press conference, and the “hard-earned culture” he insisted would gain the Tigers national significance. But there should be no bitterness, no lingering pain over Norvell’s decision. If I’m turning heads on stage at Playhouse on the Square and a Broadway producer calls, damn right I’m heading north. And I love Memphis.

If you need to channel anger, direct it toward the NCAA. The governing body condones a form of tampering in which losing programs (like Florida State) can knock on the door of coaches at successful programs (like Memphis) before the latter’s season is concluded. The idea of Norvell not coaching the team he led to the Cotton Bowl should be repugnant to everyone outside the Seminole program, including those who run the NCAA. But recruiting is the lifeblood of college football, and the early signing period coincides with bowl season. Should the Tigers win the Cotton Bowl, Norvell’s ring will be in the mail.

As for finding Norvell’s successor, U of M athletic director Laird Veatch has a pair of clear guidelines, taken from the last two extraordinary hires. First, the new coach should have an offensive background. A creative mind is key in modern football, and more of these come from the side calling plays, not reacting to them. And the new coach should not be recently fired. An ounce of cynicism in the Memphis program is deadly. A candidate who checks both of these boxes will likely be calling the shots for Memphis in the Cotton Bowl: offensive line coach Ryan Silverfield. No need to make the latest Tiger football transition more complicated than it should be. Mike Norvell is gone, but a hard-earned culture should remain.

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