Category Archives: Tiger Football

Zero Sum Game

With the University of Memphis enjoying unprecedented football success in the midst of a prolonged dry spell for its traditionally strong Men’s basketball program, the question has inevitably been asked:

Is Memphis now a football school?

The typical response, of course, is to deflect the question.

The typical response is to suggest that, like Florida, Wisconsin or Louisville; Memphis will find a way to achieve and sustain success in both football and men’s basketball.

Unfortunately, the evidence strongly suggests that’s unrealistic.

First, let’s define sustained success.

Let’s stipulate that a typical Memphis fan’s expectation is that Memphis should both qualify for the NCAA tournament and participate in a Bowl game every 4 out of 5 years.

There are 41 Bowl games (82 spots) and only 128 teams, so most fans rightly realize that qualifying for a Bowl isn’t that hard.

And there are now 68 teams selected annually for the NCAA tournament. Memphis fans have always expected to at least qualify for the Big Dance.

So, again, let’s use 80% (4 out of 5 years) in each / both sport as a measuring stick.

Would it surprise you to learn that virtually no other school at Memphis’ resource level succeeds at that rate in both major sports?

Point of fact: Of the 23 schools at Memphis’ approximate revenue level, only one has qualified for the NCAA tournaments in at least 4 of the previous 5 seasons. Furthermore, that school (Cincinnati) emerged from a BCS league (BIG EAST) and thus had a built in revenue advantage.

Consider the following:

  • Memphis competes in just one of two conferences (AAC / MWC) who attempt to field both high level men’s basketball programs and football programs despite the lack of a lucrative television contract.
  • The average athletic department annual revenue in the AAC / MWC is approximately $43m. Both leagues have relativity minor TV payouts.
  • The AAC / MWC revenue figures compare favorably to true mid-major and single NCAA tournament bid conferences like the MAC ($30m), but pale in comparison to so called “power” leagues.
  • In the SEC, the average revenue per athletic department is over $100m annually.
  • Having less than half the money of its wealthy major conference peers has consequences beyond not being able to retain coaches, build new facilities, pay for chartered planes, etc.
  • It also means dedicating less resources to marketing both basketball and football. It means less resources for recruiting high school athletes for both sports. It means less resources for compliance advisers to process high school transcripts for prospects for both sports.

The list goes on.

Indeed, the evidence indicates that schools at Memphis’ level essentially have to choose between men’s basketball and football when it comes to resource allocation.

Most, for obvious reasons, choose football.

Football success, it is rightly imagined, will lead to better conference and TV / media alternatives which will then lead to higher revenue which will then be used to enhance the entire athletic department.

In the meantime, however, basketball clearly suffers.

Of the 23 schools in the AAC / MWC, a startling 14 have earned zero or one NCAA tournament bid(s) over the past 5 seasons.

Houston, USF, UCF, Tulane, East Carolina, Air Force, San Jose State, Utah State, Colorado State, Hawaii, Nevada, UNLV, Wyoming, Fresno State.

Memphis’ college basketball neighborhood is basically a wasteland of woebegone programs.

Other than Cincinnati, only one other school of the 23 has more than 2 NCAA tournament appearances over that period of time.

San Diego State.

The Aztecs have been to 3 of the past 5 NCAA tournaments and qualified for Bowl Games each of the past 5 years.

San Diego State?!?!

Memphis fans like to be mentioned alongside Tennessee, Louisville, Ole Miss and Kansas.

Not San Diego State for crying out loud.

But the evidence suggests Memphians all need to get a better grip on the current landscape.

Not a single peer (AAC / MWC) institution outside of Cincinnati has hit the aforementioned 80% (4 out of 5) success rate in both sports over the past 5 seasons.

I talked to a high level administrator in the PAC 12 who formerly worked at an AAC school. He confirmed the difficulty of trying to win in both sports outside the major conferences:

“It’s very hard. How many non Power 5’s have a top 30 men’s basketball program and football program? There’s less money in all aspects and usually a smaller donor base. Less TV money. It effects academics, athletic training, etc.”

So the bottom line is this: if you’re the kind of fan who thinks Memphis should qualify for the NCAA tournament roughly 4 out of every 5 years then you’re asking them to be better than 21 of their 22 true peers.

That’s a 95% mark.

If you want them to go to 4 bowls every 5 years, you’re asking them to be better than 15 of those same 22 true peers.

If you’re asking them to do both, there’s literally zero precedent for it.

The Immediate and Long Term Future

Memphis’ conference commissioner Mike Aresco isn’t sitting still. Recognizing that the basketball product has suffered, the AAC is trying to improve its hoops reputation in the hopes of making it easier for league schools to qualify for the NCAA tournament. Towards that end, Wichita State is joining the league for the 2017-18 season.

Soon, Aresco will go to go to work on the TV / revenue situation. As a former TV executive, there’s some indication that Aresco is positioning the AAC to be the first league to take advantage of non traditional digital platforms such as Amazon.

I’m skeptical, however, that there are windfalls to be had in the current configuration. Instead of catching up to the so called “Power” conferences, the AAC may have to struggle along and be creative until the currently wealthy schools come back to the pack.

Indeed, the latest round of lucrative TV deals for conferences like the Big XII and ACC may ultimately represent the beginning of the end of an era. If you thought the last round of conference realignment was crazy, the next decade may be even less stable.

ESPN is hemorrhaging revenue and laying off large swaths of its staff in part because millennials don’t buy cable.  How much longer will schools like Kansas State, Iowa State, Texas Tech, etc. receive the equivalent of college athletics welfare checks? I’d be shocked if the college landscape doesn’t drastically shift again within a decade.

Of course, all this may come to a head much sooner.

In the meantime, Memphis fans might want to embrace the idea of being a football school and enjoy whatever success, modest or otherwise, comes along as a result of Tubby Smith’s efforts with the men’s basketball program.

 

 

Prominent Big 12 Columnist: “Memphis is a non-starter”

Lots of rumors floating around Memphis the last few months that Memphis is a strong candidate for Big XII expansion, which is almost certain to take place in a few months.

I’m not getting my hopes up, and one of the prominent journalists in the heart of Big XII country gave me another reason to remain skeptical.

According to Berry Tramel of The Oklahoman, Memphis is a “non-starter” for the Big XII.

In his weekly online chat, I asked Tramel about fan speculation that BYU, Boise, Cincinnati and Memphis could be added in order to bring the conference membership to 14 before adding a conference championship game and conference network.

Tramel had some harsh words to describe Memphis’ chances:

“Way down the list.”

He was not as harsh regarding the other candidates:

“Now, Connecticut is a different story. You put UConn and BYU into a Big 12 Network, and you’ve got a lot of eyeballs. Cincy and Boise State would be fine, too. But not Memphis. No football fan base. None at all.”

Someone should let Tramel know Memphis averaged over 43,802 per home game at the Liberty Bowl last year – a 29% increase from 2014 and higher than at least a dozen so called “Power 5” programs.

Also more than BYU, Boise, and Cincinnati and at least one current Big XII member (Kansas). But who’s counting?

Nevertheless, it’s always advisable to understand that when it comes to expansion rumors – those of the homegrown variety should be taken with a grain of salt.

 

 

For Memphis Football, Time to Get to Work

Justin Fuente and Paxton Lynch were all smiles on Thursday as Lynch announced his early departure for the NFL draft.

Easy for them to smile, they’re leaving.

For fans of the program, fans that have suffered through years of misfortune and inept football, the feeling was significantly less buoyant.

After all, less than 24 hours had passed since the shell of the program Fuente left behind was humiliated at the Birmingham Bowl. Humiliated by the 3 touchdown loss to an underachieving Auburn team, and humiliated by the headline grabbing shenanigans of Senior Reggis Ball – who wrestled an Auburn equipment manager after the game to steal a football.

Ball was later dismissed from the team, but proceeded to display the autographed ball on Instagram.

Let’s be real about what Reggis Ball did – nobody cares. He’s a 20 year old kid doing what 20 year old kids do.

But let’s also be real about what the last 24 hours reveal about the Memphis football program – all isn’t necessarily well.

