The University of Memphis football program is at a crossroads. Over the last two seasons — under two different head coaches — the Tigers have won only three of 24 games. (The wins have come against UT-Martin, UTEP, and Middle Tennessee.) Over the next few years, the program will either grow into one worthy of consideration for inclusion in a money-making conference with ties to the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), or it will stumble along in front of more empty seats than spectators at the Liberty Bowl. For a sense of where the program has been — and where it's heading — we gathered thoughts from five recent Tiger stars. No one knows U of M football better.
DeAngelo Williams, running back (2002-05): One of only four players in NCAA Division I history to rush for 6,000 yards in his career, Williams had a record 34 100-yard games for the Tigers (nine of them 200 yards). He was named Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year three times. Williams is the career rushing leader for the NFL's Carolina Panthers.
Reggie Howard, defensive back (1998-99): One of the most inspirational stories in Tiger history, Howard suffered what appeared to be a catastrophic neck injury late in his senior season. He recovered fully, though, and went on to have a seven-year NFL career. As a member of the Carolina Panthers, Howard intercepted a Tom Brady pass in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
Brandon McDonald, defensive back (2005-06): McDonald was named second-team all-conference as a senior. Memphis went 7-5 and played in the Motor City Bowl his junior season, then went 2-10 his senior year. He was drafted by the Cleveland Browns in the fifth round of the 2007 NFL draft.
Martin Hankins, quarterback (2006-07): As a senior, Hankins led the Tigers to a 7-6 record and an appearance in the New Orleans Bowl. (Memphis won five of its last six regular-season games.) His 3,220 passing yards in 2007 is a single-season Tiger record.
Stephen Gostkowski, kicker (2002-05): Overshadowed by teammate DeAngeloWilliams, Gostkowski finished his college career as the most accomplished kicker in Tiger history, with career marks for field goals (70) and points (369, seven more than Williams). As a member of the New England Patriots, Gostkowski earned All-Pro honors in 2008 when he led the NFL in scoring with 148 points.
You're the University of Memphis athletic director and you have an unlimited budget. What's the first thing you do for the football program?
DW: Indoor football facility and a player's lounge. My lounge would be different. Wii games, X-box games. I'd want players to be comfortable and want to stay here more than they want to stay at their house. It's not the games, but guys being around guys. So when they're in the trenches, on the field, they can look to their left or right and feel like, "That's my brother." Sometimes you break off into small groups. But a player's lounge would bring everybody together. Teammates around the clock.
RH: Unlimited budget? I'd put it into the facilities and build a new stadium. That would create excitement and buzz, and I'd build on that buzz as marketing fuel and to help the recruiting process.
BM: Update the facilities, do a little renovating. Instead of having all athletes work out in the same facility, I'd separate things so that track, or baseball, or football would have its own space.
MH: The indoor facility is exactly what needs to be done. The weight room and the turf field were a great start, and this is the next step. When you take an 18-year-old kid and he goes on a visit to Ole Miss, he sees an indoor facility. That same kid goes to Memphis, and he doesn't see that indoor facility. He'll ask why this school doesn't have the same glamorous indoor facility. Competitively, we have to keep up with what other schools are doing around us.
SG: I'd put a stadium on campus. We're going in the right direction. Hired a great coach [Larry Porter], from a great program [LSU]. He knows a lot about winning. The recruits will follow. A new stadium would be a great selling point. We're heading in the right direction. It's exciting to be a part of, and hopefully we'll see some success from it.
What could the program do to be more attractive to top recruits?
DW: They're doing it. The weight room is second to none. The turf room. The indoor facility. The SEC doesn't offer anything but their facilities. There's nothing to do in the cities. Whenever Ole Miss kids want nightlife, they come to Memphis. We have a lot to offer; this city is booming. There's something to do every day. Once we get our facilities top-notch, there's nowhere to go but up. I know the day is not too far when I look up and we're in a BCS bowl game. They won't be able to shut me up.
RH: Winning games is big. The attractiveness of facilities is a key driver. Top recruits have to know they have the opportunity to take their games to the [NFL]. Those are the three things most kids look at when they're deciding where they're going to commit their next four years as a college player.
BM: Win, basically. When you think of Memphis, you don't really think of football. You think of basketball. If they can turn that around, recruits will feel more comfortable coming.
MH: The campaign to raise $10 million is very attractive. To recruit with the big schools, we've got to have that. The only way we can keep up with schools in our conference is to upgrade our facilities. When you go to Central Florida [in Orlando], it's unbelievable. The campus and everything. It's bigger, newer, on-campus. Everything about it is upgraded. It's where we need to go as a program.
