If there was any debate on whether or not the U of M should retain football coach Larry Porter, it went something like this:
• KEEP HIM — There’s a standard thought among college administrators, boosters, casual fans, and even media types when a new coach is hired to rebuild a struggling football program: “You gotta give him three or four years.” Turning around a football program goes beyond a single prize recruit, or a single prize recruiting class. Even with Porter’s reputation as a recruiting star during his days as an assistant at LSU, the Tigers had reached a depth that will require two or three solid recruiting classes and, importantly, the seasoning of those classes before it will show on the scoreboard on fall Saturdays. So why the panic after just two years?
This year’s seniors and juniors — those who didn’t transfer to the U of M — were all recruited by Tommy West. A talent divide on both sides of the ball hamstrung Porter, but it’s not entirely of his doing. Six of 11 defensive starters in the home finale against Marshall were West recruits. (Somewhat tellingly, only three of the offensive starters that night preceded Porter.) The second-year coach did what he could to get his players on the field, most obviously with freshman quarterback Taylor Reed. He’s started freshmen at receiver (Kevin Wright), offensive tackle (Al Bond), and cornerback (Bobby McCain). Perhaps these will be the stars of a competitive Tiger team in 2012 and 2013. Are they to be coached by someone who didn’t recruit them?
Once a Memphis team is built around three or four Larry Porter recruiting classes, he could be fairly judged on the team’s performance and progress. But that requires a bit more patience, however uncomfortable for a slump-shouldered fan base.
• DUMP HIM — About that fan base. Let’s forget that fewer than 3,000 fans showed up to watch the Tigers play Marshall in their home finale on November 17th. It’s been a rotten season (again), it was a cold night, and the game was on television (for those prepared to endure another loss, but in the warmth of their living room). The most damaging figure from that last home game of Larry Porter’s second season was 15,105, the number of tickets sold. For a team playing in a stadium that will seat as many as 60,000, one that has seen crowds that average more than 30,000 as recently as 2006, the ticket sales for that UAB game were pitiful. Consider that 16,294 tickets were sold to see the Tiger basketball team two days earlier. For a game played in the middle of the day . . . on a Tuesday! There are Tiger sports fans more inclined to skip work and watch the basketball team than to pay to watch the football team when off the clock. It’s an ugly contrast.
Those ticket-buyers who skipped the UAB contest missed a good game, one of the few Memphis played competitively into the fourth quarter under Porter. With last weekend’s drubbing by Southern Miss, the Tigers lost 14 games by at least 20 points in Porter’s two seasons at the helm. The defense gave up more than 40 points 13 times. The offense scored fewer than 20 points 17 times. These are grotesque numbers to football fans, and really the only ones that matter. If the Tigers’ final record of 2-10 is considered progress on Porter’s 1-11 inaugural campaign, were Memphis fans prepared for 3-9 next fall?
If there was any debate, it was one-sided. Within hours of the season-ending loss in Hattiesburg (if not before), Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson had seen enough. In a release Sunday morning, Johnson said, “The expectations for the 2011 season were to see marked improvement in the team. Now that the season has been completed, I do not feel that we have seen enough improvement for the future to justify keeping this football staff in place for another year.”
So the search begins (again) for a coach to build a weak-sister football program into one that might attract the eyes of a BCS league. If there’s a bigger challenge for a college football coach in America, find it. The challenge for the U of M administration, of course, is convincing a coach — he’s somewhere out there — that taking the Tiger job is a step up the career ladder. Not since Fred Pancoast departed after the 1974 season has a Memphis football coach left with a winning record.
Is Houston Nutt the guy? Having left Arkansas and Ole Miss, it would seem Nutt would be taking another step down the ladder of Mid-South football prestige by taking the U of M job. Mike Leach? His record at Texas Tech is remarkable (10 straight winning seasons in the middle of Longhorn country), but if he’s Candidate A, why hasn’t he been coaching the last two seasons? In the December issue of Memphis magazine, my colleague John Branston advocates for Arkansas State coach Hugh Freeze. If there was one game during the brief Porter era that established where exactly the Tiger program sits, it was the 47-3 evisceration at the hands of ASU a little over two months ago. Freeze probably has a handle on the Memphis weaknesses.
At a press conference today, Johnson is expected to announce his imminent retirement. Which begs the question: Who will be in charge of hiring Porter’s successor? (The new football coach may turn out to be merely the second most important hire by the athletic department over the next year.) President Shirley Raines will obviously play a big role. There are local powers with various proximity to the football program that have an interest in seeing the program become what a still-loyal fan base believes it can. One told me Sunday, “The University of Memphis fan base is a very good one — underestimated and underappreciated. I have been surprised how resilient and loyal the fans have been in spite of the lack of commitment and poor decisions over the years.”
Firing a rebuilding coach after just two years all but wipes out any player development under that coach. A disturbing thought until you consider those players were “developing” by losing 21 of 24 football games. The first words to greet Larry Porter’s successor should be, “Welcome aboard.” The next words: “Take a deep breath.”