Could new coach Mike Norvell be just the type of leader, recruiter and football coach that the program needs in order to take the next step forward?

Sure, I guess.

Could he also be a man hired to take over a program that drastically over-achieved with Lynch (potential top NFL pick) but that lacks the structural moxie to replicate even similar success going forward.

Kind of seemed like that in Birmingham, didn’t it?

Doesn’t it now seem likely that Fuente wasn’t all that impressed about what he was leaving behind?

After all, this was a team that lost 4 of its final 5 games with Lynch under center. And again, without crucifying Ball for acting like a kid, surely we can all agree that his behavior didn’t exactly display a program oozing with mature Senior leadership.

I was struck by what Fuente said just moments before hopping a plane to Blacksburg last month:

“I hope that the next coach comes in – and I hope that (the Memphis program) will be in better shape than when we got it, but it’s not perfect either.” 

If you watch the video it’s almost as if Fuente was going out of his way to emphasize that there are some issues here. The vapor trail he left behind him isn’t reassuring either.

Like ‘not perfect’ in the indoor practice facility still hasn’t been built or ‘not perfect’ in that the leadership and / or talent in the program isn’t at a level to compete for conference championships?

Or both?

Oh look, there’s conference divisional mate Houston winning the Peach Bowl over Florida State with a coach signed to a $3m per year long term contract.

Oh look, there’s a story about how BYU and Cincinnati are favorites for Big XII expansion and how the football program at Memphis “isn’t developed enough.”

Wonder where they got that impression?  Maybe they listened to that Fuente interview.

So welcome to the job Mike Norvell. Pay no attention to those guys in the lobby smiling ear to ear for the cameras. They’re even richer than you are and they’re not sticking around.

Grab a hard hat, time to get to work.

 

A Curious “Like” On Twitter From the Virginia Tech AD

A few days ago, during the final hours of the search for a new Memphis head football coach, I was listening to local host Gary Parrish discuss the situation on his 92.9 FM / ESPN Radio show.

Parrish was discussing the various candidates for the Memphis job – specifically sitting head coaches. Memphis was rumored to have interest in guys like Todd Monken of Southern Miss and Jeff Brohm of Western Kentucky. Parrish correctly made the point that it’s very difficult to get a sitting head coach to leave their current job – unless that coach is unhappy with his boss or perhaps with some other aspect of their current situation.

I’m an interactive listener, so I shot Parrish the following Tweet:

Whit Babcock, of course, is the current Athletic Director at Virginia Tech.

Whit Babcock had just hired Justin Fuente away from Memphis.

Within the hour, Memphis announced the hiring of Mike Norvell and I forgot all about this meaningless tweet.

Until tonight, when I got a notification on Twitter that someone had “liked” the Tweet.

That someone: Virginia Tech Athletic Director Whit Babcock.

See for yourself:

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So I guess Whit Babcock “likes” that he was able to lure a sitting head coach away from Memphis. That much seems obvious.

He ought to be proud of his hire. Fuente is one of only 4 sitting FBS head coaches to voluntarily change jobs this off-season.

What isn’t as clear is whether or not Babcock “likes” the idea that Fuente and Bowen had problems.

I also wonder how Babcock came across the Tweet in the first place – I guess he probably searches Twitter for his name. Makes sense, him being a public figure and all. Or maybe he was checking Gary Parrish’s mentions. I doubt that.

Let’s hope, for Bowen’s sake, that Babcock was simply giving thanks for someone recognizing that he did his job quite well during this go-round on the coaching carousel.

Norvell Parallels Run More with Pastner Than Fuente

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Here It Is: Your Mike Norvell Intro Presser Bingo Card

Today at 4:30pm new Memphis HC Mike Norvell is having his intro presser.

There’s literally nothing better than an intro presser.

Nothing.

Not marriage. Not falling in love. Not the birth of your child.

Nothing…is better than an intro presser.

So here at BBALLJONES.com we’re getting you prepared for Mike Norvell’s turn at the podium with a game of Intro Presser Bingo.

Enjoy – and good luck:

bingo

 

 

 

 

Is the Memphis Search Off The Rails?

There are several current rumors floating around about the Memphis job and none of them are good.

Let’s take them one at a time.

Rumor #1 – Memphis may name Darrell Dickey permanent Head Coach. Here’s the tweet from FootballScoop:

At first glance, this is not good. Dickey had a losing record in 6 of 9 years as head coach at North Texas. Sure, he built the program and won some games but generally speaking I’m not in favor of hiring coaches that have an established track record of losing football games.

At second glance there may be another side to this story, but I’m not in the mood for second glances at the moment.

Rumor #2 – The Barry Odom situation has completely fallen apart. Here’s the tweet from Tom Schad:

This also is not good. It appears that Memphis spent a lot of time wooing a guy that wasn’t ready to take the job. As I outlined in great detail this morning, that is a poor strategy.

Rumor #3 – Memphis could be considering a 55 year old Candadian Football Coach.

This is more speculation than rumor, but here’s a tweet from Dan Wolken:

He’s referring to Jeff Tedford, the former coach at California when Memphis Athletic Director Tom Bowen worked there. Apparently Tedford just quit his job in the Canadian Football League to pursue college jobs.

If true this is also not good. Jeff Tedford won a lot of games at Cal, but he flamed out after a few losing seasons and is approaching 60. He’s a west coast guy and has no connections to Memphis.

I’m not an ageist but the Memphis job requires a tremendous amount of energy.

Again, this is just wild speculation on my part with an assist from Wolken’s tweet. But just in case this is actually being considered I’d like to go on record now as saying this is a terrible idea.

Rumor #4 – Memphis isn’t actually utilizing a search firm. This is a mistake, but if true it explains why the 2 or 3 names being linked to Memphis are drastically unimaginative.

The formula for doing these things is pretty simple and Memphis should know it because they followed it last time. Go find a competent, energetic coordinator who is ready to make the jump. If that’s Odom, great. If it’s Riley, great. If not, keep looking but hire a guy like that.

But 55-60 year old recycled coaches that got fired at their last stops? Hard pass.

The bottom line is there hasn’t been a single rumor thrown out about this coaching search that would get anyone excited.

Maybe Bowen is working on something good. Maybe there’s about to be some good news. Right now, however, all the stuff leaking out ranges from weird to depressing.

 

 

Memphis Needs to Identify a Candidate Who Will Take the Job

There’s a key factor in talent recruitment that can be overlooked if the recruiter falls in love with a particular resume or qualification and thus becomes fixated on a certain set of candidates. For lack of a more succinct term, let’s call it the can we actually get this person to take the job? factor.

It’s important.

Memphis doesn’t necessarily appear to be understanding the can we actually get this person to take the job? factor as it searches for a head football coach to replace Justin Fuente.

Maybe they do and maybe they’re close to making a great hire that fans and supporters can all be proud of. For purposes of analyzing the Memphis search I’m making a lot of assumptions based on media reports and internet speculation.

That said, it appears Memphis has done some swinging and missing thus far. At least with one candidate and maybe with others.

For the better part of the last 5 years I’ve been a talent recruiter. I place professional candidates with corporations and business clients. In that role I’ve learned that the ideal candidate on paper is almost never the candidate that ends up getting placed.

The candidate that ends up getting placed is ideally the best candidate that you can get to take the job. 

Seems obvious right?

I say ideally because you could always end up with less than the best candidate that you can get to take the job.

That’s not a good thing. You want to avoid that.

Take for example Larry Porter. Certainly there were better candidates who would have taken the job.

For example Hugh Freeze. Hugh Freeze wanted the Memphis job when Porter was hired.

That would have been better.

But that’s about judgement and vision and intuition and other things. I’m not talking about that here.

That’s not my point.

My point is that Memphis needs to identify a coach who will actually take their job.

Barry Odom seems to be a terrific candidate for a few reasons. He’s familiar with the Memphis program, having worked there for 3 years. He’s popular with boosters, players, administration – and offers continuity.

The problem, which by now everyone knows is that Barry Odom really wants and might get the Missouri job. In fact, Odom wants the Missouri job so much that he isn’t willing to take the Memphis job.

At least not yet.