SG: We just have to build on what we're doing with the facilities: the weight room and the indoor field. The recruits will come if we win. Coach Porter is a great recruiter, and he's running a tight ship. If guys buy into what he's doing, and we start seeing success, things will turn around in the right direction. It doesn't matter what your weight room looks like if you're not winning. We just need to get into a bowl game and compete for a conference title.
What drew you to the U of M as a recruit?
DW: It was the persistence of [Assistant Coach] Randy Fichtner. Memphis didn't send me a letter or anything; I didn't think they knew about me. But Fichtner took the offensive coordinator position at Memphis and started recruiting me. He had been recruiting me for Arkansas State. He sat down in my living room, and he said, "You have the talent to be the kind of player that will be sitting in this room three years from now, deciding whether or not to jump to the NFL." He said in four years, I could own every record at the University of Memphis. Now, when you're 17 or 18 years old, you're not trying to hear that. You want to hear if you're gonna start, if the atmosphere is good, if the parties are good.
I took visits to Ole Miss, Arkansas State, Iowa, and Arkansas. David Cutcliffe [at Ole Miss] talked too much about Eli Manning; I didn't really like where he was going. He was selling the program on having a quarterback; when you're 17, you want them to talk about you. He liked his quarterback too much. Iowa's facilities — football only — were second to none. But it was nine hours away, and it was mad cold.
Coach [Tommy] West was the only coach in the recruiting process to tell me he wasn't sure if I'd start. He said I could either be part of history, or I could make history. I put the pros and cons of each school in a hat. It was overwhelming for Memphis. Everybody wanted me to go to Arkansas, but it didn't feel right.
RH: I came to Memphis from Henderson State University, a Division II school in Arkansas. I walked on at Memphis under [Coach] Rip Scherer. It was my hometown. I wanted to support the university, be a part of doing something special in Memphis. I loved the fact that my family lived right across the street from the Liberty Bowl. I could hear them on the field; it was an added benefit.
BM: Coming out of junior college, I felt it was the right fit, as [the U of M] played the same type of defense we played [at Jones Junior College in Mississippi], so I thought I'd have a decent chance of adjusting to the scheme.
MH: Being from Hattiesburg, I remember going there as a kid, when Southern Miss played in the Liberty Bowl. What drew me was Coach West and his staff. I felt like it was home for me. I was able to fit right in. I was scheduled to go to the University of Houston, but Kevin Kolb was their quarterback, and something would have to happen to him for me to get on the field.
SG: I had been recruited by a couple of other schools — Ole Miss and Southern Miss — mainly for baseball. Didn't really have a good senior year in football. Out of nowhere, [Memphis baseball coach] Dave Anderson came and saw me pitch and offered me a scholarship. I talked to Coach West. The opportunity to play right away in two sports was exactly what I was looking for. I wasn't too worried about the name of the school. Memphis seemed to want me the most, and it felt right.
Is it critical that the Tigers become a member of a BCS conference?
DW: No, it's not. We just need to win football games. We build our fan base first ... 80,000 or 90,000. We've got a following, we just haven't been able to fill the Liberty Bowl yet. When we do, then we'll be ready for the BCS.
RH: When you come from a small [conference], a lot of people will think you're not as talented a player. That you're not playing against the top talent on a weekly basis. So yes, definitely.
BM: I don't think they're ready to be competing [in a BCS league]. I think they're in the right conference, and it will take a few years before they're ready to move up.
MH: We have to get back to bowl games and consistently win bowl games. We have to be at the top of our conference, year-in and year-out. Look at TCU 10 or 15 years ago. They weren't a consistent, winning football team. People remember the consistency.
SG: It would definitely help; I'm not sure how we'll get in. But with the basketball program and FedEx there, it seems like we'd be a good fit. To tell guys they have a chance to compete for a BCS bowl would be huge. It's tough to recruit against SEC schools in football, but we've had players come in and do just as well. It would be nice to compete with the big boys on an everyday basis.
Do you like the idea of an on-campus stadium?
DW: Whether we play on campus or off, we have to win.
RH: I'd be behind anything that will help the program succeed. I'm not sure what would benefit the university statistically or fan-base-wise. Whatever brings more fans out and gives the football community a better experience, I'm behind that.
BM: That would be good for students. Not sure if it would be good for the school. I could go either way.
MH: I love it, but I also love what they did with the Liberty Bowl [and Tiger Lane]. If we can't get an on-campus stadium, what they did with Tiger Lane needed to be done, and it helped out a lot, from a fan's perspective and alumni's perspective.
SG: It would make a huge difference if students could just walk to the game. The Liberty Bowl is a great stadium.
But to have an on-campus tradition, like most schools have, would be a huge selling point for students and fans. Southern Miss has a smaller stadium, but, man, do they know how to pack a stadium. It would be a great idea.
Is a 60,000-seat stadium too big?
