The University of Memphis football team will play its annual spring game — Friday Night Stripes — this Friday at the Liberty Bowl. It will be the first public appearance at his new home stadium (with his team on display) for Tiger coach Mike Norvell. I sat down recently with the first-year coach to talk football, future, and first impressions.
Welcome to Memphis. What are your first impressions of the city you now call home?
I had a pretty good sense of the community from visiting [Norvell played college ball at Central Arkansas]. Making the transition to living here, it's been everything I hoped it would be. Whether it's going out to eat, visiting various establishments in the community, going to Overton Square . . . what they've done downtown is incredible. The growth and direction the city is going, I'm so proud to be a part of it. You see it here at the University of Memphis as a school.
Are you recognized in public? Or is there still a degree of anonymity?
That's one of the neat things. You see the excitement in the community, walking down the street and hearing, "Go Tigers!" I don't take that lightly. We know who we represent, that we're recognized in this city. It makes us proud. We'll continue to set a high standard for how we do things.
There must be some cultural differences between the program you left (Arizona State) and the U of M. What has come across as distinctive since you arrived?
The place where I came from, no one is truly from there. A lot of move-ins. People here are proud of where we're from. A lot of people have been born and raised here, a lot of people have graduated from the University of Memphis. There's a tremendous amount of support. Not just support of a program, but support of a community. We want to see a university that is showcased, and a city that is showcased nationally. It's more personal [here] and that's what I'm about. I'm about relationships. You have to fit a place. My wife and I were talking the other day, and I told her I'm not sure I've ever been more comfortable living in a place than I have been the last five months in Memphis.
Since you arrived, you've emphasized "fit" and "family." How do you recognize a good fit for the program? Is it immediate or can it be developed?
It's built over time. I have a strong belief in where this program can go, and what we can do with this opportunity. The number-one criteria for every staff member I brought in . . . I want a heart-led coach. I want somebody who will emphasize strong relationships, strong bonds. If you're not working to impact your players on a personal level, you'll only get them to go so far. Every prospect we bring in, we're looking to see how they fit within our team: their personality, their goals, their aspirations. Recruiting doesn't start and end in one day; it's a long process. They think they're evaluating us. There's only one way to build a relationship and that's through time. We're trying to maximize every moment to identify the best fit for us. It's a challenge, but it's a rewarding feeling . . . to see them have that success, and not just on the football field but for the next 15, 20 years of their lives.
How quickly can a new head coach bond with his players? As early as the first spring camp?
I have a 22-month-old daughter [Mila]. Every day, I'm building that relationship. What I do formulates the relationship we'll have the rest of our lives. I want the Memphis football team to look like a family. That's why I'm in coaching. We're helping grow young men. A good number of the players on this team did not come from a two-parent home. This is the first time they're living away from home. The decisions they make over the next four or five years will impact the rest of their lives. To be able to give them guidance and structure . . . . We all have different upbringings, but I try and emphasize three core values: service, sacrifice, and respect.
My number-one job as head coach is to serve our football team. By providing them with structure. We've got to have a standard: academically, socially, the decisions we make. The key to the service is accountability.
When you walk into our locker room, every guy, in the back of his locker, has a picture of the most important people in their lives, those who have helped get them to this point. We look at these pictures every single day for about 30 seconds. The reason those people are up on the wall is because they sacrificed. The only reason you sacrifice for anything in this world is because you love it. I love this game. We have to sacrifice for each other. It's a key component of family.
And the last thing is respect. We have to show respect. I want to show respect in relationships, how we present ourselves, the way we walk and talk. All those things are important. You never know what your first impression is going to mean. We won't be perfect, by any means, but we want to make sure we have a high standard. When one of my players asks me a question, I'm going to answer, 'Yes sir, no sir.' If I show them respect, hopefully they'll see me worthy of receiving respect. So many people today think they should demand respect at the beginning. I believe you have to show it before you can receive it.
What are your impressions of the squad to date, starting with the offense?
We're gonna push the pedal to the metal, play as fast as we can. The way we practice and train, everything we do is focused on tempo. It's an offense built for playmakers. And we have some guys here who can be very impactful. Our job as coaches is to put them in positions that will highlight all their skills and talents.
