First the bad news: The upcoming football season is likely to be a long one for the University of Memphis. The good folks at Rivals.com rank all 120 teams in college football's FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision). And the local Tigers come in at 110, ahead of such world-beaters as New Mexico (112), Buffalo (115), and a pair of Conference USA rivals (UAB at 114 and Tulane at 118). Even if these prognosticators are off by 50 percent — and it happens — the Tigers would be barely on the cusp of bowl participation. And even if fans welcome new coach Larry Porter with open arms, they'll likely need a healthy dose of patience.
Now, as we've learned from every recession-damaged business over the last two years, with crisis comes opportunity. Particularly with a new sheriff in town — one who has tasted the champagne of a national championship as an assistant at LSU — the U of M program can use the start of a new decade as the launch point for a new era in the football program. Porter seems to have a sense of the challenge he faces. "A lot goes into building a program," Porter says. "Talent is certainly one of those elements, but there's also attitude and discipline. We have to enhance, strengthen, and grow."
As long as we're starting an era, why not make it the greatest Memphis fans have ever seen? Here are six ways this can be accomplished.
1) Seal the deal with a BCS conference ... and soon.
R.C. Johnson is the man who fired Larry Finch and hired John Calipari. The University of Memphis athletic director has proved to be a fund-raiser extraordinaire, with the U of M's Ambassador Club (donors of at least $500,000) now numbering more than 40. He has overseen dramatic improvements in facilities for baseball, softball, and yes, football (a new 13,000-square-foot weight room is scheduled to open this winter). But it has become clear that a large part of the longtime athletic director's legacy will be determined by whether or not the University of Memphis is a member of a Bowl Championship Series conference before he steps down.
Ask Tiger boosters about their wish list for improvements to the football program and, to a person, the first response is "BCS league." College football has taken on the landscape of professional baseball, with the "big leagues" (Pac-10, Big Ten, SEC, ACC, Big 12, Big East) and the "minor leagues" (every other conference, starting with Conference USA, a league formed with basketball in mind, before the likes of Louisville and Cincinnati scrammed for the brighter lights of a BCS conference). The dance for new BCS members has already begun, with the Pac-10 now home to 12 teams and the Big 12 down to 10.
When the nationwide game of musical chairs finally ends, the distinction between haves and have-nots in college football will only be more pronounced. (Just wait until the mighty SEC finally hooks new members, and consider the impact SEC expansion would have on a Memphis program stuck in C-USA.) BCS members will enjoy revenue streams from television contracts and bowl appearances that dwarf those of programs not invited to the party.
Say this for Johnson: He knows the importance of the Tiger football program for BCS consideration. At a luncheon in June, Johnson told boosters and media the cold, hard truth: "I'll tell you how we get into a BCS conference. First and foremost is academics. We've come so far; we don't have to hide anything academically. Then there's football. The BCS is about football. I don't care if we have 19 NCAA [basketball] championships, they want to know how we'll do in football. The third point is image and reputation. Number of TV sets, facilities, location. And how involved is the community?"
Knowing the importance of getting into a BCS conference and actually getting it done are two different things, but it's the first domino that has to fall for the U of M to get to the next level of college sports.
2) Downsize the Liberty Bowl (or build a new — and smaller — stadium).
It was a standard editorial cartoonist's image during the George W. Bush presidency: our 43rd president tackling the news of the day, wearing a cowboy hat about five sizes too large. Well, consider Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium the Tiger football program's 60,000-seat cowboy hat.
Over the last decade, the Tigers have played 63 games at the Liberty Bowl. Only 15 of those contests drew as many as 40,000 fans, and only one of them (a 2000 game against Tennessee) was a sellout. Ten of the 15 quasi-packed games were played during the four years All-America tailback DeAngelo Williams was breaking every rushing record in the U of M book (2002-05).
It's hard to sell a football program that plays in front of empty seats. The nadir of Tommy West's nine-year run as head coach came late last October, when the Tigers hosted East Carolina for a Tuesday-night nationally televised game. Fewer than 10,000 fans showed up for the game, which forced the ESPN cameras to spend over three hours locked onto the field (or sideline), essentially censoring the local disinterest for its audience of viewers.
Empty seats — even "only" 10,000 or 20,000 — discourage fans who do show up. They discourage boosters, players, and coaches. And worst of all, empty seats discourage recruits. An 18-year-old football player who has grown accustomed to stardom in high school yearns for two things as he considers scholarship offers: winning and adoration. The former can hardly be guaranteed, but the latter must be a given for a program to land the kind of talent that makes a long-term difference.