Oklahoma Sooners Offensive Coordinator Lincoln Riley’s name emerged on Tuesday night in connection with Memphis. He’s considered to be a rising young star in the coaching profession.

Problem: It was reported about an hour later that South Carolina, it of the mighty SEC, is also interested in Riley.

Translation: Riley probably isn’t coming to Memphis. Or at least not until he makes sure, like Odom, that he can’t get that coveted SEC job.

Make no mistake though, if Riley can get the South Carolina job he doesn’t want the Memphis job.

In fact, if Riley can even get serious consideration for the South Carolina job it probably means he isn’t coming to Memphis. After all, South Carolina could be the best P5 job left out there and his candidacy for it is an indicator he’s going to get a P5 job somewhere.

So my guess is that Riley wants the Memphis job less than Odom does.

I could be wrong. But if I’m right it means Memphis may be in the habit of targeting candidates they can’t get.

That’s a bad habit.

There are currently 7 “Power 5” jobs open. Missouri, South Carolina, Rutgers, Syracuse, Miami, Maryland and Virginia.

What this essentially means is that there are at least 7 jobs better than the Memphis job. Better facilities, better money, better access to the playoff.

So what should Memphis do?

Memphis should probably rank the available candidates 1 to, say, 10 or 15. Count down the list to about 8, and start calling.

Think of it as a draft board.

The further down you go, the more genuine the interest in the Memphis job. After 7 or 8 you’ll start encountering people that will actually take the job.

It’s a crucial component.

Memphis needs to line up somebody they can get. Someone that isn’t going to then turn around and use Memphis’ interest to get involved or re-involved in another search at one of the aforementioned P5 schools.

Once that guy is lined up, if Memphis wants to spend half a day calling their top candidates (Odom, Riley, etc…) and offering them a take it right now or leave it forever proposition, fine.

If they take it, great.

If they don’t, hire that other dude you lined up.

Maybe Memphis is doing this. Based on the media reports however, it doesn’t seem like it.

It seems like they’re wasting valuable time on people that don’t want to take their job.

 

I Love the New Coach. Who is the New Coach?

I love the new Tigers coach. I am optimistic about his ability to continue building on what Justin Fuente created over the past 4 years. He’s likely going to recruit well. He’ll maintain and further grow a culture of winning. He’ll position Memphis for a “Power 5” conference invitation. He’ll likely lead the program to prestigious bowl wins. He’ll be the coach that goes down in history as the one that established Memphis in the upper echelon of the sport of College Football.

Who is the new coach?

I have no idea.

But I’ll believe these things. I’ll imagine these things. I’ll argue about why these things are true – and I’ll convince myself that it’s a blessing in disguise that Justin Fuente left.

I’ll do this if the Tigers hire Barry Odom.

I’ll do this if the Tigers hire Lincoln Riley.

I’ll do this if the Tigers hire some coordinator I’ve never heard of.

I’ll do this if the Tigers bring back Larry Porter, sign him to a lifetime contract – and immediately buy $10m worth of air time to run the “Join the Revolution” television spots on a continual loop.

Yep, I’ll do it.

I’m a fan.  That’s what I’ll do.

I’ll get excited about LITERALLY WHATEVER THE ADMINISTRATION DECIDES TO DO.

It’s why I was on the local news from a sports bar in 1994, as a 17 year old, when Memphis hired Rip Scherer – telling the reporter how excited I was about the “new era” in Tiger football. Finally, someone with some youthful energy.

It’s why I attended Larry Porter’s introductory press conference some years ago and believed he was “the answer” for the Tiger program. Finally someone with recruiting chops.

It’s why Tennessee fans got excited about Derek Dooley – even though he was a below average coach at a Sun Belt school. Finally someone with reverence for the traditions of UT and the SEC. 

The coaching carousel affords insanity.

The coaching carousel affords hope. It affords justification and rationalization. It affords blind faith. It affords staying up until 2am, incessantly checking Twitter and the accounts of blog writers from Colombia, Missouri and other such remote locales.

Did you know Sonny Cumbie is potentially a candidate for the Texas offensive coordinator position? I’ve read 29 articles about that. In the last 3 hours.

It affords watching YouTube videos of candidates for the purpose of building the psychological structure articulated above.

The coaching carousel is a bumpy ride. It may carry on for days, it may be over in minutes.

But when it does end, it ends hopefully.

Always.

 

Fuente Dumps Memphis for Virginia Tech

It was a bittersweet day for fans of Memphis Football.

The Tigers beat SMU 63-0 for their 9th win of the season, but during the game, ESPN reported that Justin Fuente has accepted the head coaching job at Virginia Tech.

It seems some folks around town don’t expect fans to be emotional about all of this. Perhaps they forget what “fan” is short for.

And yes, I realize I sound like a jilted lover. That’s kind of how these things go.

Word of Fuente to VT had been leaked days ago and apparently the deal is so far along that Fuente’s staff at VT is already being assembled. Apparently two of outgoing coach Frank Beamer’s lead assistants will be retained.

With all this swirling, lots of questions remain unanswered for the Memphis football program:

  1. Why are Memphis fans and media members (on Twitter anyway) so resistant to complex emotions or nuance? Maybe it’s just the nature of social media, but why can we not acknowledge that Fuente did a historically awesome job at Memphis, that he should be praised for doing so, and still be critical of the fact that he now appears to have almost certainly been negotiating specific details of his exit from Memphis while his team was still competing  – perhaps in games with significant meaning?  Why can we not appreciate his immense success and be sad about the way it ended? Why must everything be so cut and dried? After all, how many other currently employed coaches accepted new jobs today? Zero.
  2. When did Fuente accept the VT job? We’ll probably never get an answer to this question, but I think Memphis fans are simply curious to know when Fuente decided to take the VT job. Both Fuente and VT Athletic Director Whit Babcock referred to today’s report as premature, not inaccurate. The coordination of all this makes the jilted lover (Memphis fans) wonder about some things. For example, was he discussing his next staff, or next salary while preparing for Houston? For Navy? For Temple? After the emotions wear off, nobody will really care – but it’s natural to be curious.
  3. Who is hiring the next coach at Memphis and are they prepared to move quickly? Let’s set aside the debate about whether or not we’re allowed to be upset that Justin Fuente’s departure was announced during the Senior Day game before the players themselves were told. The eventual concern is about what happens next and the first question becomes who’s in charge? Is it Athletic Director Tom Bowen? President David Rudd? A search firm? Or is it the select group of influential boosters that worked with the search firm last time around? Chris Vernon mentioned on his radio show this week that if Barry Odom, Fuente’s former D Coordinator, isn’t coming, than the process is going to be handed to a search firm. Hopefully Memphis is prepared to move quickly – because they’re in a highly competitive environment and preparation will be rewarded.
  4. Speaking of the Memphis Athletic Department, are things OK over there? I’m not entirely plugged into this, but there’s a rumor that ground breaking for the new  indoor practice facility has been delayed (remember Tommy West asking for an ‘equal stick’ ?) Athletic Director Tom Bowen has lost multiple members of his senior staff over the past year and there’s reason to speculate they may have been unhappy – not just moving to the next best opportunity. Bowen himself was a finalist for the AD position at California last Spring. Josh Pastner is in full lame duck status and now it appears Justin Fuente was in an outright sprint for the door. One has to wonder about the mood and vibe at Southern & Normal. Has Bowen known about Fuente’s departure as long as Pat Forde and Brett McMurphy have? And if so, doesn’t that mean he should be ahead of the curve in finding the replacement. And if not, why not?
  5. Are we sold on Odom as Fuente’s replacement? Odom did a terrific job at Memphis and in his one season at Missouri. Hiring him would certainly be a way to maximize continuity while transitioning from the Fuente era. Yet it’s also undoubtedly true that the most successful coaches come from the offensive side of the football – a trend only intensified with recent evolutions in the college game that emphasize tempo and scoring. Odom’s mentors – Fuente and outgoing Missouri coach Gary Pinkel – were both offensive coaches. If Memphis is going to roll the dice on a defensive guy like Odom, hopefully they have a plan in place for the objectively more important side of the football.
  6. If not Odom, whom? Who might a search committee recommend for the Memphis job? Rumors have connected UAB’s Bill Clark to the Memphis job. Apparently Clark worked miracles in Birmingham before the powers that be pulled the plug on the Blazers program. I wonder about the validity of those rumors. They seem planted. Would the committee look towards a CUSA-level coach like Clark, or a MAC coach such as Bowling Green H.C. Dino Babers?  Would a MAC level coach make the small jump to an AAC program such as Memphis? Probably not – given the number of P5 openings. Would that leave Memphis looking to another youthful offensive coordinator (as Fuente was) such as Baylor’s Kendal Briles? There’s also the retread option (think Houston Nutt, Gene Chizik) but I would urge Memphis not to go in that direction. Coaching at a G5 program like Memphis is a grind, and requires someone with a ton of energy – not a guy looking for a golden parachute.
  7. When will we know more? Now that the news out of VT has broken, Memphis fans deserve some communication from the administration. Not to mention what Memphis players deserve. These guys work their tails off and put their trust in grown millionaires. Here’s a tweet that came across during the game from Freshman RB Ja’Marious Henderson:

Hopefully, everyone will know more tomorrow about where this all stands.

