For the longest time, Memphis football was the laughingstock of college football. Not just a laughingstock, but the laughingstock. They were awful. They lost what seemed like every game, they were frequently blown out by bad teams and they were drawing crowds than even a Single-A baseball team would be embarrassed by.
The last four years however, Memphis has been one of the best and the most consistent programs in the Group of 5. Justin Fuente got the ball rolling and Mike Norvell has taken what Fuente left him and kicked it into an even higher gear. Despite all of this, Memphis is still being disrespected. But not by who you would think. They’re getting plenty of love from the national media. No, the people disrespecting Memphis football the most are their very own fans.
As I mentioned earlier, Memphis was the laughingstock of college football for a very long time. They were just plain awful. There were even discussions about the university dropping the football program down to the FCS level or even dropping football altogether (no one is really sure how serious those discussions were). From 2005-2013 Memphis posted a record of 34-76. During that stretch they had three consecutive seasons with at least 10 losses. But in Justin Fuente’s third season, something finally clicked.
The Tigers went 10-3 and defeated BYU in the Miami Beach Bowl (which is now perhaps more famous for the ensuing brawl that garnered headlines on national news networks like CNN and Fox News). The next year the Tigers were an even better team, starting out 8-0 and beating #13 Ole Miss at the Liberty Bowl along the way. The wheels fell off towards the end and the Tigers slumped to a 9-4 finish and a loss to Auburn in the Birmingham Bowl.
Going into the 2016 season Memphis had to replace their head coach (Fuente had departed for Virginia Tech) and their starting QB (Paxton Lynch had been taken in the NFL Draft by the Denver Broncos). They hit a home run in replacing both.
Memphis Tigers deserve some respect
Mike Norvell came to Memphis after serving as the offensive coordinator under Todd Graham at Pitt in 2011 and Arizona State from 2012 to 2015. With the foundation that Fuente had left him, he hit the ground running. 2016 did see a slight regression as the Tigers record slipped to 8-5 and a loss to Western Kentucky in the Boca Raton Bowl, but Norvell had found an excellent QB in Riley Ferguson and was recruiting circles around the rest of the American Athletic Conference.
2017 was perhaps the greatest season in Tiger football history. In their second game of the season, they played host to #25 UCLA who had a future first round NFL Draft pick at QB in Josh Rosen. It was a back and forth game that the Tigers eventually pulled out 48-45. After a loss to UCF two weeks later, the Tigers rattled off seven wins in a row to win the American West Division and earn a rematch against UCF in the AAC title game.
In one of the wildest, craziest and best games of the season the Tigers eventually fell in double OT 62-55 as UCF won the American on their way to an undefeated season. The Tigers followed that loss up with a berth in the Liberty Bowl but fell in their home stadium to Iowa State to finish the year 10-3.
So in the space of the last four years, Memphis has gone 37-15 (for a 71% win pct), gone to four straight bowl games, won 10 games in a season twice, played for a conference championship and seen multiple players selected in the NFL Draft. This is a level of success this program has never seen before. And yet, it feels like the city and the fans are not all in on Tiger football. Why? The saying in Memphis goes, “Memphis will always support a winner.”
Well, the Tigers are winning (they’ve won more games in the last four seasons than they did in the previous nine) but the support isn’t everything it can be or should be. To be clear, attendance has gone way up. From 2010-2013 average attendance at Tiger games was 24,399 and there was only one game that drew over 40,000 people (the 2013 season opener against Duke drew 44,237). From 2014 through 2017 attendance has jumped up to 35,979 which is an increase of 47%.
In that same time the number of games that drew crowds of over 40,000 jumped from just one all the way up to 11. But 2017 saw a few things that were odd given that, as we’ve established, Memphis will always support a winner. Despite Memphis having been good for three straight seasons leading into 2017, the Tigers had two games draw under 20,000 fans: the season opener against UL-Monroe drew 10,263 and the game against Tulane drew 17,989.
Also disappointing was the turnout for the UCLA game. That may seem odd to say as the crowd was 46,291 but can Memphis really not do better than that? That was a top 25, Power 5 team with one of the top QBs in the country coming in town to take on a Tiger team that had proven it can win games of this magnitude and they couldn’t even draw 50,000 people for it.
And the last bit about the attendance is that while they did get to play in the Liberty Bowl in front of their home fans, there weren’t too many home fans in there as Iowa State rolled in with what had to be at least 35,000 of the 57,000 fans (similar to the way they took over the stadium for the 2012 Liberty Bowl). Seriously, go look at the pictures of the crowd from that game and tell me there are more Tiger fans than Cyclone fans.
While attendance isn’t great, it’s gotten better and as long as the Tigers keep winning at a high level it should continue to get better. So how does all of this translate to disrespect you ask? Well, Mike Norvell is the longest tenured coach of any of the sports teams in Memphis. He’s been here longer than the current Grizzlies coach, he’s been here longer than the current Tigers basketball coach and he’s been here longer than the current Redbirds manager.
He’s also the most successful, having won close to 70% of his games in charge. But something happened that was entirely out of his control that has already made Norvell and Tiger football an afterthought in this city. The Tigers hired Penny Hardaway to be the new basketball coach. When that hire was announced, the city threw itself into an orgy of celebration the likes of which have never been seen over something as simple as a coaching hire.
Memphians have already anointed Hardaway as the greatest coach in the history of college basketball, despite the fact that he’s never coached a game at the college level (or even been an assistant at the college level). His staff is also woefully inexperienced (with former Memphis Grizzly Mike Miller as his lead assistant). But none of that matters because Penny played at Memphis so naturally he’ll win 30 games a year and go to the Final Four every other year.
Where the disrespect factors into in all of this is the complete and total lack of coverage of a highly successful football program simply because a highly unsuccessful basketball program is getting all of the attention. The Tigers just opened up fall camp last week and outside of a 15 second blurb on one of the local TV evening news broadcasts there has been nary a word said about it.
At the most recent AAC Media Day, the Tigers were picked to repeat as division champions but all local sports talk radio could discuss was a picture of Penny Hardaway on an airplane with Mike Miller and Tony Madlock.
No city prides itself on thriving in the face of disrespect quite like Memphis. But what happens when the national media gives you the respect you deserve and it’s the people in your own backyard that are disrespecting the program? The Tigers have been very successful and won a lot of football games the last four years.
If you had told a Tiger fan in 2013 that within five years they would be an overtime away from winning a conference championship and going to a NY6 bowl game, they would have laughed at you. However, that’s exactly the spot Memphis was in last year. The national media has picked them to get back to the conference title game again this year. But that’s not important or a big deal or even newsworthy in Memphis, because Penny Hardaway wore crazy shoes the other day.