"Ideally," says Johnson, "I'd like to see a 45,000- to 50,000-seat stadium that's as customer-friendly as humanly possible. Jerry Jones built his stadium in Dallas, and I heard him say his first priority was his fan base." Johnson feels that adding chairbacks throughout the Liberty Bowl would reduce capacity but increase the comfort for every fan.
There are Tiger supporters — the most vocal being local banker Harold Byrd — who insist an on-campus stadium will transform the Tiger football program into one of relevance for the slice of Memphis community it represents foremost. Byrd and his backers may be right, or the location may be less critical than the facility itself. (FedExForum has drawn plenty of basketball fans every winter despite being miles from campus.) It's undeniable, though, that a smaller stadium would provide Tiger football an atmosphere at once more intimate and more charged.
Short-term, the U of M should consider what MLS does for soccer teams that play in NFL stadiums: Cover the nose-bleed seats. Drape a massive tarp over the seats that don't stand a chance of being sold. (Sell the space to sponsors.) Anything to eliminate the sense that Tiger football games are played in front of equal parts human beings and concrete.
(A note on the obvious: The annual Southern Heritage Classic and AutoZone Liberty Bowl can each fill a 60,000-seat stadium. It's time for the Memphis program to divorce itself from these interests. Whatever long-term decision is made for the Tiger football program, it doesn't necessarily have to benefit the SHC or ALB. "We've never tried to ramrod [a renovation] through," says Johnson. "I'd never do that.")
3) Stop playing SEC teams.
The smartest kid on the playground is the one who gets punched by the bully — once. He learns how and where to play without getting his nose bloodied.
Since 1990, Memphis has played 46 games against foes from the hallowed Southeastern Conference. And the Tigers have won 10 of these games. The U of M is 6-24 against Ole Miss and Mississippi State — not exactly perennial powers in the nation's strongest football league — over the last two decades. Since 1997, Memphis is a turn-your-head-away 2-22 against the SEC.
This isn't doing the home team any good. Sure, the Liberty Bowl might have a rare sellout, but at what price to the football program? Anyone sitting in the Liberty Bowl on November 9, 1996, will take memories of the upset over Tennessee to their grave. But the win has only made narrow losses since — one point in '99, two points in 2000, four points in '04 — that much harder to swallow. And the shellackings — 34 points in '06, 28 points in '09 — feel like a rude return to normalcy.
Johnson insists the home-and-home series with the regional big boys are worth retaining. "I think the gap is closing," he says. "With [the reduction to] 85 scholarships, with our facilities and coaches, I think we have a chance to get the players to compete at that level. From a financial standpoint, it's an incredible windfall."
Just like empty seats in a stadium, losses to SEC "rivals" only steer top recruits toward the SEC. Why make the decision so easy? Replace the annual SEC tilt with a team from the ACC, Big 12, or (dare I suggest) the Big East. And the further away the school happens to be, the better, as regional recruits are less likely to cross one team off their list of possibilities. If I'm R.C. Johnson, I'm on the phone with Baylor, Iowa State, Rutgers, or Syracuse.
4) Celebrate history . . . at least the good parts.
If you're a season-ticket holder, you can probably name the four Memphis football players who have had their jerseys retired. But if you can't, you could stare at the Liberty Bowl all season and not find out. (We'll post the answers next week at MemphisFlyer.com.) Why retire the jersey of a past great and not display his name and number? Smacks of that tree falling in the woods with no one around to hear it. One of these honorees — Isaac Bruce, newly retired from the NFL — is likely on his way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The Tigers have fielded three undefeated teams over the program's near-100-year history. They've played in seven bowl games and won four. But no paint brush has been lifted, no flag raised to honor the squads that have come to stand out in Memphis football history.
But this may change soon. "We have a committee of associate athletic directors," says Johnson, "and we're working on the overall athletic department's retired-number plan. We need to upgrade it, we need to improve it, and we need to get it up to speed."
History matters in sports, especially college football. One has to wonder if there would be the money passed around the BCS conferences from television and advertisers were it not for the gray images of Notre Dame's Four Horsemen, Army's Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside, or LSU's Billy Cannon returning that punt to beat Ole Miss and win the Heisman Trophy. The game's past greats — and great moments — are the fuel of tailgating conversation and the motivation for boosters opening their wallets.
Simply put, the University of Memphis must show more pride in its football heroes — however few they are — and be public about it.
5) Build a diner — a really big one — near the stadium.
I recently made my first trip to The Varsity in Atlanta, across an interstate from the Georgia Tech campus. For lunch on Saturday afternoon, a mass of humanity was lined up at a dozen registers along a counter 30 yards wide. And this was merely the overflow from the parking lot, where drive-in customers awaited delivery of their favorite grease-dripping delights. Packed to a fire code's limits in early July, you can imagine what this place looks and feels like on a fall Saturday when the Ramblin' Wreck is in town. The chili-cheese dogs are decent, and a "Frozen Orange" will make you reconsider the milkshake. But The Varsity thrives as much for what it is as for what it serves.
