When Tommy West was fired as football coach at the University of Memphis in 2009, he predicted that "history will continue to repeat itself."
He was right, except that things got worse than they were under West and his two predecessors, and the decline happened sooner than almost anyone thought it would.
Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson fired his third football coach this week. Larry Porter completed two years of his five-year, $3.75 million contract. His record was 3-21. By the time he gets his buyout, Porter will earn $1.25 million per win, part of it paid by boosters. Only banks get better bailouts. Johnson and president Shirley Raines will hire a search firm to help find the next coach.
"I'm not going to give you a dollar figure," said Raines. "But we are committed to getting the best possible coach for this community."
Two years ago, that was Porter, a former Memphis player with no head-coaching experience. Nevertheless, he was hailed as the right man to turn the program around after West was fired.
Porter was "the obvious guy" for the job and "makes all the sense in the world" because of his Memphis connections and recruiting record, wrote Commercial Appeal columnist Geoff Calkins.
After firing Porter, Johnson praised him.
"I can't thank Larry Porter enough for the time he gave us, the energy he gave us. It didn't work out but it wasn't because he didn't give everything he had."
Here's how Porter's predecessors did.
West coached for nine seasons, compiling a 49-61 record. He won nine games in his best season but did not win the Conference USA championship. The last straw was a televised home loss to East Carolina in front of 4,100 fans, which seemed as low as a crowd could go until Porter's team finished this season in front of fewer than 3,000 fans. West was fired with three years left on a contract that paid him $925,000 a year. In his farewell press conference, he made his prediction and let his anger out about the program.
"Put something in it or do away with it," he said.
West replaced Rip Scherer, who was fired by Johnson after six seasons. His record was 22-44, including a win over the University of Tennessee and Peyton Manning. Scherer had two-and-a-half years left on his contract and got a $485,000 buyout.
"Put more money in the budget," Scherer said after being fired. "Do it for the next guy so that you are not sitting here five years from now with the same kind of meeting. That's the only way this cycle will stop."
Scherer replaced Chuck Stobart, who went 29-36-1, including wins over USC, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and Arkansas. He was 6-5 in each of his last three seasons in the days when that didn't qualify a team for a bowl bid. He was blamed for being boring and unable to excite fans.
"I never turned down a speaking engagement," said Stobart, who had two years left on his contract. He was 60 years old, and Memphis was his last head-coaching job.
So Memphis has tried the old guy, the nice guy, the tough guy, and the alumni guy. Four coaches in 20 years is about par in college football. Ole Miss and Alabama have each had five and Vanderbilt six. How can Memphis thwart Tommy West's prophecy?
Some say by hiring a big-name coach with lots of experience. Two such coaches fired this year are Houston Nutt at Ole Miss, which lost 31-3 to Mississippi State last week, and Rick Neuheisel at UCLA, which lost 50-0 to USC. An alternate approach would be to go after an up-and-comer such as Hugh Freeze at Arkansas State, which beat Memphis 47-3 this year. Freeze makes $210,000 and has won nine games with a much smaller budget than Memphis.
Two options that are not under consideration and were not even brought up at Monday's press conference are moving to a lower division or building an on-campus stadium as Central Florida, Louisville, Houston, and UT-Chattanooga have done. The 62,000-seat Liberty Bowl is too big to fail, and Raines has other priorities.
Memphis isn't getting out of football, but it isn't going all-in either. By its own measures, the university is doing well academically and in other sports. Enrollment has grown to 23,610 students, and the footprint has expanded to the law school downtown and the Lambuth campus in Jackson.
With three wins in two years and 7,000 fans total at the last two home games, football has nowhere to go but up.