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VOL. 132 | NO. 125 | Friday, June 23, 2017
Don Wade

Don Wade

For Memphis AD Bowen, Knowledge is Also Worry

By Don Wade

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Among the items on Tom Bowen’s desk are a miniature University of Memphis football helmet and a Tubby Smith bobblehead that, I swear, gives off a “don’t worry, be happy” vibe.

Yet as the much-anticipated Tiger football season gradually draws near, the Memphis athletic director is, by his own word, “nervous.”

Excited? Yes, that too. And that’s the problem.

Bowen once ran the San Francisco 49ers’ charitable foundation and he had a long stint as AD at San Jose State before coming here in 2012. When you see sports up close and personal as much as he has, expectations raise you up only for fears to keep you on edge.

“I’m really about making sure everybody stays healthy because that’s the one X factor that can hurt a season, if all of a sudden some of your key guys don’t play,” said Bowen, who deep down knows he can do nothing about this. “At our level, you don’t have all that depth.”

He said this on the morning of June 8 – five years to the day that he started the job here. We had gotten together for a lengthy Q & A session covering many topics. The result was a two-part story from that conversation. Click here (https://bitly.im/JsafZ) for Part 1 and here (http://bit.ly/2sZgsYp) for Part 2.

I could have just let those stories stand, not write this column. But in the end, that would have left an incomplete picture.

A university’s athletic director, for most people, can come off as something akin to a distant governor. Someone who does not, and cannot, feel the same levels of joy and pain that fans do. And I suppose that’s mostly right.

But it also disguises the truth that, yes, Tom Bowen is invested. He does care. Wins and losses are not the same to him.

Thus the nervousness. Second-year football coach Mike Norvell has an explosive offense that returns quarterback Riley Ferguson and star wide receiver in Anthony Miller. The modern college game is built for this offense and vice-versa. The opportunity for a special season is palpable.

Opening night is Aug. 31 at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium vs. Louisiana-Monroe. On Sept. 16 the Tigers play UCLA here. On ABC-TV. And the Tigers could win. Perhaps even crash the Top 25 and, well, let your mind get racing and the narrative culminates in Memphis being the Group of Five representative in a New Year’s Day Bowl game.

A long shot? Maybe. But not crazy talk. Five years ago, it would have been.

So Bowen speaks of the tremendous support in that time from people like Brad Martin, Fred Smith and Alan Graf, among others, and shakes his head. He marvels at where the program is now after two bowl trips under Justin Fuente and one under Norvell.

And yet Bowen’s job is bigger than just football. There is the fan base’s fear about the state of Tubby’s basketball program. A never-ending list of building projects and other needs requiring ever-more fundraising.

“I carry pen and paper in my pocket all the time,” he said. “Take notes all the time. I must have seven or eight journals. I keep one over here (he opens a drawer to his left). I’ve got two over there (he opens a drawer to his right). I spend a lot of time thinking about the forward piece.”

Also, the forward pass. And a full Liberty Bowl for the UCLA game on national TV.

He wants to win so bad he can taste it.

Just like you.

Don Wade’s column appears in The Daily News and The Memphis News. Listen to Wade on “Middays with Greg & Eli” every Tuesday at noon on Sports 56 AM and 87.7 FM.

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