A Better Day

Tiger football may have taken a step forward, despite the loss to 11th-ranked Miami.

Maybe what we saw last weekend at the Liberty Bowl was the beginning of a new era in University of Memphis football. It started in the parking lot with some serious tailgating and ended up on the field where the Tigers started their largest offensive line in school history. The athletic department has beefed up its marketing efforts, while the players have adopted a new strategy for size, strength, and quickness.

The handiwork can be traced directly to a pair of new faces in the U of M athletic department athletic director R.C. Johnson and head football coach Rip Scherer. Both men brought in young experts to help them install new systems. Johnson named Kevin Grothe, 33, assistant athletic director last spring and put him in charge of marketing, promotions, and fund-raising for Tiger athletics. Scherer hired Steve Plisk, 34, to be his strength and conditioning coach, the same position he had held under Scherer at James Madison.

The results in both marketing and football strength were evident Saturday. Several radio stations threw parties in the parking lot prior to kickoff in a game in which most of the Memphis players had recently met personal bests on the bench press.

There is a noticeable difference around the U of M athletic department these days. Lish Trice, an account executive with the university's athletic fund-raising arm, the Tiger Clubs, used a coffee cup to explain the change. "Under the previous administration, the athletic department was like this," Trice says turning his cup mouthside down over a saucer. "Now, it's like this," he continues, turning the cup back upright. "This is the first time I've felt like I was part of a team since my playing days."

The new athletic department is more user-friendly. It is more involved. Evidence of that involvement was on display at a Tiger Clubs cookout before the final preseason scrimmage at the Liberty Bowl. Among the 600 in attendance was the entire university athletic department, including coaches and support staff who sometimes manage to miss these affairs.

"It's just nice to see the university hire a guy like Kevin Grothe," said one longtime Tiger supporter last week. "He's so smooth; he's nothing like the Bubbas they usually hire out there."

And one of the smoothest things Grothe has done is further extending a long-term relationship between the university athletic department and the Byrd family, owners of the Bank of Bartlett. By far the biggest pre-game party last Saturday was the Bank of Bartlett Beach Party. The Byrds spent in the mid-five-figure range for the party, which attracted hundreds of fans, supporters, and former players. "The Byrds have sold more season tickets with this one party than Charlie Cavagnaro sold the entire time he was here," said one Highland Hundred member who helped with the party.

Yes, there were empty seats in the stadium, but the crowd of 32,096 was the largest home gate since Memphis beat Arkansas in front of 34,678 in 1994. Yes, the team still lost, but they somehow managed to look more like a football team.

While Saturday was a step in the right direction, nothing either Johnson or Scherer has done so far is the stuff of lasting legacy. Johnson still has to deal with the athletic department's well-documented financial woes, along with the issue of Larry Finch and Tiger basketball.

Some previous donors are telling Johnson they won't contribute until the basketball coach is fired. If Finch's team defies the experts and wins enough games to return to the NCAA tournament for the fifth time in six years, Johnson could well find himself on the lonely side of an ugly triangle if he tries to appease the naysayers. Despite his early success, plenty of pitfalls remain for R.C. Johnson.

And if anything, Scherer's road is even more rocky. He heads a program that has not produced a hot coaching property since Fred Pancoast used a .631 winning percentage as a springboard to what he thought was a better job in 1974. It turned out, of course, that going to Vanderbilt was the worst decision Pancoast ever made. But that's it. Fred Pancoast is the only head football coach who ever left Memphis for a "better" job.

It isn't easy to win in Memphis. The distractions mainly in the form of Tennessee, Ole Miss, and Arkansas are significant. The history is downright depressing. When the last hope for your football program is a new conference including Tulane and Cincinnati, you had better lace your hiking boots tightly. Scherer has proven only that he can talk the talk. As with Johnson, all that really matters are results, or more correctly in this case, in the bottom line. Right now both the AD and the coach are running in the red.

But Conference USA provides a glimmer of hope. When Cincinnati played Tulane in the first conference game last week on national TV it was more than just another football game between two hapless programs going nowhere. The game actually meant something. People in Memphis watched the game with a vested interest. It had meaning for the Memphis football program, for the Liberty Bowl, and thus for the city itself. Cincinnati and Tulane in a meaningful game. Who would have dreamed that?

