When Tommy West was fired as football coach at the University of Memphis in 2009, he predicted that "history will continue to repeat itself."
He was right, except that things got worse than they were under West and his two predecessors, and the decline happened sooner than almost anyone thought it would.
Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson fired his third football coach this week. Larry Porter completed two years of his five-year, $3.75 million contract. His record was 3-21. By the time he gets his buyout, Porter will earn $1.25 million per win, part of it paid by boosters. Only banks get better bailouts. Johnson and president Shirley Raines will hire a search firm to help find the next coach.
"I'm not going to give you a dollar figure," said Raines. "But we are committed to getting the best possible coach for this community."
Two years ago, that was Porter, a former Memphis player with no head-coaching experience. Nevertheless, he was hailed as the right man to turn the program around after West was fired.
Porter was "the obvious guy" for the job and "makes all the sense in the world" because of his Memphis connections and recruiting record, wrote Commercial Appeal columnist Geoff Calkins.
After firing Porter, Johnson praised him.
"I can't thank Larry Porter enough for the time he gave us, the energy he gave us. It didn't work out but it wasn't because he didn't give everything he had."
Here's how Porter's predecessors did.
West coached for nine seasons, compiling a 49-61 record. He won nine games in his best season but did not win the Conference USA championship. The last straw was a televised home loss to East Carolina in front of 4,100 fans, which seemed as low as a crowd could go until Porter's team finished this season in front of fewer than 3,000 fans. West was fired with three years left on a contract that paid him $925,000 a year. In his farewell press conference, he made his prediction and let his anger out about the program.
"Put something in it or do away with it," he said.
West replaced Rip Scherer, who was fired by Johnson after six seasons. His record was 22-44, including a win over the University of Tennessee and Peyton Manning. Scherer had two-and-a-half years left on his contract and got a $485,000 buyout.
"Put more money in the budget," Scherer said after being fired. "Do it for the next guy so that you are not sitting here five years from now with the same kind of meeting. That's the only way this cycle will stop."
Scherer replaced Chuck Stobart, who went 29-36-1, including wins over USC, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and Arkansas. He was 6-5 in each of his last three seasons in the days when that didn't qualify a team for a bowl bid. He was blamed for being boring and unable to excite fans.
"I never turned down a speaking engagement," said Stobart, who had two years left on his contract. He was 60 years old, and Memphis was his last head-coaching job.
So Memphis has tried the old guy, the nice guy, the tough guy, and the alumni guy. Four coaches in 20 years is about par in college football. Ole Miss and Alabama have each had five and Vanderbilt six. How can Memphis thwart Tommy West's prophecy?
Some say by hiring a big-name coach with lots of experience. Two such coaches fired this year are Houston Nutt at Ole Miss, which lost 31-3 to Mississippi State last week, and Rick Neuheisel at UCLA, which lost 50-0 to USC. An alternate approach would be to go after an up-and-comer such as Hugh Freeze at Arkansas State, which beat Memphis 47-3 this year. Freeze makes $210,000 and has won nine games with a much smaller budget than Memphis.
Two options that are not under consideration and were not even brought up at Monday's press conference are moving to a lower division or building an on-campus stadium as Central Florida, Louisville, Houston, and UT-Chattanooga have done. The 62,000-seat Liberty Bowl is too big to fail, and Raines has other priorities.
Memphis isn't getting out of football, but it isn't going all-in either. By its own measures, the university is doing well academically and in other sports. Enrollment has grown to 23,610 students, and the footprint has expanded to the law school downtown and the Lambuth campus in Jackson.
With three wins in two years and 7,000 fans total at the last two home games, football has nowhere to go but up.
Sometimes government makes it easy for people who think government needs to go on a diet. Case in point: the Metropolitan Planning Organization's (MPO) Regional Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan.
After I read its hundreds of pages of observations and recommendations, I felt a little like a Rush Limbaugh fan, which I definitely am not. Still, I had to conclude that this report and this agency are as bloated as Rush himself.
I have watched with interest as Memphis adds bike lanes to Madison Avenue, North Parkway, Front Street, and other streets. I thought it would be simple, but I was wrong. People were passionately for it and against it. This week, Mayor A C Wharton announced that he couldn't find a consensus so he is forming a Madison Avenue committee, a sure sign that this is a big deal.