Break ups are hard – sometimes it’s best to just get it over with.

If Fuente is Gone, Pardon Me For Not Feeling Grateful

Geoff Calkins just came forth with his take on Justin Fuente’s seemingly imminent move to Virginia Tech. Calkins essentially calls on Tiger fans to express gratitude for all that’s been accomplished and wish Fuente well as he (likely) moves on to the next step in his career.

It’s an entirely rational, mature, gracious response. And he’s probably right.

I’ve always praised Calkins for being balanced. He ripped John Calipari for his ethical shortcomings, but praised him as a coach. He ripped RC Johnson’s failures as an athletic director, but has generally promoted the University and openly roots for its athletic success.

And yet, I’m still not entirely with Calkins on this one.

Even though I want to, I’m not feeling as gracious as he seems to think I should. Perhaps I’ll get there as the emotions subside – but there’s a troubling timeline to Fuente’s departure that Calkins didn’t fully address in his column.

The Memphis football team was undefeated until 3 weeks ago, which presumably (I certainly don’t know this for a fact) was around the time Fuente was considering Virginia Tech’s offer to replace Frank Beamer as head coach.

Again, rumors are that Fuente to Virginia Tech is a “done deal.” So if that’s the case it had to be negotiated in the past few weeks – at the latest.

The few weeks in which Memphis lost 3 straight games to Navy, Houston and Temple.

Was Memphis distracted against Navy? They didn’t look distracted, but they didn’t look good, either. Navy is really good though, so no big deal there.

Was Memphis distracted against Houston? They didn’t look distracted, but they certainly collapsed at the end. I guess you could say that kind of stuff happens.

Was Memphis distracted against Temple? I’ll let you answer that for yourself. But I’d say distracted is a kind word for what Memphis was at Temple.

If Memphis lays an egg against SMU, it will mark the 2nd time in 4 years as head coach that Fuente’s team totally collapsed at the end of the season – or to use his term – dropped the rope.

It’s a steep fall from 8-0, dark horse playoff contender to 8-3, going nowhere fast.

And now to learn that the coach was planning his exit during the fall. It stings.

The logical and sane response to all this is to say:

That’s just the way of the world.

That’s just how the coaching industry works.

Coaches negotiate during the season because they have to.

Why should coaches be held to a different standard than normal employees at normal jobs?

Let me be clear – all of that is absolutely, 100% true.

But I don’t have to celebrate it. And I don’t have to glorify it.

If I left my employer before the job was finished, they might thank me for the good work I had done – and might even wish me well. But they might be a little upset that the job wasn’t, ya know, finished.

I appreciate the job that Justin Fuente has done. It may be the best rebuilding job done in college football in several decades.

I thank him for that, and I do wish him luck at Virginia Tech.

But I’m not about to glorify a guy that’s leaving after 1.8 winning seasons – before the job was really finished.

And pardon me if I don’t feel particularly grateful at the moment.

 

 

 

Thoughts on Fuente’s Contract Offer

News just broke from Geoff Calkins at the CA that the University of Memphis weeks ago offered Justin Fuente a new deal that would offer a significant pay increase. Calkins’ sources now say the offer is in the $2.5m range (some had apparently said the offer was around $3m, but the CA article has been updated to reflect the $2.5 figure).

Reading between the lines of Fuente’s quote in Calkins’ article, it seems he’s basically saying: I’m considering the offer and I’m going to consider the other offers that will (inevitably) come along, and then we’ll see where we’re at. 

That’s an entirely reasonable and honorable way to deal with the situation – and consistent with what Fuente has said all along.

It’s a little mind blowing to consider that Memphis has possibly placed itself in a position to retain Fuente, but think about the various areas in which the administration at Memphis has narrowed the gap between itself and some P5 programs.

Facilities? Memphis is about to break ground on a new indoor practice facility and coaches offices on south campus. Will they be as nice as Alabama’s? Surely not, but they’ll be new and presumably more than adequate.

TV Exposure? Memphis Football has basically been on National TV for two months running. The American Athletic Conference has seen a 36-percent increase in the number of games that attracted at least one million television viewers. Memphis has been a part of 4 such games. That’s a lot of eyeballs and should enhance recruiting immediately.

Salary? $2.5m is a lot of cheese and it would put Fuente’s compensation on par with some of the best in the country. Consider that, according to USA Today’s coaches salary database, the head coaches at Nebraska, Utah, Boston College and Wisconsin all make in the range of $2.5m currently. So ultimately Memphis is prepared to pay its football coach what some legitimate P5 football schools are paying their head coaches.

So with all that being said, what now actually separates the Memphis job from those at Missouri, Virginia Tech and South Carolina?

The simple answer is 3-fold: tradition, fan support and better access to the CFB playoff.

But that’s about it at this point. The first 2 can be built and may be seen as a positive or a negative (with tradition comes expectations, sometimes unreasonable ones). The last one (access to playoff) is a serious consideration – and maybe that’s what compels Fuente to eventually move up.

Almost certainly, Fuente would jump at the opportunity to coach at a transcendent place like LSU, or Texas, or Georgia or Southern California.

He’d have to, wouldn’t he?

But perhaps this offer – and the other factors above, will make him think really hard about leaving the Bluff City for a place like Missouri, South Carolina or Virginia Tech.

After all, according to USA Today, outgoing legendary coach Frank Beamer himself made $2.7m this past year at Virginia Tech. Are they going to pony up $3.5m for Fuente?

And what Memphis also offers – and what Fuente has indicated he values – is the opportunity to become legend in the same way Beamer became a legend – by building his own program, in his own image – not taking over someone else’s.

Perhaps Fuente will see things the same way.

 

13 Thoughts on Friday the 13th

  • Well, Tiger Basketball season is about to tip off – and this blog is still here. So now I’m going to type some words.
  • Just got word that Missouri coach Gary Pinkel is out at the end of the year. There are already a lot of great openings that perhaps don’t make sense for Memphis’ head football coach, Justin Fuente. Miami’s culture just doesn’t seem like a fit with Fuente’s style. Southern Cal is considered too good to pass up and while there’s probably truth to that, Fuente isn’t a west coast kind of guy. Does he really want to follow Spurrier at South Carolina or Beamer at VT? For one reason or another, I’m just not sure these, albeit attractive openings, make complete sense for Fuente.
  • On the other hand, Missouri makes sense. Former Memphis Defensive Coordinator Barry Odom is on staff and former Associate AD Wren Baker is part of the administration. Missouri is an SEC job now, and right in the heart of Fuente’s known geographic footprint. Though the SEC is tough, Missouri did win the east in 2 of its first 3 years. I think this is a good job and I think it would probably interest Fuente.
  • I haven’t written much since last basketball season ended. A day job and other responsibilities / distractions got in the way.  This blog is still a nebulous enterprise, but the recent addition of Scott Hirsch as a contributing writer has me reinvigorated – for at least the present moment.  Check out Scott’s piece on why you are stupid.
  • I’m glad I wasn’t trying to write about the Tigers’ 8-1 (so far) football season – because I’m at a loss for words about it. I’m obviously enjoying the hell out of it and though it would have been great to keep the undefeated season going, having been a Tiger football fan for 30 years instills some perspective.
  • So the proper perspective is this: no matter how the next month unfolds, this season has been a clear turning point season for the Memphis football program. Memphis is now (perhaps along with a few others) a clear leader among so called “Group of 5” athletic programs. That’s worth something in the world of conference realignment.
  • On the other hand, Memphis has always seemed a little late to the party and perhaps this is no different. Conference realignment will surely happen again – but in light of recent events at the University of Missouri and in light of the overall instability of the amateur model and in light of the potential downfall of the sports TV model – the future of college athletics has never been murkier.
  • Despite all the uncertainty and upheaval anticipated in college athletics – Memphis is well positioned for future success based on the fact that they finally have a well put-together, successful football program. That wasn’t the case 4 years ago – and it wasn’t clear that it would ever be.
  • The ultimate optimism is that even if Fuente leaves, he’ll leave behind a program that will continue moving forward – a la Boise State after Dan Hawkins (the first coach to have major success there) left.

