Thursday, October 16, 2008

On Not Moving On

Memphis needs a change, but consolidation isn't it.

Posted By on Thu, Oct 16, 2008 at 4:00 AM

Anyone who watches football or basketball knows that the fastest, most time-tested way to fire up fans and rekindle hope and interest in a losing team is to replace the head coach.

Last year, Bobby Petrino quit the Atlanta Falcons, where he was 3-10, and replaced Houston Nutt at the University of Arkansas, which defeated Auburn last Saturday. Nutt was eagerly scooped up by Ole Miss, which beat Florida two weeks ago. Nutt replaced Ed Orgeron at Ole Miss, who replaced David Cutcliffe, who replaced Tommy Tuberville. After turning around Ole Miss, Tuberville replaced Terry Bowden at Auburn and led them to an unbeaten season in 2004.

Sylvester Croom replaced Jackie Sherrill at Mississippi State and took them to a bowl game season last year. Nick Saban replaced Mike Shula at Alabama, which is a powerhouse again. Urban Meyer replaced Ron Zook at Florida, a contender for this year's national championship. If things don't improve in Knoxville, someone, maybe Tuberville, will replace Phillip Fulmer.

In basketball, John Calipari replaced Tic Price at the University of Memphis and turned a mediocre program into a superpower and dramatically increased season ticket sales. Bruce Pearl did the same thing at Tennessee after he replaced Buzz Peterson. Since coming to town, the Memphis Grizzlies have had five head coaches.

All these changes have taken place in the last 10 years.

Changing coaches doesn't always work, of course. Witness Orgeron at Ole Miss and Mark Iavaroni at the Grizzlies. But it's surprising how often and how quickly a new coach and staff get better results with basically the same personnel, the same venue, and the same structure. Even when the new coach doesn't win, he sells tickets, and fans have hope and something to talk about.

Moving on is no disgrace in coaching. It comes with the territory. As former basketball coach Chuck Daly once said, "sooner or later they just stop listening to you."

In sports, nobody ever talks about consolidation. Auburn and Alabama or Louisville and Kentucky don't discuss merging for the sake of efficiency and economy. Even Vanderbilt, which eliminated the athletic department and athletic director in 2003, has since had to replace the chancellor, Gordon Gee, who ordered the change. An efficiency campaign or organizational change doesn't sell tickets. Successful teams have to change the people at the top, and they do it quickly, even ruthlessly.

That's why Memphis is in a rut and why the revival of the wonky consolidation issue is so pointless. Memphis has had the same head coach, Mayor Willie Herenton, for 17 years. Nashville and Atlanta have each had three different mayors during that time; Chattanooga has had four. Team Memphis needs a new head coach, not a consolidation distraction.

All the talk about referendums and complicated legalities and what might happen in 2010 could have been avoided if Herenton had taken one of several chances to move on. He could have done it after two terms in 1999, when he got 46 percent of the vote. He could have retired after three terms in 2003, or after four terms in 2007. Or in early 2008 when he famously heard another call. That's four opportunities to elect a new mayor and change the leadership in city government. All that was required was a decision by one person. Had Herenton retired in his prime, Memphis might well have had two or three "coaching changes" by now.

The other consolidation cliché is that it can succeed if schools are taken out of the equation. This is also dubious.

First, why does consolidation make sense if separate city and county school systems must be maintained?

Second, there is nothing stopping Memphis City Schools superintendents and board members from closing underused schools, as former superintendent Herenton has said they should.

Third, schools cannot be simply "taken off the table." There is too much unfinished business that isn't going away, starting with the delayed annexation by Memphis of southeast Shelby County and the fate of Southwind High School, a county school that is supposed to become a city school after annexation. As a nearly all-black school in a majority white system, Southwind students will be reassigned if it remains a county school and if U.S. District Judge Bernice Donald's 2007 order on school desegregation is upheld by the appellate court.

The issues of race, growth, taxation, and quality education are not going to disappear with or without consolidation. Leaders — coaches, if you will — must address that.

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