I sat down for a short chat with Tiger football coach Larry Porter last week, his office still bare as the details of spring practice consume his fifth month on the job. To summarize, Porter’s glad to be home, but knows there’s work to be done.
What has surprised you about the new job?
The kids, how well they’ve embraced the change, this transition. How hard they’ve been working. They’ve made this process . . . not necessarily easy, but they’ve given us a flow that’s allowed us to overcome some things that would have been hard to do. Being new, I was ready to embrace everything. I wake up with a great passion to come and improve this football program. Whatever challenges are presented to me, I look forward to embracing them.
Have you seen anything familiar from your playing days (1990-93)?
I look at things from this perspective: What do we need to do to be an elite program? That’s my vision, completely. I’m familiar with some things, but my vision speaks to what we need to have a successful program. It’s not about the past; it’s what we need to do now to put the program in a position to be successful. Five bowl games in the last seven years; there’s a lot to be said for that. There’s a lot of good that Tommy West did here. I just need to take where he left off and continue to improve.
Your predecessor would tell you this is one of the toughest coaching jobs in America. Why did you want it?
There’s nothing tough about something you love. This is my alma mater, a place I love dearly. I love the opportunity that’s been presented to me. I had some opportunities at other places that I chose not to pursue. When you’re in the position I was in [as an assistant at LSU], you can be somewhat selective about what you want to do. This was a no-brainer for me: the perfect place and the perfect fit. I understand the dynamics of this university, the city, the people.
Are there any Larry Porter rules (or philosophy) that your team has to follow first and foremost?
You have to have discipline in the program. I think the players understand our policy here; they’ve done a good job of conforming. We have a points system, and they understand it. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it. It’s about creating a culture and environment that you believe in. It’s about decision-making. You impress upon [players] the importance of making good decisions, as opposed to the do’s and don’ts. I could not be in a better situation, the way the players have embraced the staff.
Our program is not based on just developing football players, but developing the total person. When they leave here, we want them to be a better person than they are a football player. Because someday they’ll have to be someone’s husband, father, or boss. When you develop character, leadership, attitude, chemistry, and teach these guys how to work well with each other, it lends itself to being more productive in life.
What’s the key to recruiting for your program?
The key to recruiting anybody, anywhere is relationships. Then there’s attitude. We will not take a backseat to anybody, especially in this city . . . I don’t care what conference you’re in. This is home for us, and we’re going to defend it. People in this city want to see the University of Memphis football program be successful. You have to walk into homes with conviction, passion, and a vision. If I come into your home, I’m coming with what I think is the best product, the best university for you. I believe that, and that’s the way I approach it. When I talk to parents, they want to be able to embrace the good things that are going on in this city.
Who are the difference-makers among your returning players?
Defensively, there’s [lineman] Dontari Poe, Jamon Hughes at linebacker, Marcus Ball in the secondary. Our receiving corps is a group that can be very productive, and an advantage for us. A lot of these guys are unproven: Marcus Rucker, Jermaine McKenzie, Billy Foster. There are a number of guys with potential.
Can you develop raw talent in the limited practice time you have in the spring?
You have to. There are parts of your team you have to develop; you have to have a sense of urgency, no matter what phase it is. As you go through spring ball and you scrimmage, it gives you a sense of where each individual is, where each phase of your team is. Then you go back and work to improve each area. We have to work as if the fall is now.
Are you close to finding a quarterback among your five candidates?
We’ve got it narrowed down. We’re going to focus on two or three guys, get through the spring, then have a battle in the fall.
What are the qualities you want to see in your starting quarterback?
First of all, decision-making. Then being able to manage the game. Third, to have a presence and be a leader out there. The intangibles are just as important, if not more so, than the talent at that position. There are going to be a lot of situations when that position is going to be tested. It tests your character. When you go back and look across the country, there’s not one successful program that doesn’t have a quarterback who’s productive.
I’ve been in a situation [at LSU] where we had JaMarcus Russell in 2006, and he was the top pick in the NFL draft. Then we came back in ’07 and won the national championship with Matt Flynn, who was less talented.
Does it help to have five guys competing for the job?
Not always, from the standpoint of reps, because that’s what a quarterback needs. Schemes, concepts, situations, all game-like situations. You have to scale back. It’s unfortunate, but it’s real.
What’s the area that has to be improved most between now and September 4th?
Our offensive line has to be a catalyst for what we want to do. We want to put the best five on the field. Rhythm and continuity of offense is critical, and it all starts up front.
Are you getting comfortable in having to evaluate every position group on the team?
All positions on offense, I’m extremely comfortable with. Defensively, I understand what I need to look for, and I know what we have to improve to be better. I enjoy the fact that I get to go around to each individual position. I need to know my players more.
I’m not just a football coach. These kids need me as a role model, as a problem-solver, as an ear. They need me in so many different ways. I enjoy that, getting to know their issues and helping them to grow as young men.
The annual Blue-Gray Game will be played this Saturday at the Liberty Bowl. Kickoff is at 1 pm and admission is free.