Now, on to basketball:

  • This is kind of a fun scenario: coach on the hot seat, low expectations, fly under the radar type of stuff. Of course, it only stays fun if the team surpasses said expectations, the coach re-emerges as a legitimate entity and the team shows up on various radars. Obviously, that’s the scenario Josh Pastner seems to be counting on.
  • If I’m looking for a reason to be optimistic (I am), I recall the stretch of basketball at the end of last season without Austin Nichols. Even without their leading scorer (Nichols) the Tigers played some inspired basketball at times- including during a late season win at Gampel Pavillion (UConn). Add McDonalds All American Dedric Lawson to the mix and maybe you’ve got something.
  • I don’t, on the other hand, take much from the quotes about how team chemistry has improved. This is a story that gets sold every year and I simply won’t believe it until I see it. Memphis basketball teams under Josh Pastner have never appeared to have terrific chemistry, even though some of his teams have won alot of games. I attribute this to over-coaching, so we’ll see if this group can play a loose yet determined brand of basketball. It would be a surprise.
  • If I’m looking for reasons to be pessimistic – I look no further than the fact that more than 1/2 of the roster has never played major college basketball before – and several of those pieces were after thoughts in recruiting. Add to that the fact that the returnees are a group that missed the post-season entirely and there’s just not great reason to believe that this is an NCAA tournament team.

 

The AAC, Delta House and Doug Neidermeyer

In The University of Memphis’ never ending quest to join the “power” structure of college athletics, the basic assumption is that the Big XII conference offers the quickest, most direct, route.

For that reason, fans have been encouraged to come out and support the undefeated football team on Thursday night as they take on AAC pre-season favorite Cincinnati in a nationally televised (ESPN, 6:30) game.

While it’s undoubtedly true that the game is important and the Big XII is watching, it’s also worth noting that (a) the entire landscape is still very unstable – more on that in a moment – and (b) Memphis’ current conference could continue to narrow the gap and place itself in a position to be “powerful” when the next, inevitable, drastic changes come to the college athletics landscape.

To that point, a few interesting things have happened over the past few days.

The Big Ten conference made a scheduling accommodation that acknowledges that (other than $$$) the line between haves and have nots is essentially arbitrary.   

Cobbled together as the BIG EAST fell apart a few years ago, the AAC can often feel like the group of losers Doug Neidermeyer steers Larry Kroger and Kent Dorfman to at the Omega rush party in Animal House. Specifically, Mohammad, Jugdish, Sydney and Clayton. Especially after being relegated to the so called “Group of 5” non-power programs.

Even if you never saw the movie, this clip is pretty classic completely out of context:

So with that vibe going on, it was somewhat odd that the Big Ten conference announced today that it will now allow football games vs. Cincinnati and UConn to count towards its conference’s requirement that its members play one “Power 5” team per year. The rule itself was put in place to force its teams to schedule suitably challenging games to help guarantee strength of schedule points in the eyes of the playoff committee. In that respect, this accommodation couldn’t be based on those teams’ recent performance – UConn football has been miserable for a few years in a row now.

Rather, the argument is / was surely that those programs were in a “power” conference (the old BIG EAST) when the games were actually scheduled.

If nothing else, it’s a reminder that 3 of the AAC teams were recently in a “power” conference (USF somehow wasn’t addressed in the Big Ten’s announcement).  Going back several decades, Houston and SMU were once in the mighty SWC. Heck, even Temple was in the BIG EAST at one point before getting kicked out.

So maybe the AAC isn’t so bad. In this particular football season, it happens to be pretty obviously the 6th best conference in the country. 

Maybe the Delta’s are ok….

Animal_House_Loosers_022412
The AAC Membership

Now, as for those drastic changes….

Big XII Commissioner Bob Bowlsby is starting to tell the truth about college athletics.

Bowlsby knows that by the time his current employer’s TV contract expires, his conference could be split apart and that he’ll probably be retired. After all, he’s 63 years old now and that TV contract runs another 10 years.

Bottom line, this dude spit some truth in a speech yesterday at the National Press Club:

To wit (courtesy USA Today),

“But the fact is — and it probably will be in the sport of men’s basketball — there will be a day in the future when the popcorn is popped, the TV cameras are there, the fans are in the stands and the team decides they’re not going to play. Mark my words. We will see that in the years ahead. We saw some of it for other reasons in the ’70s, but I really believe that we aren’t finished with the compensation issue or with the employee-vs.-student issue.”

The full article (link above) is worth reading because in it, Bowlsby essentially admits even he is starting to believe that college athletes are employees. If courts agree, there may be no Big XII in a few years for Memphis to even join.

No Big XII?  That’s right, the current conference system could be replaced by something all together different. Bowlsby explains (Courtesy of Dallas News):

“The NCAA may need to reorganize itself, grouping schools with similarly sized athletics departments together,” he said.

This isn’t just another call for the so called “Power 5” to split off…

It may even decide in time that conferences like his should be disbanded and confederated organizations built around each sport, rather than by conference, be created.

For otherwise powerful programs not in the “power structure” – such as Memphis – this would be a welcome unintended consequence of the current upheaval.

See you Thursday.

 

 

Random Thoughts on Bowen, Rudd, Calipari, Kids Tables, Pastner and Grizz

Took some time off from the blog after the Tigers’ season ended, but so many of you my dad have been clamoring asked once about when I might write again so here goes. Just a few tidbits:

