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VOL. 8 | NO. 51 | Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Right Fit

Memphis turns to 34-year-old Mike Norvell to help Tigers football take the “next step”

By Don Wade

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It was the middle of the season and the Tigers were rolling along at 7-0. They had climbed to No. 16 in the national polls and Paxton Lynch was being talked about as potentially the best quarterback in next spring’s NFL Draft.

More incredible, real human beings with deep knowledge of college football were openly discussing “what if?” scenarios where the University of Memphis went undefeated and crashed the College Football Playoff.

MIKE NORVELL, Head football coach, University of Memphis

Remember what the Memphis quarterback said then, when asked about all this heady success and his leading role in it?

“It’s definitely a special season for everybody, not just for me,” Lynch said. “I can’t go out there and win stuff by myself.”

Even more to the point, neither could Justin Fuente.

Yes, it was Fuente who led the Tigers to a 19-6 record in the last two seasons of his four-year tenure here. When Virginia Tech hired him away after the end of the regular season, the Tigers were sitting at 9-3 and about to get a bid to the Birmingham Bowl. The U of M set out on the modern coaching search, replete with Internet rumors and good old-fashioned competition for the same candidates.

Before Memphis hired 34-year-old Mike Norvell – then serving as the deputy head coach and offensive coordinator at Arizona State – most of the speculation fell on Barry Odom. He was Missouri’s defensive coordinator, but had held the same position here for three seasons under Fuente. Odom had plenty of U of M boosters in his corner, too.

Because Missouri also was looking for a new coach, negotiations with Odom stalled; powerful sports agent Jimmy Sexton ultimately placed Odom in an SEC job as Missouri finally hired Odom.

But the timing left Memphis dangling – or so it appeared – and the silence was, at minimum, frustrating.

Would Memphis have to settle for some retread? For about 48 hours, that was the fear.

“I slept good last night,” U of M deputy athletic director Mark Alnutt said with a smile the day after they secured Norvell.

Memphis athletic director Tom Bowen had promised confidentiality when he held a press conference after Fuente’s departure to briefly speak about the search for a new coach. He wasn’t going to feed the Twitter beast.

“Remember what Bowen said at the press conference? ‘I’m going dark,’” said Charlie Smithers, 67, a Highland Hundred board member and the booster club’s 2012 president. “He kept his mouth shut.”

Later, speaking to The Memphis News after the formal portion of Norvell’s introductory press conference, Bowen continued to hold the details of the search close. What he would concede: Norvell was one of three serious candidates, and Bowen and his team interviewed Norvell in New Orleans at an undisclosed location while Norvell was in the area on a recruiting trip for Arizona State.

Odom obviously was one of the other two candidates, but Bowen wouldn’t say if the third was a sitting head coach. He even bristled at being asked.

“Anybody at our level, whether they’ve been a sitting head coach or a coordinator, can coach the game,” Bowen said. “It’s got nothing to do about coaching the game. That can’t be the only criteria. The criteria has to be around leadership, recruiting, fit, style.”

And “fit” was the word most often used to describe this marriage. Norvell used it, Bowen used it and U of M president M. David Rudd used it.

What that meant exactly, however, Bowen did not say.

“End of story,” Bowen said. “He was the right fit. That’s what I get paid to do. He was the right fit.”

Good times and bad

Smithers attended Norvell’s press conference and heard him talk about meeting with his new team and looking into their eyes and seeing the “hunger” and the “fire.” He heard Norvell say bold things about Memphis’ football future, such as, “We can be a national force.”

So Norvell did a fine job of preaching to the choir.

But Smithers has been a fan since Chuck Stobart was Memphis’ coach from 1989 to 1992 – or since Norvell was in grade school. Long before there was a slick new Tiger Lane – “with grass and electricity,” Smithers said – he was having a high time tailgating with other Highland Hundred members on a cracked concrete parking lot.

And what Smithers and his compadres have learned is that a little caution is always in order. The most difficult days, he says, came after the DeAngelo Williams and Danny Wimprine era. The star running back and quarterback provided winning seasons and bowl games, but the good times ultimately gave way to a quick return to the bad old days.

Mike Norvell was introduced as the University of Memphis' new head football coach at a press conference last week. Norvell: "There’s something special here. I’m excited about the culture here, a culture of winning." (Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

Tommy West was the coach for those good times. But he was fired after the team regressed, and he called out the U of M administration on his way out. West said if the next coach didn’t get enough support – competitive facilities and competitive salaries for assistant coaches, among other things – then the school might as well do away with football.

The next hire, former Tigers running back Larry Porter, was a well-documented disaster as the team won a combined three games in the 2010 and 2011 seasons. The prevailing belief among serious fans, Smithers says, is that the U of M administration, which at the time included Shirley Raines as the university’s president and R.C. Johnson as its athletic director, failed to see how fast the collegiate athletics landscape was changing.

“That in college athletics, football is king,” Smithers said. “That’s why you can’t leave Tom Bowen out of the equation” of the program’s resurgence.

Handoff – Fuente to Norvell

Both Bowen and Rudd have spoken openly of positioning for Power Five expansion. The Big 12 would seem the most likely, yet far from sure, possibility. A capital campaign that has a new indoor football practice facility on the way is just the kind of thing that West said was necessary to truly compete.

The difference with this latest coaching change, of course, is that the new guy walks into a good situation.

“There’s something special here,” Norvell said. “I’m excited about the culture here, a culture of winning.”

Fuente is the one who built that culture. So how much of it stays now that he’s gone and how much remains for the new coach to mold in his image?

“That’s a hard question,” defensive lineman Ernest Suttles said near the end of the season, when it was clear Fuente probably would receive a Power Five job offer. “With a new coach and philosophy we wouldn’t know what he has to bring. Coach Fuente has had almost four years (to build his culture). We’d have to buy into what (a new coach) does.”

And presumably, they will. Norvell has spent almost a decade working under head coach Todd Graham – at Tulsa, Pittsburgh and, most recently, Arizona State.

Sun Devils wide receiver D.J. Foster in speaking of Norvell, told the Arizona Republic, “I’ve never seen someone that could come out here and turn it on and be such a hardworking coach and be intense, and then right when that whistle blows have conversations about life and his daughter. It’s unbelievable how he’s able to switch those personalities.”

For his part, Norvell said he knows he has to prove himself to his new team just as his new players have to prove themselves to their new coach.

Said Norvell: “I’m gonna show them why they should trust me.”

Promise ring

What many Memphis players could show Norvell is the ring from 2014 to celebrate the Miami Beach Bowl victory and a share of the American Athletic Conference championship.

Redshirt sophomore defensive end Christian Johnson, who came to the U of M from Southwind and was aware of the team’s struggles, says, “I look at my ring every day and go, ‘Yeah, I remember that. We won 10 games.’”

He says when he’s out in public, the ring gets noticed: “Oh, you play for the Tigers? ‘Yeah.’ It starts an easy conversation. A lot of people are excited around the city and a lot more people are paying attention to Tiger sports.”

Rudd is confident that under Norvell’s leadership that positive attention will continue. He cites his recruiting connections across the Southeast, and that he was calling plays for an offense very similar to what Fuente was running here. Also, his belief that Norvell will assemble a strong staff, and Norvell’s desire to be in Memphis.

Yet if all goes as well as Rudd hopes, then Mike Norvell might not even be here as long as Justin Fuente.

“The idea that there has to be any commitment to a duration of years, I think, is not particularly relevant,” Rudd said, sounding perfectly in tune with the current state of college athletics. “He’s the right next step for this program and we would love to have him for as long as we can keep him in Memphis.”

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