The last time the University of Memphis played a meaningful game at the Liberty Bowl was November 19, 1995. It stands as a watershed moment in the Tiger football program. The opponent was East Carolina. A bid to the Liberty Bowl game awaited the winner. Only 23,355 fans turned out for the game despite beautiful weather. After the 30-6 loss, university president Lane Rawlins decided to clean house. He fired Stobart and put athletic director Charles Cavagnaro on notice. Seven months later Cavagnaro left for UNLV.

Last season, Scherer, battling some resentment from upperclassmen, struggled to install his football schemes. By the time the Tigers played their first home game on September 16th, the team was 0-2 and had already gone through three starting quarterbacks. Only 17,230 watched Scherer's home debut. The coach was only a little defensive when asked about the low turnout. "I've done all I can do," he said matter of factly. He was right. Without a marketing plan and the staff to carry it out, the head coach can only sell so many tickets.

It was hot and sunny Saturday. More than 30,000 fans came to the Liberty Bowl. They came early. They partied. They cheered mightily for their underdog team. The stadium was only half full, but there was a difference in the air. You could feel it.

There was a difference in the locker room too, and it started at the top. Scherer, who was fairly unpleasant after a couple of his three victories last year, was gracious and optimistic following the Miami game. He and his team now seem much closer. The defense and the offense still sit in clusters on opposite ends of the locker room, but there is now more of a spirit among them, a camaraderie missing in past years.

Listen to linebacker Richard Hogans, the senior linebacker who is bigger, stronger, and quicker than ever after spending hours working the Plisk conditioning program. "I think we played well as a team," Hogans said after the Miami game. "You can't just say the defense played well." Or listen to defensive tackle Tim Hart, also a senior: "I feel real good about the way we played. It ain't just about defense. I feel good about the way this whole team played."

Defensive players speaking up on behalf of the offense. This must really be a new day for the U of M.

Around the Locker Room

One of the perks of being a sports reporter is getting to see how big, tough football players react to losing. After seeing Tim Hart (that kid from Central) around the locker room for the past four years I interviewed him after the Miami loss and was struck by the eloquence in his pain. "When you've got two teams playing and both of them are physically tough and mentally tough and both of them are getting after it, and both teams are physically capable of kicking butt, it's going to come down to who makes the least mistakes," Hart told me even before he removed his uniform. "We made more mistakes. They beat us in that aspect, but at no point in that game did I feel like they were a better team than us, that they were going to beat us. I still can't believe that they beat us." Memphis wanted to play power football with Miami and run the football behind the largest offensive line in school history (289.8 pounds-per-starter), but Miami was too quick up front and limited the Tigers to 91 yards in 33 attempts. It was the 15th consecutive game Memphis has gone without a hundred-yard back. Most observers thought the Hurricanes, in their second year under coach Butch Davis, exhibited less of the showboat/taunting style typical of previous Miami teams. "From my standpoint I didn't see any of it," said wide receiver Richie Floyd, who made his first career start and caught three balls. "They were class players today," added junior college transfer Justin Munn, a starter at offensive tackle. "Trust me, there was a lot of trash talking out there," laughs middle linebacker Richard Hogans. "But that's just football. You can expect that, whether it's Miami or Mississippi State or whoever it is." "I'm happy to make some catches," said Floyd, who missed most of last season due to injury and was redshirted his freshman season in 1994. "It's the first time I've had the ball in my hands in about three years." Floyd was a dangerous punt returner at Graves County High in Mayfield, Kentucky, returning two for touchdowns his senior year. Don't tell defensive tackle Tony Williams the Tiger defenders were tired in the fourth quarter. "We didn't get tired," Williams said. "We could have played another quarter."

Around Conference USA

The new league opened 2-0 against the SEC, with both wins coming on the road Louisville over Kentucky and Southern Miss over Georgia. Several who witnessed Tulane slapping around the Bearcats in Cincinnati say the Green Wave improvement is directly tied to head coach Buddy Teevens empowering his offensive and defensive coordinators. Cincy obviously misses Tim Rose and his staff. With 10 starters back but a new defensive scheme under (Buddy's son) Rex Ryan, the UC defense looked positively dreadful. Rose has moved on to Minnesota, where he is defensive coordinator. Ron Cooper is catching heat for "running up the score" in the Cards 38-14 win at Kentucky. The rest of the C-USA coaches would love to be in a situation where they could be accused of running it up on their school's top rival. Rip Scherer running it up against Tennessee? Teevens' Tulane team stomping on LSU? Not likely.