  • If Tom Bowen stays at Memphis and somehow helps maneuver the Tigers into the Big XII (odds are slim), I’m taking partial credit.
  • One of our last posts was a story about how Bowen was a finalist for the AD position at Cal. It appears in the aftermath of that development, Bowen may have secured some type of contract extension at Memphis. This week, UM President David Rudd announced on Twitter that Bowen will be staying with the Tigers.
  • I suppose it’s a positive that Bowen is staying at Memphis. He’s overseen a remarkable turnaround in the football program – and surely he deserves some of the credit even though Justin Fuente was hired before him and is the primary architect of the rebuild.
  • Therefore, before we go building any statutes for Bowen, Tiger fans should expect to see (a) the promised facility projects materialize on South Campus and (b) a renewed focus on shedding the recent narrative that men’s basketball is no longer competing at an elite national level in terms of resources.
  • While it isn’t fair to judge Bowen exclusively on whether or not Memphis gets into a P5 conference (so much of that is beyond his control), he surely is expected to best position his athletic department for such inclusion. Doing that means that in addition to building football – he must continue working towards top notch facilities for all sports and the maintenance of a top 25 basketball program.
  • Speaking of David Rudd – kudos to him for playfully firing back at John Calipari for his comments that coaching at Memphis was like being at the “kid’s table.”
  • Calipari was trying to make a point that he would not have had the opportunity to be elected to the Hall of Fame (which he was recently) had he not gotten a job at a “Power” school – as he did in 2009 at Kentucky.
  • Forgetting for a moment whether or not Calipari’s jab was intentional (I don’t think so) or just typically self-centered in its speakers disregard for whom it might offend (I think so) – it’s factually incorrect.
  • Here is a partial list of College Basketball coaches outside the “power” structure (at the time they coached) elected to the Naismith HOF: Edgar Diddle (Western Kentucky), Harry Litwack (Temple), Eddie Hickey (Creighton), Ray Meyer (DePaul), Stan Watts (BYU), Al McGuire (Marquette), Denny Crum (Louisville), Pete Carrill (Princeton), Don Haskins (UTEP), John Chaney (Temple), Jerry Tarkanian (UNLV).
  • If Calipari is looking for a distinguishing factor here – it’s probably that all of the coaches listed above were better floor coaches than him.
  • The Kentucky job may have afforded Calipari the opportunity to be in the HOF, but it’s also cemented his reputation as a less than elite game coach. To have one title in 6 years with all the talent he’s amassed in Lexington is a bit of a disappointment.
  • That being said, I still think Calipari’s election is deserved. I realize I’m offering a nuanced position here, but he is clearly the best program builder / re-builder of this era (UMass, Memphis, Kentucky all reached the Final 4 under his watch), and is also a top notch developer of talent.
  • Bottom line – Calipari excels at gathering and developing teams and talent – but his approach has flaws as well.
  • Still, Memphis fans need to forgive. For their own program’s health.
  • Speaking of the current Memphis program – nice to see an unheralded local kid – G Jeremiah Martin – get rewarded with a scholarship.
  • It’s undoubtedly a sign of the damage which the fan unrest has had on recruiting that Memphis fans are now celebrating stealing a Louisiana Tech recruit, but so what? Memphis fans are hopeful that Martin is interested in becoming an elite defender and offensive facilitator at the college level.
  • As Josh Pastner continues assembling a roster for 2015-16, let’s hope he remember the lessons of his first 6 years: It’s important to have guys that are willing to accept roles, including the role of sitting on the bench.
  • Pastner needs an 8 or 9 man rotation – and he also needs 3 guys that are capable of stepping in, but humble enough to sit on the bench and work for that opportunity. Every team needs this, but in the past Pastner has had to kick guys off in order to whittle the rotation to 8 or 9. He and the program can’t afford another year like that in 15-16.
  • Quick note on the Grizzlies: while it’s exciting that the playoffs are here, it’s alarming to see what a free-fall the team is in.
  • If they somehow end up with home court vs. Portland – all is well that ends well. Get healthy and let’s go.
  • If they end up without home court – it’s a major disappointment – but not the end of the world.
  • And either way, if they flame out in the 1st round of the playoffs – then the fear of losing Marc Gasol will get real, quite quickly – and the mood in this city is going to change swiftly.

 

Can Tiger Football & Basketball Be Successful Simultaneously?

Justin Fuente addressed the media on National Signing Day – as his program officially announced their most recent crop of football recruits. As I watched his comments, an old question resurfaced: Can Tiger Football and Basketball have great success simultaneously? Thoughts on that – and other issues – below.

Here’s the video (courtesy of Memphis TigerNetwork), with thoughts to follow:

  • The guy just sounds and looks like a football coach, doesn’t he? Fuente just doens’t look entirely comfortable with the media – just as any classic football coach isn’t.
  • Recruiting isn’t easy – Fuente mentioned the resources and various levels of the University that have to be involved and coordinated -from the President to the Athletic Director to compliance, academics, travel, marketing and of course football staff.
  • The involvement of so many University personnel re-emphasizes how important it is to have full buy in throughout the the entire University administration if a successful football program is to be built and maintained.
  • Full University buy-in is something that everyone associated with Memphis football admits was lacking in previous decades.
  • Conversely, everyone seems to realize that full buy in and focus is present now, and the results – on the field and off – are apparent.
  • In the context of a disappointing year for Tiger Basketball, it’s fair to point out that the University’s drastic focus on creating success for football has to have – logically speaking – taken away resources and attention from basketball.
  • Ask yourself how many athletic department across the country have highly successful programs in both sports simultaneously. You’ll find the answers to be programs – like Florida, Michigan, UCLA, Texas – with nearly unlimited resources. Memphis is not an athletic department with unlimited resources.
  • In the modern ‘realignment’ era, everyone knows that football drives the bus. Therefore critics of Tiger Basketball should understand that Josh Pastner isn’t playing with the same hand dealt his predecessor.
  • As a very small example, Fuente mentioned that his program’s uniforms helped in recruiting. Note that Fuente’s program received a complete re-brand prior to the 2013 season – which included multiple uniform combinations.
  • The basketball program, on the other hand, hasn’t received a uniform re-brand since Pastner arrived. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this, but it should be understood that the University’s focus has shifted to football – as it needed to. This has to have had an effect on basketball, whether anyone wants to admit that or not.
  • The uniforms, as I said, are just a small example. Other areas subject to limited resources – travel budgets, staff budgets, recruiting budgets, etc…
  • Fuente mentioned the benefits of the AAC’s TV contract.
  • 2014 was the first year of the new AAC contract. Even though Memphis entered the new conference in 2013, during that campaign the old BIG EAST contract was still operational.
  • Specifically, Fuente mentioned that the AAC contract was, “easy to understand” and he’s right. He can simply tell kids that essentially every conference football game (except for maybe 1 per year) will be on an ESPN channel or CBS Sports Network.
  • It’s clear – as it has always been with Fuente – that he has a plan to keep taking Tiger football to that ‘next level’ – which may not necessarily mean more wins right away. What it does mean is that he’s trying to lay a foundation for long term success. It’s been fun to watch thus far and I’m sure Tiger fans can’t wait until next Fall to see his program try to follow up on 2014’s success.

Memphis Football Recruiting – Better than the Mighty Florida Gators?

Justin Fuente and his staff are busy recruiting in advance of next Wednesday, February 4th – otherwise known as National Signing Day. Coming off the school’s most successful football campaign in nearly a century, Fuente and Memphis – according to the national rating systems – appear to be making some minor but noticeable strides on the recruiting trail.

247Sports.com currently has Memphis’ 19-man class listed as the 80th best in the country. While that isn’t going to grab any headlines, it’s a respectable 6th place in the AAC.

Rivals.com has Memphis with 21 commits – and lists the class at 77th in the country. That’s good for 5th in the AAC – behind Cincinnati, USF, UCF and SMU.

By comparison, in 2014, Rivals listed Memphis at 9th in the AAC.

In 2013, Memphis was 10th.

So indeed, progress is being made.

One oddity about these rankings?  Sitting at #102 in the Rivals list – a full 25 spots below the University of Memphis – are the mighty Florida Gators of the SEC. The Gators currently have only 9 commits.

Baffled by this development, I turned to a friend and college football recruiting guru to seek understanding of this abnormality.

His answer:

“Neither class is finished yet; there’s no way UF ends with only 9 commitments; they still have some big fish out there; but i hope they miss on all of their targets; and…iiiiii like it.”

It should be noted that he’s a graduate and life-long fan of the University of Tennessee.

But he knows his stuff.

I turned to another friend, a Florida graduate, for a comment on the recruiting disparity between the Tigers and Gators:

“They (Florida) still have a better chance of making the Sweet 16. At least as long as Pastner is coaching.”

So he’s taking it well.

Coaching Carousel Stops & We Pay Tribute to Tommy West Exit Presser

Yahoo Sports’ excellent College Football writer Pat Forde recently penned a column on the apparent end of the 2015 Coaching Carousel. Indeed, it appears very likely at this point that Memphis is going to hang onto Justin Fuente for a 4th season. As Forde implies by listing it in his “Big Winners” section, that’s a good thing. He also makes mention of the fact that the entire AAC upgraded its coaching roster:

American Athletic Conference. League champion Memphis retained 2014 Coach of the Year Justin Fuente. And the entire Southwest Frontier upgraded: Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman to Houston; Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris to SMU; Baylor offensive coordinator Philip Montgomery to Tulsa. There will be more points in a league rife with struggling offenses.

As a celebration of the apparent end to the coaching carousel, I also wanted to take this opportunity to formally honor perhaps the most underrated video in coaching carousel history: The Tommy West Exit Presser of 2009 (hereinafter TWEP09).

