VOL. 132 | NO. 234 | Monday, November 27, 2017
The Press Box
For Now, Memphis a College Football Oasis
By Don Wade
Tony Pollard was taking another kick return from one end zone to another. Quarterback Riley Ferguson and wideout Anthony Miller were hooking up for an 89-yard touchdown on the Memphis Tigers’ first play from scrimmage. And safety Jonathan Cook was playing pick-six.
Saturday at the Liberty Bowl was a 70-point celebration as Memphis won its 10th game of the season, became the first team in program history to go 7-0 at home, and the seniors went out in style.
In fact, on the same day that Tennessee lost to Vanderbilt (again), Memphis felt a little bit like College Football Camelot.
“It’s a perfect way to end,” Miller said after the Tigers defeated East Carolina 70-13 in a fun tune-up before next Saturday’s American Athletic Conference championship game at UCF.
Four Memphis seniors – Ferguson, Miller, Cook and wide receiver Phil Mayhue – had a direct hand in touchdowns as they played their last game at home.
Miller, a hometown kid no less, admitted the finality of the day was getting to him a little bit as he came out of the tunnel before the game: “It felt unreal, kinda like we just got here.”
And yet it also was a day of a dream continuing to come true.
“This was how I imagined it,” said Ferguson, who transferred from a junior college and gave Memphis two years of long touchdown passes after leaving the University of Tennessee. “I knew it was possible.”
When the latest Associated Press Poll came out Sunday, the 10-1 Tigers had moved up to No. 16. They are one victory away from going to a New Year’s Day bowl game. Hold a spontaneous election for Memphis Mayor today and Mike Norvell wins in a landslide as a write-in candidate.
Meanwhile at the other end of the state UT was, somehow, finding a way to go still deeper into its Big Orange hell.
Letting an inept Butch Jones dangle for weeks before firing him was bad. Having a historically lame record of 4-8 and 0-8 in the SEC was downright soul-crushing for fans who believe the Promised Land is painted just like those hideous orange and white checkerboard end zones, where apparently a passport was required this season.
Yet everything got even worse when UT athletic director John Currie & Co., prepared to hire Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano. And if 24 hours ago you were not exactly sure who Greg Schiano was, well, that’s the point.
Tennessee fans wanted somebody with a bigger name. Or as Yahoo Sports columnist Pat Forde put it, capturing Vol Nation’s sense of fantasy, “for Jon Gruden to slide down the chimney.”
So the vilest of those fans, media and boosters unhappy that UT had been reduced to hiring a former Rutgers coach who washed out in the NFL with Tampa Bay and was now a coordinator for The Ohio State University, camped on Schiano’s past.
Truth: He was on Joe Paterno’s staff at Penn State during the Jerry Sandusky molestation scandal.
Speculation: Hearsay in a deposition purported that Schiano saw Sandusky commit a sexual act with a minor; never mind that no charges were ever brought against Schiano.
Wild accusation of convenience if you’re a bitter Vols fan: Painting a rock on the UT campus Sunday that read, “Schiano covered up child rape at Penn State.”
This nuclear backlash, which included condemnation on the hire from grandstanding politicians whom we will not name here, led to Tennessee backing out of an agreement with Schiano, according to multiple reports. And now there’s plenty of fire on social media pointed at Currie, suggesting he should lose his job.
Where’s Butch’s garbage can when you need it?
Elsewhere around the SEC: Arkansas fired Bret Bielema, Texas A&M fired Kevin Sumlin, Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen is leaving to become coach at Florida, and Ole Miss is apparently retaining interim coach Matt Luke (the assistant who inherited the Hugh Freeze mess) on a permanent basis.
And that’s not all: Nebraska fired Mike Riley and UCF coach Scott Frost, a former Cornhusker quarterback, is assumed to be headed to Lincoln after the AAC title game. For the benefit of Memphis, let this pot be stirred long and well this entire week.
Still more: Arizona State canned Todd Graham. And this happened immediately after the Sun Devils won their seventh game of the season over rival Arizona.
So it’s hard out there for a coach.
And yes, Mike Norvell is expected to be a primary target for Arkansas, perhaps Mississippi State, perhaps Tennessee (although that would require swallowing a lot of pride to hire a coach from Tiger High) and maybe Arizona State where Norvell was offensive coordinator.
But even if Norvell leaves – and Memphis is trying to do everything it can to keep him – it wouldn’t happen until after the ACC title game.
That’s almost a whole week away.
These are the good times. And this, for a little while longer, is College Football Camelot.