It’s natural to compare new Memphis football coach Mike Norvell to his predecessor Justin Fuente.
Both men were in their mid-30’s when they got the job. They were both successful offensive coordinators. They were both relative unknowns to fans but highly regarded within the industry.
They both inspired confidence based on their prior achievements working in successful, high level, college football programs.
There are a lot of similarities.
But there’s another, more cautionary comparison filled with parallels that no one seems to have noticed.
It struck me as I watched Norvell speak at his opening press conference.
Mike Norvell has a whole lot in common with Josh Pastner.
Pastner also got his first opportunity at Memphis in his 30’s. He and Norvell were both raised in Texas, and both got their coaching start in Arizona, in the PAC 12.
Unlike Fuente, both Norvell and Pastner got their jobs in the immediate shadow of perhaps the most successful coaches in their respective program’s history.
Both Norvell and Pastner were / are in the position of having to soothe the hurt ego of a fan base stinging from the sight of a beloved coach moving on to a more prestigious opportunity.
Fuente took over a program that some people legitimately thought should be disbanded whereas Pastner and Norvell took over programs that the community and athletic department were / are counting on to achieve the highest levels of success.
Fuente is shy, almost reclusive. Pastner and Norvell both seem naturally inclined to work the room, to shake hands, to make sure supporters of the program feel attended to and important.
Norvell can learn as much from Pastner’s experience as Fuente’s.
After watching Pastner navigate this terrain for the past 6+ years, I have some pertinent suggestions for Norvell:
- Don’t unnecessarily build expectations, but don’t make excuses either. At his initial press conference in 2009 Pastner talked about the fact that he didn’t want the program to have any “slippage” whatsoever. It was music to the ears of Tiger fans, but it wasn’t realistic. Pastner himself has acknowledged as much in recent years. He’s since harped on how the achievements of John Calipari can never be duplicated. Norvell should avoid both of these extremes. Don’t promise the moon, but don’t remind us that you can’t be as good as the last guy.
- Be accessible, but focus on what really matters. According to Geoff Calkins of the Commercial Appeal, Norvell has promised a more open program. That’s great. Perhaps in his zeal to market the program, Norvell will be more like Josh Pastner than Fuente. Pastner doesn’t turn down media appearances. He spent 20 minutes on the phone with me for this blog last year. He returns every single email. He does everything he can to help out anyone who asks. It’s actually pretty amazing. Fuente, on the other hand, focused on coaching football and preparing his team and not surprisingly happened to do an excellent job with both tasks. While it’s great that Norvell wants to accommodate folks, and I’m sure Tiger fans will genuinely love knowing more about their coach and their program, it’s most important that he win football games. Preferably lots of them. Norvell shouldn’t let the desire to please people get in the way of his primary focus.
- Pray that Tiger fans understand that they again have a first time head coach. Norvell ought not be too quick to remind folks that he’s never been a head coach before, but it’s a fact that Tiger fans should understand when setting expectations for next year. The unavoidable, harsh truth is that anyone doing a job for the first time is going to make mistakes solely attributable to their inexperience. I remember thinking about this fact as I watched Fuente in his post game press conference after losing to UT Martin in his first game. I remember thinking about this after Pastner’s first team was upset in a close game against an inferior UMass squad. Stuff happens, especially to the new guy. Tiger fans should adjust their expectations accordingly – but if they don’t, Norvell should remember #1. Don’t make excuses.
- Have a former head coach on staff. I’m in no position to make staff recommendations, but in looking at the success Justin Fuente had with bringing former head coaches onto his staff, I’d advise Norvell to do the same. Fuente was able to lean on guys like Darrell Dickey and Bill Blakenship as he gained valuable experience. Pastner had former Rice head coach Willis Wilson on his first staff, but hasn’t hired a former head coach for any of his subsequent coaching staffs. Norvell needs to bring in some vets to lean on as he grows.
- Be selective about bringing in Memphis kids. Again, I don’t presume to know the first thing about football recruiting and from what he said at the press conference I don’t think Norvell needs any advice from me about how to select guys that fit his program. Nevertheless it’s worth pointing out that when Fuente took kids, he made sure he took the right type of kid, guys he thought would flourish in the culture he created. In his early years it seemed Pastner recruited based on rankings and stars and was thus willing to take Memphis kids without careful enough consideration as to how they might handle the unique challenge of playing in their hometown. I say this because after watching the careers of Joe Jackson, Adonis Thomas, Tarik Black, Nick King and Austin Nichols, it’s fair to say that Memphis kids have not thrived in Pastner’s program. Norvell should be careful on this front and I’m sure he will be.
So for all the comparisons to Fuente that Mike Norvell heard yesterday and will continue to hear, for educational purposes the Memphis coach whose story he needs to learn from is still on campus.
His name is Josh Pastner.