TWEP09 is amazing. Anyone that’s ever seen TWEP09 knows without question that it is amazing. Even so, I still think it’s vastly underrated. That’s how good it is. Amazing — and yet underrated. Go ahead and take a look, and then please keep reading and allow me to explain in even greater detail (below) why TWEP09 is one of the greatest pressers of all time:

So freaking good. Here’s a list of what makes it so:

1. The fact that it happened at all. A lot of times (perhaps most times) when coaches are fired, they don’t get a press conference on campus. The AD will have a press conference and maybe the coach will do an interview somewhere else. For example, when Bo Pelini was fired last year at Nebraska, he had to go to a local high school to profanely, verbally assault his former bosses (warning: explicit language). The fact that TWEP09 was a university administered press conference makes what happened in that video that much more amazing.

diabeetus2. The accent. Thomas Cleveland West, originally from Gainesville, GA, has a country accent that makes Wilford Brimley (left) sound like John F. Kennedy. Diabeetus. Somehow, West manages to make the word “fans” a 2-syllable word: fa-ahns.

A few months prior to TWEP09, I was in my car listening to West get interviewed on a post-game show. West kept referring to the next week’s opponent, Middle Tennessee State as simply “Mehdal.”  Something like, “We just gotta put this behind us and get ready for Mehdal”  and “Mehdal is going to be a real test for us.” The person riding in the car with me turned to me in utter confusion and said, “what the hell is he talking about, what on earth is a Mehdal? It took me a minute, but I finally figured it out. Ironically, West is currently the defensive line coach at Mehdal.

2. Stating the obvious. Is there a better opening line than, “Let me start by saying that it’s not fun and not easy when you get fired. That’s a bad day. Ok? That’s not a good day at the office.” 

First of all, no. There isn’t a better opening line. It’s amazing.

Second of all, no shit. No shit it’s a bad day. I love you Tommy West. I love you so much.

With this simple statement, West managed to:

(a) put everyone at ease with his country charm,

(b) somehow cause everyone watching to conjure up an image of ol’ Tom West as an aging, obselete, arthritic office worker making $16.60 per hour sitting in a cube pleading with someone from IT to help him find his “sent items” folder in his Outlook account. Ol’ Tom has been on the job 24 years and worked hard until one random day (today) his boss came in with tears in his eyes to break the news that he has to let ol’ Tom go because the hot shots in upper management just outsourced his job to Tianjin,

and

(c) set us all up to think he was going to be calm and folksy, when really he was about to lower the boom….

3. “Sour grapes” Stroke of genius for West to say that it would have been sour grapes had he complained as coach (which, by the way, he often did – particularly on George Lapides’ radio show) but now that he’s fired he is just going to get a few things off his chest. This was a fine setting of the table. Perfect.

Never mind the fact that complaining after you get fired still fully, 100%, qualifies as sour grapes.

4. “Now is the time to stand up!” This was the turning point of TWEP09, and it was incredible. West repeats this line twice early in TWEP09, and the 2nd time he does in a slow, emphatic manner. Now…..is the time…..to…..staaaand…….up. This is the moment at which it became clear this isn’t your typical, thanks for the opportunity see you down the road speech. This is a call to arms, and it worked. The viewer’s reaction went something like this: Uh, what is happening? Why is he yelling at me?  What? Is? Happening? Woah. He knows the history of the program. He knows it really well. He just mentioned Stobart. Wow, I’m impressed. He’s really thought this through. I can’t believe any human being alive besides myself even remembers who Chuck Stobart is. That was like, the late 80’s. This is really impressive. Maybe he’s right. He’s undoubtedly right, isn’t he? He mentioned Rip! Poor Rip. Poor poor Rip. Such a nice guy. Damn these big wigs. Damn Calipari. Rip beat UT! This is BS. I LOVE YOU TOMMY! WHY DID WE FIRE YOU?!?!? COME BACK!!!! DON”T GO!!!!!

5. “Do away with it” All snark aside, the fact that a recently fired coach – a coach who went to 5 bowl games in 7 years – stood up in front of the media with the school’s logo in the background and suggested the school should consider dropping football was really a pretty big deal. West’s frank commentary upped the stakes in Memphis and put pressure on the administration to finally do something. They still messed up the next hire (badly), but this was a turning point for Memphis in terms of investing in football. West deserves credit for going there.

And the fact that he did it with that accent makes me want to watch it 900000000000 more times.

6. Paihhnful. IT’S PAIHHNFUL! This is the enduring legacy of TWEP09. Again – an extra syllable here. PAIH-UN-FUL. 3 syllables. How much pain did we put this man through? How much pain did his bosses put him through? Jeez. Something seems terribly wrong. At this point, I really feel sorry for him, but more than that I really love the way he says this word.  PAIH-UN-FUL. Say it again. And again. So awesome.

Really sorry about that pain though.

7. “9 years. Hard years! Fightin’ years! Every day a fist-fight!” The passion and depth of emotion being displayed here is off the charts amazing, but I have to ask a serious question: what the f*&k is this guy talking about? Was he coaching football or fighting Sunnis in Kirkuk? Wow.

What kind of struggle has this man been up against? I mean, I realize your facilities are absolute dog sh*t, that you have to practice at the local high school because your AD can’t find a few thousand dollars in the budget to get you a turf practice field, and that for years John Calipari has sucked every morsel of attention and resource out of the athletic department. I get all that, but woah there big fella. Aren’t you maybe taking this a little far?

8. “I’m not saying this in a negative way.” Actually, yes. Yes, you are. That’s ok. We love it anyway. We really love it. Please, go on…

9. “Smart aleck articles.” Tom West doesn’t like smart alecks.

Tom West doesn’t care for your smarty pants, wisenheimer, wise guy articles.

Tom West wants you to show some respect.

Tom West wants you to pick up a gosh darned oar and start rowing.

10. Bob Winn.  Winn, the longtime media relations professional in the UM athletic department, calmly re-assumes control of the podium at the end of the YouTube clip when West is finished and shows absolutely no surprise or any emotion whatsoever. He calmly announces that some other such nonsense will be taking place at 3pm at the athletic complex. Never mind the fact that his fired football coach just got up there (like 8 seconds ago) and screamed about shutting down the program. That didn’t happen. Nothing to see here. Just mosey on over to the athletic complex at 3pm – they’ll have some cookies and coffee waiting. Thanks.

Gotta love that guy. Earned his paycheck that day.

There are dozens of other reasons TWEP09 is amazing. Without getting into too much detail, here is an abbreviated list: West’s hair, his shirt, his facial expressions and every single sound that emanated from his mouth.

Hard to believe it’s been over 5 years since TWEP09. A lot has changed – one coach of the Memphis football program has come and gone. I don’t recall a Larry Porter exit conference – because it didn’t happen. Because TWEP09 surely taught the folks at UM a valuable lesson about not doing that again.

Memphis fans don’t miss being a part of the coaching carousel, but any fan of life and humanity longs for more moments like TWEP09.

Autonomy Legislation: What Does it Mean for Memphis?

Discussion question: Is Memphis Football more likely to be the next TCU – an upstart football program who went from being a lower level team in a “mid-major” league to winning the Big XII in just a few years – or the next UAB, a non “Power 5” school who recently decided to drop football after years of fan apathy towards a program that exists in the shadow of the mighty SEC?

Though the inclination is clearly to say TCU, it’s a scary question to ponder for Memphis fans – considering that 2 years ago they certainly had more in common with UAB – and still exist in the AAC, a so called “Group of 5” conference.

Autonomy for the “Power 5” conferences has sparked a lot of discussion and fear at schools outside that designated group (AAC schools such as Memphis) regarding their future ability to compete at the highest level of college athletics. In case you don’t already know, the NCAA’s new structure allows for the 5 wealthiest conferences to pass legislation on their own – legislation that would then be enforced on that group (the “Power 5”). Other conferences, such as the AAC, would then be free to follow suit, or not – depending on the desires of their membership.

