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VOL. 129 | NO. 159 | Friday, August 15, 2014

 

Former Tigers Head Man Finds Simpler Life at MTSU

By Don Wade

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In nine years as the head coach, Tommy West provided the University of Memphis with much of its football lore: five bowls – there have only been seven – and 49 wins (third-most all time).

But more than that, West provided the great moment of truth. In 2009, when it had been announced that West would not return for a 10th season, he delivered the shot heard ’round the world – or at least the shot heard ’round the Bluff City and the Highland Hundred booster club:

“At some point in time you’ve got to say, ‘We’ve got to help this football program,’” West said then. “We’ve got to do the things necessary to make this what we want it or do away with it.”

Former University of Memphis head coach Tommy West will be visiting Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium this season when his newest employer, Middle Tennessee State University, plays the Tigers.

(Submitted)

Yes, West suggested that the administration either step up its support of the football program or put it out of its misery. It was at this same presser that then-athletics director R.C. Johnson acted as if everything was just fine, even pointing out that Memphis was well-positioned for future recruiting.

“We have a great airport,” Johnson infamously said.

West’s final Memphis team limped home with a 2-10 record. Then came two years and three total wins under Larry Porter. Now Justin Fuente, 7-17 through two seasons, begins his third year.

West had done this head coaching thing before at Clemson (again, success followed by a firing), and in 2011 and 2012 he returned to college football as defensive coordinator at UAB and Southern Miss, respectively.

Now, at age 60, he is in his first year as a defensive line coach for Rick Stockstill’s Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders, who come to Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium on Sept. 20. And West, believe it or not, is looking forward to it.

“It’s weird,” West said. “This will be the third time I’m back. It really is strange. But as the years go by, I sit back and think about all the good times at Memphis. Any time you lose a job, there’s some bitterness. But that’s gone with me.

“I got an office in my house and there’s Memphis stuff up in it,” he said, and then he starts ticking off some of those good memories: “We went to five bowls in seven years, beating (Bobby) Petrino in Louisville, the Mississippi wins. … There’s some great memories.”

Those memories were more difficult, if not impossible, to summon when he returned with UAB two years after his firing.

“I didn’t want to come back,” he admitted.

But it feels different this time – “I’ve still got a lot of friends there,” West said – and part of it is that in his current role West has gone back to the beginning.

Every coach works his way up, teaching on the field, putting his hands in the dirt, until that point he gets promoted to a coordinator and life is about game plans. In West’s case, he then moved up to head coach. But the more his responsibilities grew, the further away he got from the players themselves and the actual teaching of football. West says there was a day he thought it might be fun to finish his career coaching high school kids.

“This is close,” he said, meaning he just has to worry about his defensive linemen and nothing else. “I still love to compete, still think I can help young people. I’m having a blast.”

Stockstill and West had been assistants together at Clemson, and when West became head coach, he kept Stockstill on board.

“Stock’s a big buddy,” he said. “Hiring somebody you’ve already worked with, you know what you’re going to get.”

That’s also sort of how West sees the job of head coach now: He knows what comes with it – and it’s a lot of money, yes, but a lot of stress, too.

“I don’t really want to do it again,” he said. “Now if the Cowboys call, I’ll take it.”

Until then, he’ll put his hands in the dirt and enjoy football in its purest form. He’ll also keep an eye on the Tigers. He wants to beat them, of course, but other than that game on Sept. 20, he says he is rooting for them.

He has followed closely enough to say that Fuente is “working his butt off,” and to notice there seems to be movement under athletic director Tom Bowen toward making more meaningful facility upgrades.

“The things I whined about,” West said with a laugh, adding, “I really would like to see them get it going.”

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