[Wide receiver] Anthony Miller and Trevon Tate up on the offensive line, [wide receiver] Phil Mayhue, our running backs, Sam Craft and Doroland Dorceus. Darrell Henderson is a true freshman [running back], an early enrollee that I don't think a lot of people know about and he's been a standout in spring practice.
We'll take what the defense gives us. We'll be balanced. We'll try and establish the run, but if the defense tries to take that away, we'll be balanced and take what they give us. We have to be efficient at both [the running game and passing game].
Tell us about the quarterback position; big shoes to fill.
Yeah, literally. [Junior college transfer] Riley Ferguson has done a great job of coming to this team and jumping in with both feet. Our guys have been really drawn to him. We have Jason Stewart, a fifth-year senior with a lot of leadership ability. And a redshirt freshman, Brady Davis. He's competing his tail off. He's extremely talented. We have a true freshman coming in who I think has a chance at competing, David Moore out of Atlanta. When I got here, I told the guys, if there's one position I'll guarantee competition, it's quarterback.
What will be the trait that earns a quarterback the starting job?
The guy that can truly manage the offense. Our quarterback has to make us go. If you have an offense built for playmakers, he has to be the key playmaker. Take what the defense gives you, play within the system. Guys who can extend plays against different blitz packages. Mobility is a factor, but I'm not looking at a certain 40 time. Most people would say Tom Brady and Peyton Manning aren't mobile, but they know how to extend plays.
What should fans expect from your defense? Lots of players returning.
Last year was a very young team that I thought improved as the season moved along. We've signed some playmakers there. We were able to sign Jonathan Cook, a dynamic safety. We have a lot of experience in the back end. We're excited about our depth in the defensive front. We'll base out of four down linemen, with some flexibility. [Linebacker] Genard Avery has a chance to be an impact player. We're looking at competition at some spots.
We want to be an impactful defense. We want to lead the country in takeaways, force negative plays that lead to three-and-outs. We need to be great on third down and a top defense in the red zone. We're gonna focus on recruiting speed.
With your background as an offensive coordinator, are you comfortable coaching defense?
I know what I don't like to see [as an offensive coordinator]. I know things that are difficult to go against. Coach [Chris] Ball will run the defense. When you play good defense, it makes everything better. I'll try to be a sounding board for him.
What was your favorite team and player growing up?
I grew up about a mile-and-a-half from Texas Stadium. I'd walk over to the stadium about three hours before [games on Sunday] and watch the Cowboys walk through the tunnel. Troy Aikman. Michael Irvin. There were a lot of championships being won. That was the team I most followed.
Do you remember when you caught the coaching bug? When did you begin considering this as a career?
When I was in 7th grade. Coaches have been some of the most impactful people in my life. David Reese in Pop Warner. We still have a relationship today. Mike Barber in high school. He was a former NFL player. I'd stay with him so many nights a week. He was a tremendous mentor. They held me to a certain set of values. I hope the young men who play for me one day look at me the same way I look at my former coaches. I believe that would be a job well done. The impact they had goes much further than what I did on the football field. I didn't want to let them down. Being that mentoring figure is a huge job and an important responsibility. If you took relationships out of football, I promise you I'd quit tomorrow.
Your predecessor took this program to heights it had never reached before. Is this intimidating at all, or motivating?
It's funny. When I got here people were telling me, 'Coach, you're taking on a job with high expectations.' My response has always been that I wouldn't have taken this job if there weren't those expectations. When I sat down with [U of M president] David Rudd, [athletic director] Tom Bowen, and Brad Martin, there was an excitement about this opportunity. I've always believed in what Memphis can become. Justin [Fuente] and his staff did a great job of developing a culture of winning, but we still have not achieved all the goals we've set out as a program.
We've used the motto of taking the next step. Every player, every coach . . . we want to take the next step. The only way to accomplish that is to focus on today, being the best I've ever been. Focus on the opportunity in front of me. It's gonna take everybody to get where we want to go. The expectations all have to rise. You had games last year that came down to one play. That's the nature of football. We've seen a glimpse of greatness, but we still haven't accomplished our goals.