On Saturday, the first autonomous legislation was actually passed – so everyone can now begin to see the real effects of the NCAA’s new legislative structure.

What does it all mean for Memphis?

Here’s an attempt to answer that and other questions related to the NCAA process:

1. So what actually happened yesterday?

Several resolutions were passed, including:

  • A joint resolution, sponsored by all five conferences (SEC, PAC 12, B1G, ACC, Big XII), on “modernizing the collegiate model,” which was intended to set the tone for the future
  • A proposal to pay full cost of attendance for student athletes (above and beyond the typical scholarship)
  • A concussion safety protocol
  • A proposal to guarantee scholarships for 4-years
  • A proposal that granted athletes the ability to borrow against future earnings to buy loss-of-value insurance, which reimburses athletes if playing in college ends up harming their future earning power in professional sports

2. Does this signify a problem for Memphis or the American Athletic Conference?

Doesn’t seem to, no. The commissioner of the AAC, Mike Aresco has long insisted that his conference is prepared to follow suit and enact additional enhancements for student-athletes. Specifically, last year the AAC announced that its schools were already committed to providing full cost of attendance if it passed. So now that’s done. The proposals to guarantee scholarships, allow for borrowing to purchase insurance and to alter concussion protocols are areas that the AAC will have to consider – but none would seemingly have game-changing budget ramifications.

The issue of concern for the AAC is making sure none of the legislation puts its schools at a competitive disadvantage beyond the financial disadvantage which already exists.

Again, autonomy means the AAC is permitted to follow suit but doesn’t have to if it doesn’t want to. The best guess is they will do everything the “Power 5” does unless it’s just impossible financially or if the AAC sees some competitive value in doing something differently. The agenda for the AAC is to continue to be thought of in that group – at the highest level. Autonomy was really meant to cut out those schools at the lowest level of D1 – schools that were slowing down the legislative process and making it impossible to get anything done.

In fact, it’s interesting to note that the proposal to guarantee scholarships didn’t even have unanimous approval in the “Power 5” – it was voted against by 2 of the conferences and almost half of voters. It’s unclear exactly how that proposal will be enacted and whether or not it effects scholarship limits.

3. So what’s the problem – for Memphis and the AAC?

The problem is what it’s always been – that the AAC schools, like Memphis, have way less TV money to begin with – so any cost increases are going to be felt more acutely at member schools. Some analysts have speculated that non-revenue sports will eventually be cut. Schools at the AAC level already rely more on student fees and other subsidies to make the numbers work. It’s a squeeze. This makes it worse.

Memphis and other AAC schools have known for a year that cost-of attendance was coming, so they’ve had time to tighten their belts and prepare for the added expense. In the USA today summary from yesterday, Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs said his school has added $2 million to the budget to pay for items including full cost-of-attendance scholarships. In the grand scheme of things, that’s not all that drastic a number. It’s unclear that any of the other proposals enacted yesterday will have a significant effect on budgets.

4. So is it possible Autonomy is actually good for Memphis?

Yes, it’s possible. If the AAC can clearly establish itself – along with maybe the Mountain West – as conferences in that next tier, then perhaps they can do enough and earn enough to stay closer to the “Power 5” while at the same time distancing themselves competitively and financially from the other “Group of 5” conferences (Sun Belt, MAC, CUSA). In other words, it’s possible only a few conferences outside the “Power 5” have the wherewithal to keep up the fight. Keep in mind a CUSA school – UAB – just dropped football because they felt it was no longer worth it. There is a growing chasm and it’s important that AAC schools position themselves on the proper side.

Look for the AAC to adopt all permissive legislation and continue to fight for market share and TV dollars. The AAC is going to have to prove it where it counts – in the TV ratings. The consequences are drastic.

The key will be what measures are passed by the autonomous group and how much they cost to implement.

Remember, just because SEC schools have more money, doesn’t mean they’re eager to spend it on things they’re not already spending it on. Athletic Directors make a lot of money. Coaches make a lot of money. Heck, in the SEC, defensive coordinators make almost $2 million per year – so don’t get the idea that there’s a lot of money that AD’s are just looking to throw around.

The unspoken goal is to do just enough to get public pressure and legal pressure off the back of college athletics while doing as little as possible to disrupt the gravy train.

5. So what’s next?

As far as the next round of legislation – it’s not clear. Some possibilities are: (a) a proposal to allow schools to pay for family travel, (b) proposals related to agents, (c) proposals related to allowing athletes to be paid for their likeness.

Memphis and the AAC have to keep up enough so that schools outside of football (particularly men’s basketball) at the “Power 5” level do not have a competitive advantage in recruiting. I say “outside of football” because let’s be honest, there’s already a competitive advantage in football recruiting. The “Power 5” get all the elite recruits in football and everyone else splits the others. That’s been happening for years. Perhaps that gap can be shrunk – but there’s currently no gap in men’s basketball. Schools outside the “Power 5” will have to make sure that doesn’t change.

6. How is the AAC / Memphis positioned?

The AAC in particular has one giant asset at this point – it’s television contract with ESPN. No, it doesn’t pay a lot of money – though there’s some talk of a “look-in” period in the contract that will allow a renegotiation within a few years. The great thing about the AAC’s contract is that it provides an unprecedented amount of national converge for member schools. AAC schools have been on ESPN channels more in the past year – in football and basketball – than in their entire histories combined. From Memphis’ and the AAC’s perspective, this absolutely has to translate into better recruiting, better competition, increased fan support and increased TV ratings – so that ESPN will recognize value in the product and hand out more money next time (for purposes of this discussion, let’s assume the Big XII isn’t expanding).

Put bluntly, the AAC has to bring similar value to its television partners as the ACC or Big XII if they want to be compensated in the same ballpark. This will ultimately decide whether Memphis and the AAC end up closer to the P5, or closer to UAB.

It’s an uphill climb, but so far nothing has appeared on the horizon which would purport to make survival seem unlikely.

 

 

Tigers have Football Bragging Rights, but is UT Best Hoops Program in State?

Yesterday the final College Football polls were released and Memphis fans were able to brag about their team’s historic top 25 finish. Among the teams ranked lower in the Associated Press poll (aka not ranked) than Memphis:

  • Notre Dame
  • Oklahoma
  • Arkansas
  • Texas A&M
  • Tennessee

That’s right. The University of Tennessee. At Knoxville. The Volunteers. They of the orange and white checkerboard end zones. Ranked lower than the University of Memphis. In football. At the end of the year.

That’s historic.

Now – it must be asked: if the two teams (Memphis and UT) were to play on a neutral field next week would Memphis actually be favored? Would they win? Let’s not get into that. It doesn’t matter. The point here is that the ranking is a wonderful accomplishment and nice bragging point for long suffering fans.

But real Memphis fans couldn’t stay excited for too long yesterday, because something else became very clear last night.

UT has the best basketball team, and maybe the best program, in the state.

Last night, UT’s men’s basketball team – under first year coach Donnie Tyndall – beat 19th ranked Arkansas for it’s 2nd top 20 win of the season. The Vols are now 10-5 on the year and 2-1 in the SEC – hardly jaw dropping numbers but pretty impressive considering Tyndall had to pretty much build a new roster from scratch when he got the job after Cuonzo Martin’s late departure for Cal last spring. Tyndall pieced together a team of JUCO transfers, Southern Miss recruits, and other castoffs and has the Vols playing his trademark brand of fast paced, athletic, in your face basketball. And they’re playing it well.

Tyndall still faces significant obstacles at UT. He’s being investigated for alleged NCAA violations during his tenure at Southern Miss and that’s a black cloud that could hang over the program for a while. But assuming the NCAA issues get worked out without major damage to Tyndall’s new employer, the Vols have a good coach on their hands. Anyone who watched Tyndall at Morehead State and Southern Miss understood that he can coach basketball.

If Tyndall is winning at this rate with a piecemeal roster, imagine what he can do if & when he has time to actually recruit and build his own. It’s a scary thought for Memphis fans, who prefer the suffering of Tennessee fans second only to success of their own athletic teams.

In the meantime, that top 25 football ranking isn’t going anywhere for several months.

So Tiger fans have that going for them, which is nice.