Rip Scherer called me last Thursday. I dont know how the next few days are going to play out," he said, but I wanted to call you and apologize for the things I said to you.
The coach was referring to a conversation we had three weeks previous. Scherer had been upset after I wrote a column saying that maybe it would be better for him to resign than to go through the ordeal of being fired. But here he was, two days away from the last game he would ever coach at the University of Memphis, calling to apologize.
Even at the end, Rip was Rip.
Monday at a press conference to announce his firing, Scherer wanted to make it clear that he had not quit. He wanted in the worst way to remain the Tigers head coach. Nothing could make him give up. Not six straight losing seasons, not talk radio shows calling for his ouster, not newspaper columnists speculating on his future.
I know it will be an upset if we are allowed to come back, Scherer said during that telephone conversation, but upsets do happen.
Not this time, Coach, not this time. His team that had played so gallantly all season long ran out of steam against a Tulane squad playing for a winning season and a possible bowl invitation. When Memphis scored a touchdown in the first quarter on a 25-yard pass from Scott Scherer to Ryan Johnson only to see it nullified by a penalty, what little wind left in the Tigers sails dissipated. By halftime the score was 17-0. There was nothing left to do but fire the coach. U of M Athletic Director R.C. Johnson did that on Sunday morning.
Monday the coach stayed and talked to reporters, trying to put the past six years in some kind of perspective.
Its been a tough four weeks, its been a tough week, and its been a tough 24 hours, Scherer said. You put your heart and soul into something like we have here -- so much of your existence, your family, every waking moment for the last six years. It is frustrating that you couldnt bring it to fruition.
Why did this coach-- whose work habits are as unquestioned as his integrity -- fail? Here are three reasons:
Scherer started eight different quarterbacks in six seasons. He staked his future on Westwoods Kenton Evans and by the end he was playing his son, a 58 walk-on, at the position. But it is Bernard Oden who sums up Scherers quarterback problems.
Recruited by Chuck Stobarts staff, Oden had to sit out his freshman season as a non-qualifier. When Scherer arrived in 1995, Oden was a sophomore battling Qadry Anderson and Joe Borich for the starting quarterback job. Oden entered the first game of the Rip Scherer era at Mississippi State as the third-string quarterback. But when Anderson went down with a knee injury and Borich had trouble moving the team, Oden came in and almost sparked the team to a come-from-behind victory.
The next week, at Michigan, Oden again came on in relief of Borich and put on a magnificent display of courage. He took a physical beating; they kept carrying him off the field, but Oden kept coming back.
The next week, Oden got his first start and Scherer got his first win over Southwest Louisiana, 33-19. It was an ugly win, the kind Memphis fans would see often -- although in retrospect, not often enough -- during the next six years. Scherer was disappointed that Oden made several mistakes and did not start him for the next 19 games. The next season Oden was moved to flanker, but rarely played. He pouted and talked about quitting.
But in the spring before his senior year, Oden had a change of heart and won the coach over with his hard work. He started every game in 1997 -- the only quarterback to do so in the past six years -- and set the single season passing mark with 2,249 yards. Memphis went 4-7 but three of the losses were by a total of nine points and Oden was voted a team captain.
Oden had a chance to play another season because he would graduate in four years (a NCAA rule allows non-qualifiers to regain the year that they lost if they can graduate in four years). But Scherer said, No thanks. The coach told associates that Memphis would never be better than a 4-7 team with Oden as their quarterback. The next season the Tigers were 2-9 and started three different quarterbacks.
Scherer could have had the same starting quarterback for his first four years. Who knows how good Oden would have become if he had been given the chance to play early in his career? But Bernard Oden was not a Scherer-type player. He wasnt poised and articulate. He was tough and athletic, but that wasnt enough for Scherer and they both suffered for it.
Scherer wasted a lot of time hoping that Evans would be his quarterback. It didnt pan out. Evans would repeatedly disappoint Scherer before transferring to Tennessee State. Last season Neil Suber and Travis Anglin played musical chairs at quarterback. Scherer kept concentrating on what they didnt do well -- running for Suber; passing for Anglin. Coming into this pivotal season, Scherers sixth, the quarterback position was still unsettled.
