By Aaron Moser
The city of Memphis, the University of Memphis and the Memphis football program will be featured on Saturday in a way they have never been featured before.
The premier pregame show of college football, College GameDay, will showcase them for the first time. ESPN will continue to give them the primetime treatment when Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit call their game against No. 15 SMU at 6:30 p.m. CDT on ABC.
Beale Street will be packed to the brim with blue and gray faithful behind the GameDay set. The Liberty Bowl will have its first sellout since the two it had in 2015.
I will be there, (thanks Dad) and I already expect that it will be one of the best days of my life for two reasons:
- I’ve been flipping the TV to GameDay every college football Saturday since I learned how to use a remote. The show was a major part of my childhood love for college football, and the onstage talent always made sure my Saturdays started off right.
- I’ve been a lifelong Memphis fan. My dad has bought Memphis football season tickets for us since I was in elementary school, and we have fully experienced the dramatic highs and lows of fandom for this football program. We have sat through torrential downpours, the icy cold and burning summer days to support the Tigers.
I think most non-Memphis fans who follow college football understand that Memphis has been a consistently solid football program the past several seasons. It is a group of five program with an explosive offense who has pulled off a few power five upsets.
That’s the simplistic view, but there is so much more to the Memphis story. To truly understand how remarkable this moment in time is for everybody surrounding the football program, you have to know the full backstory of the Tigers rise from football destitution.
The Tommy West years
Under Tommy West, Memphis had some success. From 2003 to 2008, the Tigers went to five bowl games in six seasons, and It wasn’t until the 2009 season that Memphis truly experienced a steep downturn. In his final year as head coach, the Tigers went 2-10.
West voiced that the football program was not getting enough support from the university to be a sustainable operation.
“History will continue to repeat itself, folks, if they don’t do something about it,” West said. “Whoever they hire, our fans need to demand one of two things. You have to demand you give him an equal stick to fight with within our conference. You’ve got to give him an equal playing field.”
West told a story to the late radio host George Lapides. He said that at the same time the university was telling him they did not have enough money to replace the old carpet in his athletic department office, hardwood was being installed into John Calipari’s downstairs.
“I couldn’t say [this] as a coach, but it’s too painful,” West said in 2009. “It’s too painful for coaches, for players, for people, for fans. Put something in it or do away with it, one or the other.”
The Larry Porter years
After West was fired, Memphis hired former Memphis running back Larry Porter. The Tigers were abmissal under Porter’s short tenure, winning just three games in two seasons.
Just think about where the UConn program is currently at, and you get a decent idea of how far Memphis was underwater.
Porter was fired and, the day after, athletic director R.C. Johnson announced his retirement. Memphis was once again looking for a new head coach, and now they had to find a new athletic director as well.
If you want to know more about where the program was at this time, and where some thought Memphis was going to find a new head coach, watch this WKNO Sports Files show aired after the firing of Porter.
Memphis eventually found TCU’s co-offensive coordinator, Justin Fuente, to take over a program with a combined 5-31 record over the past three seasons.
“I gotta tell ya, that this is a big challenge,” Fuente said in his opening press conference.
My dad and I went to Fuente’s first game as head coach. In that game, a lightning delay extended what had already been a long game, a game where Memphis ended up losing 17-20 to UT Martin, a FCS team Memphis had paid to play.
Thankfully, that loss was not an omen for Fuente’s tenure. The Tigers would finish that season with three straight wins and carry that momentum into a 4-8 record in Fuente’s second year.
Fuente preached a culture of family and hard work, along with heavy outreach to a city that had not experienced a winning football team in several years. Game attendance hit a breaking point under the last years of Porter, but the undercurrents of a culture change were beginning to appear on the surface.
“I knew we’d have obstacles, but I felt like we were in a location where we had a chance to win,” Fuente told the Seth Davis Show in 2016.
The Tigers entered the 2014 season with a new energy that was embodied by their new chrome helmets and uniforms.
The Tigers began the year by being one play away from upsetting UCLA in Los Angeles. With a miraculous finish against Temple later that season, they ended with a 7-1 record in the AAC and a share of the conference championship.
Memphis had not won a conference championship since 1971, when the Tigers played in the Missouri Valley Conference. That’s a 43 year span, which is even more shocking considering that they played in Conference USA for 16 of those years.
Winning a share of the conference championship was an already fantastic achievement for a program that had won a combined seven games in the past two seasons, but of course, the Tigers also got to go bowling.
In their first bowl game since 2008, the Tigers defeated BYU in a thrilling overtime game in the Miami Beach Bowl. Memphis had not won a bowl game since 2005.
Memphis would finish the season 10-3, and at No. 25 in the AP poll, the first time the Tigers had been ranked since 2004.
They had dramatically turned around the football program and were garnering achievement after achievement, but the 2015 season proved that they were not done yet.
After surviving against Bowling Green, Cincinnati, and USF in close contests, Memphis hosted bitter rival and No. 13 Ole Miss in the Liberty Bowl. The same Ole Miss team that had upset No. 2 Alabama for the second season in a row.
That game was the ultimate testament to just how far the Memphis program had built itself back up. The 60,241 that were in attendance, the largest crowd since 2006, proved that most of the city had come back to support the hometown team.
The Tigers would win in front of a nationally televised audienced 34-27, their first win against a ranked opponent since the upset of Peyton Manning and No. 6 Tennessee all the way back in 1996.
Memphis would be ranked as high No. 15 in the polls that season, and a lot of New Year’s Six bowl hype surrounded the team. Unfortunately, the Tigers would end up dropping a few games down the stretch, but the euphoria of being a nationally relevant program stayed.
Fuente would leave for Virginia Tech before the Tigers’ appearance in the Birmingham Bowl that year, but Memphis has a lot to thank him, his coaching staff, and the players that played under him for. So many players like Paxton Lynch, Riley Ferguson, Anthony Miller, Darrell Henderson, Tony Pollard, and the list goes on, have broken record after record and put their heart and soul into the program, university, and city.
“I believed in the people that were determined to go make it right,” Fuente said. “They had literally reached rock bottom.”
One of those people who were determined to make it right, was athletic director Tom Bowen. He was hired before the 2012 season, and a lot can be said about Bowen’s management of the basketball side of things, but a lot of good for the football program happened under his leadership.
Massive renovations of the gameday experience for both players and fans at the Liberty Bowl occurred. A new indoor practice facility is actually under construction, 24 years after it had originally been planned. (Former head coach Rip Sherer put a backhoe near the practice fields to try and convince recruits that one was being built)
Bowen, who just resigned this year, put a lot of things into motion, including the eventual hiring of Mike Norvell.
Mike Norvell has done an amazing job, as not only have the Tigers not fallen back into irrelevance, they continue to push the boundaries of what they can accomplish.
Saturday will be a testament to what a glorious time it is to be a Memphis fan, and the Gameday crew will no doubt praise how good of a situation the university is in right now.
However, everybody, young and old, should remain grateful, because not even a decade ago, some were suggesting that the football program maybe should just shut down.
So, go out and enjoy what will surely be one of the greatest days in Memphis sports history. You deserve it.
Edited by Emma Moloney | firstname.lastname@example.org