I have a bike. I like to ride it once in a while. I rode it for fun 60 miles last weekend. It was harder than watching football, and I won't do it again soon. I drive to work. It takes me eight minutes. I like having heat in winter and air-conditioning in summer, and I need a car to get to appointments. I would drive about as much even if gas cost $5 a gallon. Whether or not you ride a bike is, needless to say, up to you. It's no one else's business.
I like to walk. I don't need signs to point me toward the sidewalks. I know what a sidewalk looks like. I appreciate crossing signals. Beyond that I don't need much help, thanks.
The MPO, however, has other ideas. Biking is a learned behavior. Government is the teacher and motivator. How to convert drivers to bikers and walkers? The answer is invest in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, coupled with education programs, public service campaigns, and policies that support and encourage safe and efficient biking and walking.
A few excerpts from the report:
"The intent of the plan is not to secure funding for every project, but, instead, to identify the opportunities that are available." Sure.
"Census data show that less than two percent of work commute trips in greater Memphis were made by bicycling or walking." I bet it's more like point-two percent.
"A 15-minute bicycling or walking commute can provide the physical activity that is necessary to remain healthy. You can lose 13 pounds, reduce the risk of heart disease 50 percent, and burn 508 calories in an hour if you peddle 14 miles an hour." Which is a pace that only the fittest cyclists can maintain.
"By simply replacing an automobile with a bicycle to conduct a four-mile long round trip, approximately 15 pounds of pollutants can be kept out of the air." The appeal to guilt.
"Every street should accommodate bicyclists, pedestrians, motorists and transit users of all abilities and ages." Madison Avenue multiplied by 1,000.
"Support National Bike to Work Day and National Walk to School Day. Have the mayor and county commissioners proclaim May as Bike Month and October as Walk Month." Only if they wear biking shorts to work, I say.
"All development plan submittals and future transportation plans should be reviewed for compliance with the plan." Says who? And if they are not in compliance?
"Develop a GIS-based inventory of all existing pedestrian facilities including, but not limited to, sidewalks, curb ramps, overpasses, off-street connectors, parks, recreational walkways, and hiking trails. Once the data is collected and a thorough analysis is completed ... ." We can retire on a pension.
"Address the issue of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act." Simple? See Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.
"Expand end-of-road facilities." Also known as bike racks.
"Increase the amount of way-finding signage around the community."
And so on.
Once again, I like to bike. I love the Greenline. Bike lanes on some streets are worth a try. I'll believe we need them when I see more bikes and fewer cars at hospitals and college campuses. Exercise is good. Health is good. But so is common sense.
Being a functioning citizen means taking responsibility for your choices and learning how to cross the street. You can't choose your parents, but you can make a choice to be fit or fat, to walk or ride, to find your way. It requires a little effort. If you don't know that by now, it won't do any good for government to tell you.
It's been ugly, uglier, and ugliest in sports this month.
The hapless University of Memphis football team lost again in front of a few thousand people at home Saturday. The fourth-quarter collapse was as alarming as the attendance, raising again the question, "Why bother?"
Ole Miss, winless in the Southeastern Conference, fired Houston Nutt and is ready to lavish millions on a new coach.
The NBA season is in doubt, and some Grizzlies players are talking about playing overseas. So much for that love affair with Memphis and those "Believe Memphis" T-shirts and towels just six months ago. Business is business.
Then there is Penn State. Enough has been said about that.
To get some perspective, I went to Mike Clary, athletic director and former football coach at idyllic Rhodes College, where sports are just for fun, right? Not exactly.
Small colleges are by no means immune to the pressure and influence of sports. From his office, Clary can look out the window and see millions of dollars of improvements to the Rhodes football, baseball, tennis, track, and soccer facilities in the last 20 years. Rhodes is one of 400 schools in NCAA Division III. Approximately 400 of the 1,750 students play a varsity sport. There are 11 sports each for men and women. The newest addition is lacrosse, a response to interest from feeder private high schools.
"That 400 is probably more than any Southeastern Conference school," he said. "There are far more students participating in sports on a non-scholarship basis than on scholarships."
The football team has 70 players — 10 percent of the male enrollment — and Clary wants to increase that to 85.
"Tuition at Rhodes is $35,000," he said. "After academic scholarships and need-based financial aid, your net tuition revenue per student is about $20,000. At Rhodes, we can likely replace those 80 male football players with other students. What we likely can't do is replace them with males. The culture and the ethos and the makeup of our student body would change drastically."
