Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Three (More) Thoughts on Memphis Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Sep 14, 2011 at 7:00 AM

“Fire the coach!” — When a college football program falls on hard times and a coaching change is made, there’s a bit of conventional wisdom you’ll hear from check-writing boosters and casual, fair-weather fans: The new coach will need three or four years before we see progress. I’ve yet to hear, “The new coach will need three or four years, unless he loses 11 straight and gets clobbernockered by Arkansas State.”

There are more than 80 players on a college football roster. Most of them don’t make an impact on the field until their third season on campus (often including a redshirt year). Larry Porter’s challenge is greater than that of a basketball coach, who can turn his program around immediately with a single strong recruiting class. To Porter’s credit, he’s sending a team on the field these days with many of his own recruits, however raw their talents may be. And yes, those recruits are getting clobbernockered.

Dismiss Porter, and this leaking ship is still a leaking ship, just with no direction. A point would be made (that the administration is impatient), but little gain would be realized.

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“Fire the A.D.!” — By many measures, the University of Memphis has a tremendously successful athletic department that has been steered, for 15 years now, by R.C. Johnson. The baseball team plays in a new ballpark and produced the 2010-11 Conference USA Athlete of the Year. Both soccer programs win every fall, and the women’s team may contend for a national championship at its current pace. (A coincidence that these teams play in a still-new stadium named for one of the university’s most prominent boosters?) In terms of fundraising, more than 40 people have donated at least $500,000 to the athletic department (it’s called the Ambassador’s Club). That’s the kind of money that will pay for a recruiting trip or two. And I haven’t even mentioned the men’s basketball program, still the flagship sports entity for the entire city.

But . . . it’s all about football. Whether or not this is healthy depends on how seriously you take your fall Saturdays. (My colleague Greg Akers has an opinion on the matter.) The U of M never joins a big-ticket conference without a successful football program. And whether success is measured by 10-win seasons or second-tier bowl games, it’s certainly not measured by 40-point losses to teams from the Sun Belt Conference. If you measure R.C. Johnson’s performance as athletic director by the progress his football program has made since 1996, he’s failed. When or if a change is made to dramatically shift the focus and direction of the program, it will include Johnson’s departure.

“Fire the president!” — It’s a shame Shirley Raines went public with a letter summarizing the priority football remains in her office. As the university’s CEO, it’s not her responsibility to field a winning football team (or field any football team at all, for that matter). Dr. Raines should keep her focus on hiring the best economics professors, equipping the chemistry labs with the latest in technology, making sure the school’s endowment figures parallel those of similar public institutions across the country.

The only time a college president’s name should appear in the same paragraph as the football team should be when (or if) a new conference affiliation is announced. (Or when she fires an athletic director.) Tiger football fans have every right to scream at the head coach and athletic director. Decisions they make yield the results we all see on those fall Saturdays. But unless you’re an academics booster with your checks going toward institutional development, leave criticism of the university president at the turnstile.

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