In Knoxville, you have Gus's Good Times Deli. In Ann Arbor, Michigan, Zingerman's Deli is on the itinerary for Wolverine fans. Here in Memphis? Near the Liberty Bowl? There's a sandwich shop squeezed next to a convenience store across East Parkway from the Fair Grounds. And you won't see any Tiger memorabilia there.
The closest thing to a gotta-be-there dining/drinking establishment for Tiger game day is any number of bars along the Highland Strip. But no single place stands out. I asked some of the most passionate members of the Highland Hundred booster club and did not hear the name of a place where Tiger football was part of the air you breathe on fall Saturdays.
At first blush, Tiger Lane appears to be a huge atmospheric improvement for fans arriving at the Liberty Bowl. You can picture Tiger alumni — including some former players — strolling along the greenway, talking up the program, comparing gameday attire, and exchanging memorabilia, all 586 tailgating spots filled several hours before kickoff. (Each spot includes a 10-foot-square patch of grass and electrical connections.)
Surely, there must also be room in the ongoing fairgrounds renewal for a Varsity-style diner that can attract some of these partying football fans as kickoff nears. And wouldn't a "Frozen Blue" taste sweet?
6) Find an offensive "genius."
Success in college football requires financial support, but it doesn't have to be the kind of figures that would make Warren Buffett blush. In 2009, Ohio State spent $32 million on its football program and finished ranked 5th in the country. The Buckeyes were ranked just behind Boise State — a non-BCS school — that spent $5.2 million on its program. As for the U of M, Johnson says $9.2 million went into the football program last year. And he points out that the figure doesn't include maintenance fees for the city-owned Liberty Bowl, a large chunk of the football budget for many schools. (For some perspective, the U of M spent $6.1 million on the men's basketball program.)
For programs outside the Buckeye tax bracket, it's important that points are scored in bunches. Sure, fans can rally around DE-fense, but touchdowns sell tickets. (Tackle for show, score for dough?) It's unlikely the U of M will ever be able to recruit the quantity of top-tier recruits that, when molded into a unit, can bludgeon an opponent with sheer size and athleticism. But the right kind of offensive brain — one who insists on creativity and originality in both formations and execution — can maximize even a thin roster and find points where a more standard scheme might not.
Considering the clouds he left under at Colorado, Gary Barnett is hardly the standard for a football program aiming to capture the attention of a BCS conference. But his achievement at Northwestern is worth remembering for any program griping about a "lack of resources" when it comes to building a winner. Coaching what amounts to an Ivy League team in the Big Ten, Barnett won a conference title, reached the Rose Bowl, and went 19-5 over two years (1995-96), before the program fell back to earth. The country's finest quarterbacks and tailbacks weren't suddenly flocking to Evanston, Illinois. No, Barnett and his staff ignored history and schemed their way into the nation's Top 20. (Another program to consider: TCU. As recently as 2004, the Horned Frogs were members of C-USA. Now in the Mountain West, TCU opens this season ranked 5th in the country.)
In 2009, the Tigers were held under 20 points in seven of their 12 games. And that was with the top two receivers in the program's history — Duke Calhoun and Carlos Singleton — chasing down passes. You have to go back to the 2000 season to find a Memphis team that scored so few points so often. And yes, that was the final season Rip Scherer ran things. Funny how scoring keeps a coach employed.
Here's hoping Larry Porter is, if not a genius, at least a game-changer. He has every incentive to make an imprint on the Memphis program, as there will be no second head-coaching job unless he shows at least moderate success at his first.
"You have to cater to your talent," Porter says. "For a long time, this has been a spread offense. But based on what we have, there are things we can do and things we can't. We have to be efficient, with no self-inflicted wounds. We want to be the toughest team on the field. We want to win with fundamentals, win with the running game and defending the running game."
Porter offers a provocative view when it comes to the most important position on the field, perspective that may hint at the new coach's standard for playing time. "The guy who wins the quarterback job," he explains, "is going to be our best decision-maker. There are certain characteristics and intangibles you can see [away from the field] that distinguish leadership." (Sophomore Cannon Smith was named the starter Monday.)
Two days before the start of his first training camp as a head coach, I asked Porter about the feedback — the requests — he's heard from Tiger fans over the course of his first eight months on the job. His answer was succinct, and it summarizes the culture of college football, at Memphis and everywhere: "They want a winning product."