Football is still seen as the key to school spirit even at a small liberal arts college that grooms future doctors, lawyers, and professors.
"As much as you would like to have a homecoming weekend around soccer games, traditionally schools that do not have football do not have great fall homecoming events."
Small Southern colleges such as Hendrix and Birmingham-Southern are adding or recently added football to boost male enrollment above the 40 percent considered the "tipping point."
"The start-up costs for a football program including stadium and dressing room is probably $3 million to $5 million," Clary said. "You need some big gifts to take care of that, but on an annual operating basis, football will be a money-making proposition."
And winning matters.
"When I was football coach, I went 8-1 three or four years and I was 1-8 one year," Clary said. "It's a lot more fun to win. We want to teach success and we want to win, but it's not the bottom line. We will not have a coach whose program is losing year after year even if that person is the finest person in the world."
Clary is watching the BCS (Bowl Championship Series) and conference realignment story closely. Revenue from BCS bowl games is shared among BCS schools. The NCAA gets nothing. But in basketball, revenue from the multi-year contract with CBS is shared by all NCAA schools. Clary fears that the football power schools will use their leverage to get the lion's share of basketball revenue in the future or start their own organization.
Division III schools now get three percent of the roughly $700 million a year contract to run their national championships. That sent the Rhodes field hockey team and coaches to New Jersey this year.
"To be honest, we do nothing for it," Clary said. "It's not like we're on TV. So we are happy to get it."
As he watches the Penn State story unfold, he finds it "mind boggling" that the school's human resources department did not contact police and reach out to victims.
"The hardest part as an administrator is asking yourself what you would do if a month or six months went by and your organization did not act," he said. "That appears not to have happened at Penn State."
The federal government has a new way to measure poverty.
According to the Census Bureau report that came out this week, 49 million Americans, not the previously reported 46 million, are living in poverty. Sixteen percent of the total population, and 25 percent of black Americans, are poor.
Bad news, but if you measure poverty the way Memphis City Schools, Shelby County Schools, and the state of Tennessee measure it, you could conclude — mistakenly — that the poverty rate among black Memphians is three or four times that. Here's how:
Start by taking out all the people who live outside Memphis but in Shelby County, even if they grew up in Memphis, work in Memphis, and have family in Memphis. This, of course, is what we do now with our separate school systems that will stay in place until 2013.
Next, take out all the people who live in Memphis but don't have children in Memphis public schools, the families with children who go to optional schools or private schools, and the families with school-age children who are not poor by any definition.
Define "poor" as a family of four with an annual income of $41,348. Classify a school, and by extension its neighborhood, as poor even if only 40 percent of the families fall below this standard. When federal funds are at stake, it pays to look poor.
Define "black schools" as all-black schools, not schools with 70 percent or 80 percent black majorities.
This is how you get to "Memphis: America's Poor Black Racially Torn City." This is how you get to the Memphis City Schools and Tennessee Report Card finding that 89,784 of the 103,500 students are economically disadvantaged and that the whole system is Title 1, which is government-speak for poor.
And this is how you could conclude, by reading an article last week in The New York Times on the schools merger that Memphis has no black middle class and an impoverished central city and is doomed to repeat the white flight of busing and 1973.
Like it or not, the schools merger is the window through which America is going to view Memphis and public education for a while. As the Times noted, it is "the largest school district consolidation in American history."
For all its problems, however, Memphis is not as poor as it looks in school stats. Nor is it necessarily doomed to repeat the past, as some of those quoted in the story believe it is, including Joe Clayton, the 79-year-old Shelby County school board member and former principal who left MCS for Briarcrest Christian School in 1974.
"There is the same element of fear," Clayton told the Times.
Also interviewed was Marcus Pohlmann, a political science professor at Rhodes College and author of books on racial politics and school integration in Memphis.
"There are no middle-class black schools in Memphis," Pohlmann said in the story. "They're all poor."
I know Clayton and Pohlmann and respect both of them. Their statements are right, as far as they go. I have a quibble with them, but I think it's an important quibble.
You can kill a city with statistics, and you can kill it by tying it to its past of racial separation and strife. I'm not crazy about Memphis being America's "civil rights city" in pro sports and national journalism and literature.
