Memphis 17-10 victory over East Carolina was the most important win in recent memory. It ranks right up there with the win over Auburn in 1975, Alabama in 1987, Southern Cal in 1991. Certainly it is the most important of the Rip Scherer era. Yes, even bigger than the 1996 win over the University of Tennessee.
Forget for just a moment the aspects of this story that make it the feel-good sports story of the year. It was the most important win for Scherer because of three other factors.
Scherer needed a victory in the worst sort of way. Many people were about to give up on the team. Others already had. The theme on talk-radio (and isnt that the forum where we go to take the vital signs of the local sports market?) was: Rip Scherer is not going to get it done at the University of Memphis. Yes, he is a nice guy (always that caveat), but he just isnt a good football coach.
The win over East Carolina cannot be tossed aside. Memphis won the game without receiving the benefit of questionable calls and lucky bounces. The UT victory was big but it was mostly a fluke. The Tigers played a much more complete game in a 17-16 loss at Knoxville last year.
Rip Scherer never needed a win more than the one he got Saturday.
2. The Competition
East Carolina is one of two dominant teams in Conference USA. To get over the last hurdle at Memphis, Scherer needed a win against ECU or Southern Miss. He got it Saturday. Besides the conference affiliation, East Carolina is a nationally respected team. Beating the Pirates is a big deal. Syracuse couldnt do it a couple of weeks ago. Miami, North Carolina State, and West Virginia couldnt do it last year. This is a win about which the Tigers can justifiably feel proud.
Of the 22 wins Scherer has accumulated at the University of Memphis, 14 have come against Arkansas State (4), Tulane (3), Cincinnati (3), Army (2), and UAB (2). Most of the others have been equally mediocre teams like Louisiana-Monroe and Tulsa. The only wins against quality opponents in the past five-and-a-half years came in 1996: Tennessee and Missouri.
3. One Step Closer to a Winning Season
Scherer has to have a winning season in 2000. Even the University of Memphis couldnt afford to keep a coach who hadnt won in six seasons. With a 4-2 record, the Tigers now look like a lock for a six-win season. 7-4 is likely. 8-3 is not out of the question. A bowl game will probably be extended if Memphis can finish 6-5. With a winning season, recruiting becomes easier. Other schools cannot tell recruits that Scherer is soon going to be fired. With another solid recruiting season -- the 1999 class is looking better all the time with Jeremiah Bonds, Derrick Ballard, and Darren Garcia contributing as true freshmen -- the Tigers could finally be close to establishing themselves in C-USA.
Of course the win Saturday was big for Scherer in ways only a father can appreciate. Not only did his son play with poise and confidence, not only did he lead the team efficiently on three first-quarter scoring drives, but his team rallied around him. And that is what a real quarterback does -- rally the troops. As a former quarterback himself, Scott Scherers old man knows that.
Scott may only be 5-8, and that presented some problems for him Saturday, but he is a natural leader who has earned the respect of the Memphis team. In some ways it couldnt have been easy. He is the coachs son. He carries a 4.0 grade point average. There is every reason in the world for his teammates to dislike and resent him. But Scott has overcome all of that.
The kid is smart. He learned a lot carrying his fathers headset all those years in high school. He must have listened in the offensive meetings, too, because you could tell this guy understands the offense. He knows how it is supposed to be run. He threw passes where his receivers could catch the ball and make something happen. He played with the poise of a fifth-year senior and the entire team rallied behind him.
After the offense came off the field following the opening 84-yard drive, his teammates came up to him one-by-one to congratulate the quarterback. The offensive linemen and the defense and the special teams players, even the guys who never get on the field. Scott Scherer led the Tigers to victory Saturday and dont let anyone tell you it wasnt a big win.
It was the biggest.
(You can write Dennis Freeland at email@example.com