VOL. 132 | NO. 55 | Friday, March 17, 2017
The Press Box
Memphis a ‘Football School’ In Fuente-Norvell Era
By Don Wade
The first time Darrell Dickey was an assistant coach at the University of Memphis, way back in 1986, current head coach Mike Norvell was 5 years old.
So it is not an exaggeration to say that it has taken a lifetime for Tiger football to get where it is today.
Memphis is no longer automatically described as a “basketball school” with football just an early-fall recreation before the business of winning begins. The football program now carries the ball for this athletic department, at least from a public relations standpoint.
Spring practice is starting and people actually care.
“Memphis has always been get it going, get it going, and then tail back off,” Dickey, the offensive coordinator, said in a succinct description of the history of football here.
To his point: When Dickey worked for Charlie Bailey, the Tigers went 1-10, 5-5-1 and 6-5. Then came a 2-9 season under Chuck Stobart.
Over the years, this has been the pattern. Even Tommy West could not sustain the success enjoyed during the DeAngelo Williams and Danny Wimprine years.
Memphis football fell back, hit bottom with Larry Porter’s 1-11 and 2-10 seasons and then Justin Fuente made the Tigers winners in his third season, was gone to Virginia Tech after a second straight winning year, and Norvell stepped in to keep the winning going with an 8-5 mark.
In contrast, the basketball program is now in downturn mode. The Tigers missed the postseason the last two years under Josh Pastner, in the first season under Tubby Smith, and there is much nervousness about next season.
Memphis a “football school?”
Not in the way Alabama or Ohio State are football schools but, for now, yes.
“Last year we were selling a vision,” Norvell said, speaking to recruiting. “Now we have examples.”
That they do. And it doesn’t hurt that the most dynamic offensive player, wide receiver Anthony Miller, chose to return for his senior season and so did the most dynamic defensive player, Genard Avery.
“Young men that have an opportunity to go and make a business (NFL) decision, for them to elect to come back shows the buy-in to what we’re doing,” said Norvell, “but also they know they’ll be developed and their best days are in front of them.”
If the same is true for the program, we don’t know yet. But as young first-time head coaches, Fuente and Norvell were prepared beyond their years.
“He knows what he wants to do in every area,” Dickey said of Norvell. “When he’s trying to decide something, not just with me but other assistants, he’ll gather information and then he’ll make his own decision. And to be quite honest, that’s what you should do. If you’re sitting in that chair and somebody talks you into doing something you’re not comfortable doing, that’s when you have a hard time sleeping.
“He runs the show.”
The uncomfortable and inevitable question: If the Tigers enjoy another strong year, will Norvell be around to run it next year?
“This is where I wanted to be because I believe I fit this community,” Norvell said, adding, “I don’t sit in front of any recruit and say, `I guarantee I’m gonna be here so many (years).’ Nobody could ever say that in any job. No coach.”
Dickey offers this nugget of hope: “He genuinely likes Memphis. He’s already got Memphis in May on his calendar.”
Memphis in May 2017, he means.
Beyond that, Memphis the “football school” will have to take it one year at a time.
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.