DW: No, it's not too big. Boise State came from nowhere. We used to play TCU, and they couldn't fill their stadium. They built their fan base, and now they're in a BCS league. Winning solves everything.
RH: It's too big for the Tiger program today. If the Tigers were in a better league, that stadium might actually be too small. It's the league [Conference USA]. Based on the league we're in, and the teams we're playing ... the biggest crowds are when teams like Ole Miss or Mississippi State are scheduled.
You have to figure out which way we're going to go. If we're going to stay in this conference, do we need to reduce our [stadium] to reflect our fan base? Or are we able to move into a bigger conference and maximize the size of the Liberty Bowl?
BM: It filled out pretty well when I got here. I came when DeAngelo was a senior. [The Tigers averaged 39,991 fans in 2005.] Fans obviously wanted to see him. It was a good experience for me. I'd want to see the seats filled. It's a mind thing. You see the crowd, everyone to see you play ... and you want it filled.
MH: It's a good question. I go to some of the Southern Miss games here in Hattiesburg, and they have a smaller stadium, and they don't fill it. It's hard being in Conference USA. I don't think it's too big, because I think if we were consistently playing near the top of our conference, you could put 50,000 to 55,000 people in there.
Some stadiums become louder than others. I've been at the Liberty Bowl when Tennessee came, and it was packed to the rim. And I've been there when East Carolina came and there were 1,200 people. If you can put 45,000 to 50,000 people in that stadium, it holds it well.
SG: I love the Liberty Bowl, but I think someone would rather play in a packed 30,000-seat stadium than a two-thirds-full 60,000-seat stadium. It's the atmosphere. It's something you could call your own: Tiger Stadium.
Our fans are some of the best fans in the country, but we just don't have some of the numbers that bigger schools have. Tiger Nation is as die-hard as any other school. A smaller environment could help with the game-day experience. That's not a knock on our fans.
What are your fondest memories of the U of M program?
DW: The New Orleans Bowl [after the 2003 season]. I didn't play [due to a knee injury], but the atmosphere ... it was so crazy. I remember sitting on the sideline, looking up in the stands. I broke down in tears when they started singing "I'm So Glad." This is what it's all about. One of the fans who goes to all our games, he bought his dad a ticket, and his dad had died 10 or 15 years ago. But he put his dad's hat in the seat next to him.
RH: The camaraderie and friendships among players. We felt like the team was our family. A lot of guys from that team are still bonded. You've got 15 to 20 guys from that program now coaching high school football in Memphis.
BM: My first time playing in the Liberty Bowl [against Ole Miss]. Just seeing a Division I field and seeing how the crowd reacted. It was heartwarming.
MH: Going to the [2007 New Orleans Bowl] my senior year, of course. But also going to Southern Miss and beating them, which was a pivotal point in our season, allowing us to become bowl-eligible. I'll carry that to my grave. It was a cherished moment for me, my family, and the team.
SG: Just the guys we had: DeAngelo Williams, Danny Wimprine, Mo Avery. I made a lot of good friends. Being around Coach West. And making a bowl game for the first time in 32 years. Then three bowl games in a row. The best moment, for sure, was beating Ole Miss [in 2003] when Eli Manning was there.
For the thoughts of one more Tiger star, check out the Tiger Blue blog at memphisflyer.com.
Schedule & Forecast
Sept. 1 — MISSISSIPPI STATE (7 p.m.)
Sept. 10 — at Arkansas State (6 p.m.)
Sept. 17 — AUSTIN PEAY (6 p.m.)
Sept. 24 — SMU (11 a.m.)
Oct. 1 — at Middle Tennessee (6 p.m.)
Oct. 8 — at Rice (11:30 a.m.)
Oct. 15 — EAST CAROLINA (6 p.m.)
Oct. 22 — at Tulane (2:30 p.m.)
Oct. 29 — at UCF (3 p.m.)
Nov. 12 — UAB (3:15 p.m.)
Nov. 17 — MARSHALL (7 p.m.)
Nov. 26 — at Southern Miss (3 p.m.)
New to this year’s schedule are Arkansas State (4-8 in 2010), Austin Peay (2-9), SMU (7-7), Rice (4-8), and Tulane (4-8). Off the schedule from a year ago are Tulsa (10-3), UTEP (6-7), Houston (5-7), Louisville (7-6), and Tennessee (6-7). So the math would indicate the Tigers will be in more games this fall than they were a year ago when eight of their 11 losses were by at least 20 points. Three home games in September should allow Coach Larry Porter and his staff to identify problem areas in advance of a midseason grind that sees the Tigers playing four of five games away from the Liberty Bowl.
In terms of the Tigers’ standing in Conference USA, the first half of the schedule is merely prelude. Memphis faces all five of its divisional foes in the second half, starting with ECU on October 15th. Prediction: 4-8 (3-5 in C-USA).