It isn't forever 1974, even though city schools are more segregated now than they were then. The separation of county and city school data makes Memphis look worse than consolidated districts in Tennessee and other states. The buildings and the books are newer. There is an incoming corps of young teachers, principals, and foundation money. The school boards are at least meeting together now, which, as their colleagues in Hamilton County and Chattanooga suggested, may be the main thing.
Black doesn't equal poor. There are middle-class schools in Memphis that are majority black. The 7,800 white kids in MCS can't skew the data that much. The black poverty rate here is not three or four times the national rate. You only get there by using different methods and data. And with all due respect to Joe Clayton, he is not the future. The future is Kenya Bradshaw, who was also quoted in the Times article. I asked her what she thought of it.
"Overall, I thought it was a good story, but I thought the call to action for the community was missing," she said. "The story portrays the challenges, but I think we need to seize this opportunity and challenge our community to come together."
The Occupy Wall Street protest has spread to Nashville and Memphis, among other cities, and shows signs of having staying power and, perhaps, picking up steam. The Memphis protest on the plaza across from City Hall began October 15th, or 17 days ago as I write this.
How long will it last? Who knows? But take note, occupiers and city officials everywhere. The mother of all occupations of public spaces began in Memphis 23 years and 293 days ago, give or take a month or two, at the National Civil Rights Museum at the other end of downtown.
I stopped by the other day to visit with Jacqueline Smith at her solo sidewalk vigil on Mulberry Street. Considering what she has been through, she looked and sounded remarkably like the thin, articulate young woman I interviewed on January 12, 1988, when the Lorraine Motel, where she worked at the time, was shut down. She was evicted, literally kicking and screaming, on March 2, 1988.
Since then, she has been encamped, more or less continuously, on the sidewalk with her blue tarps, desk, posters, worldly possessions, and well-worn books, including Martin Luther King Jr. conspiracy theorist William Pepper's Orders to Kill. Her occupation is older than the museum itself. After efforts to persuade or force her to leave failed, the city and museum officials reached a live-and-let-live standoff, and Smith became a sort of unauthorized adjunct exhibit, part living history, part protest. In addition to her books, snapshots, and laminated copies of news articles, she has a website, fulfillthedream.net.
I wanted to find out what she thinks about the current occupation movement and what advice, if any, she might have for the protesters about logistics, determination, publicity, or anything else. The day before, I briefly visited the Occupy Memphis site, sprinkled with tents and tarps, and asked a woman how long she planned to stay. "Until things change," she said. Well, I thought, the weather will change for the worse a lot sooner than the distribution of wealth in the U.S.A., and that will test the resolve of the protesters.
But Jacqueline Smith didn't want to talk much about that. She is, as political consultants say, relentlessly on message.
"I really haven't given any thought to what they're doing," she said. "I have to stay focused on what the issue is here."
The neighborhood around the museum has gentrified somewhat, but there are still blighted areas nearby. The museum is in the midst of a campaign to raise $40 million for a major renovation. Last month, Mulberry Street was taken over for the River Arts Fest. There were bands, dancing, and beer vendors, and the stage was sponsored by a casino. Smith was dismayed.
"This is sacred ground and should be respected as such, like Ground Zero," she said. "There is no room for festivals and alcohol on the property. That is not being done in Washington where you go to pay respects to Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln. Or Graceland. Those places insist upon silence and respect."
Has she ever thought about packing up and moving on?
"Absolutely not. I feel this is the least I can do because of all that Dr. King did for us."
What's it like living alone on the street?
"I won't make any comments about that. The issue is that there is not affordable housing in this area on Mulberry Street."
Does she get hassled or urged to move?
"I make no comment on that either. I have no problems with the people working at the museum. I am here because of the system."
Does she get help with the website?
"I will not make any comment on that. It has been up for years. It is a homemade website."
And with that I gave her a cup of coffee and some chocolate rolls and said good-bye. A short while later she called me to add a comment on the protesters outside City Hall.
"They are doing what Dr. King was doing back in the Sixties. Their right to protest is guaranteed under the Constitution. As far as their issue, I don't know, but they have a right to raise their issue, the same as I do and as Dr. King did."
If I am still around 10 or 23 years from now, I fully expect to see Jacqueline Smith at the corner of Mulberry Street, behind the fire station and across from the National Civil Rights Museum, with her tattered books, blue tarps, winter coat, and her undying resolve.