Okay, so once again the University of Memphis is at the Rubicon, wondering whether to cross over and do what it takes, at some risk (most of it financial), to generate a serious football program, or, alternatively, to stick to the side of the river it knows so intimately well: the pastureland of pure ineptitude.
And when we say "pure," we're not exaggerating. Week after week during this abominable season, the University of Memphis Tigers were characterized as the worst team in college football by ESPN and this or that fan blog or news service.
Worst on offense. Worst on defense. Worst in weekly game plans. Worst in coaching expertise. Worst in fan attendance.
This has happened at a time when all the BCS conferences are making a point of strengthening themselves via realignment. And basketball can't make up the difference. A viable football program, as U of M athletic director R.C. Johnson himself, now formally on his way out like just-fired coach Larry Porter, told the Memphis Rotary Club just weeks ago, is what the expanding big-league conferences are looking for.
We already saw what happened when Memphis had to bid farewell some years back to longtime rivals and conference mates Cincinnati and Louisville, who were accepted in the Big East while Memphis was shunned. And that's when the University of Memphis had as its basketball coach John Calipari, who was unmistakably building a national powerhouse. At the moment, Josh Pastner's teams, good as they are, have not yet achieved quite the same level of consistency and national regard.
Nor should we kid ourselves that the Memphis football program's failures aren't a big deal. There is no dearth of good, reasoned arguments — including one from our own Greg Akers just weeks ago — to the effect that universities should focus their efforts and resources not on big-time athletics but on matters of curriculum and research.
All well and good, but one of the things that came out in the wash from the recent debacle at Penn State University involving a looking-the-other-way at an assistant coach's habits of sexual molestation was the revelation of just how much power the oft-lionized head coach Joe Paterno wielded at the university and just how much in the way of additional resources Penn State had come by during Joe Pa's decades of national success.
That's the elephant in the room. At a time when budgetary support is shrinking for state-supported institutions like the University of Memphis, the reality is that a successful football team generates add-on revenue and endowments and an aura of attractiveness to potential students. And the undeniable fact, clearly observable in the citizen reaction to the accomplishments of the aforesaid basketball Tigers and, as of last season, the Memphis Grizzlies, is that sports successes are morale builders for the community.
So it is, seemingly against all logic, that hopes are still alive that were first kindled when defensive back John Griffin ran back an errant first-quarter pass for a touchdown against Ole Miss, then ranked number one, in that 1960 game that turned so unexpectedly and excitingly competitive. The question for the University of Memphis is simple: Do we punt? Or go for it?