Add Danny Wimprine to the mix. During the first week of practice it was clear the freshman from John Curtis High School in Louisiana was the best quarterback on the team, even Scherer said so privately. But the coach thought that the contract extension he received in 1999 meant he would not be fired this season, so he redshirted the best quarterback hed ever recruited to Memphis.
There is a saying among coaches that you dont redshirt players for the next coach, Scherer said on Monday. Had we had any idea that this was a possibility, I might have played some of those guys. By the end of the year, they might have had an impact on some of those games. I had made a commitment to Danny Wimprine and I just couldnt renege on that.
Scherer said he promised the player and his parents that he would only play him in an emergency. Thus the dilemma for the coach. Keep your word or keep your job. For Scherer that was an easy call.
* OFFENSIVE LINE
Other than quarterback, no position was as difficult for Scherer as offensive line. The primary reasons for this were: 1) a lack of talent at the position when Scherer arrived; 2) an inability to recruit to the position; 3) an unwillingness to move some of the excellent defensive linemen to the other side of the ball; 4) six offensive line coaches in six years.
Of these the last is by far the most devastating. Scherer had trouble keeping a staff together in general, but six offensive line coaches is ridiculous. The worst may have been this summer when Joe Susan left after being in Memphis less than six months. Rick Mallory was brought in and had to pull a line together with little time. The players had been under three different line coaches in the past 12 months! No wonder they had trouble.
The strong suit of the team this year was defensive line, with eight or 10 quality players. If Scherer had moved guys like Jarvis Slaton, Patrick Willis, and Boris Penchion to offense when they were freshmen, who knows how good the line could have been? It seemed a waste to have so many good defensive linemen on the bench when the offensive line was suffering.
Without a good offensive line, Memphis could not run or pass. They finished 111 out of 114 teams in total offense. If the line play had been better, Scherer might have won an extra two games a year. In that case I wouldnt be writing this column and Scherer would still have a job.
* LOCAL RECRUITING
With his first full recruiting class in 1996, Rip Scherer pulled in as good a group of Memphis players as the Tiger program had seen in a decade. Highlighted by Damien Dodson and Kenton Evans, the record-setting passing duo from Westwood, the class also included running back Teofilo Riley from Central and tight end Reid Hedgepeth from CBHS.
Dodson became the second leading receiver in school history and Riley, when he got a chance to run the ball, was excellent. But Evans was a bust and Hedgepeth left the team suddenly because of a dispute with one of the many offensive line coaches, Dave Magazu. After 1996, Scherer was unable to get the big-name local kids to sign. Only Willis and Marcus Bell, both from Kingsbury, and DeCorye Hampton from Westwood were key local signees and two of them, Hampton and Willis, had to sit out their first year because of academics.
After that Scherer seemed to give up on Memphis and instead turned his sites on the lucrative high schools of Georgia and Texas. But the program suffered because Memphis could not be competitive in its own city. Of course every Tiger coach has had this problem, but probably none to the extent Scherer did.
In his typically classy final press conference Scherer talked about how with a few more wins they would have drawn more fans and created the kind of winning atmosphere it will take to lure the local high school stars. He still thinks it can be done.
I really think this has a chance to be a turnaround program like a Tulane, an Arkansas, or a Louisville, where someone comes in and is able to have success early. And I hope they do, Scherer said. These kids deserve to be successful.
The former coach had this piece of advice on his way out. Put a 10, 12, $14 million facility over there [on the South Campus]. Put more money in the budget, he said. And I am saying this not as a bitter person at all. I am saying do it for the next guy so that you are not sitting here five or six years from now with the same kind of meeting. Thats the only way this cycle will stop.
Rip Scherer is no longer the head football coach of the University of Memphis. His constant optimism and steadfastness will be missed. It is easier to write about what went wrong under his regime than it is to fix the inherent problems. R.C. Johnson has an important job in finding a replacement for Scherer. But that is just the beginning. To be competitive, even in Conference USA, the university needs to make a lot of changes. But it all starts with winning. Its a cliché, but after all is said and done, that is the bottom line.