Shortly after their historic, hard-fought American Athletic Conference Championship win Saturday, the widely expected news became official that head coach Mike Norvell had agreed to take the same position at Florida State.
During his tenure, the program reached new heights and solidified itself as a true power among the group of five. But before you look ahead to the Cotton Bowl matchup with No. 10 Penn State, you must first look to where the program has come from to reach this point to truly understand what this means for this city.
As a child, my father always made it a point to drag me to the Liberty Bowl on Saturday afternoons for Tiger football. Year after year, we would sit in our same seats in section 112 and watch as our team would consistently find new ways to struggle.
Outside of a decent stretch from 2007-2008 where they finished .500 at 13-13 (7-6 in ‘07, 6-7 in ‘08), Memphis never won more than four games a year from 2006-2014. That run includes three 2-10 records and one abysmal 1-11 year.
Nevertheless, we persisted. And thousands of other Memphians did as well. That’s what makes yesterday’s accomplishment all the more meaningful.
When former coach Tommy West was fired during the 2-10 2009 season after eight years at the helm, he implored both the university and the fanbase to put their time and effort into the football program, or to simply do away with it.
In West’s eyes, any coach chosen to lead Memphis would automatically be at a disadvantage because they wouldn’t have the proper resources and backing necessary for a program to be competitive.
Ten years later, West’s comments at his last presser seem eerily clairvoyant. His replacement, Larry Porter, only won three games over the span of two miserable years before being let go.
During that stretch, the Tigers defense sunk as low as 117th in the nation in team defensive rankings and the offense’s -1.1 turnover margin in 2010 was good for 115th out of a possible 120 teams in all of division one.
It wasn’t until Justin Fuente’s third campaign that progress began to translate to results on the field. That 2014 team, which won the Bahamas Bowl in a 55-48 double overtime thriller over BYU, was the catalyst that set this new era of Memphis football in motion.
But if they were the catalyst, then this year’s group feels like the culmination of what has been an extremely long, arduous process.
Mike Norvell will be remembered for how much of himself he invested in both the U of M and the city of Memphis. He helped establish and maintain a culture that was sorely lacking from Memphis football when Tommy West was fired a decade ago.
If you were to tell my dad ten years ago that Memphis would eventually go on to host ESPN College Gameday, spend most of the year ranked in the top 25 and break the AAC home attendance record, he’d probably think you were talking about basketball.
No one could’ve expected everything that Norvell and these players have accomplished. That’s what makes it even sweeter.
In its history, the program has gone to 11 bowl games. They all pale in comparison to the one they’ll play in this year.
The Cotton Bowl has been an annual college football tradition since 1937. Over time, it has become one of the truly iconic sporting events on the calendar. No matter the outcome on the scoreboard when they take the field at AT&T Stadium on Dec. 28, this season will go down in Memphis lore for decades to come.
As U of M Athletic Director Laird Veatch prepares to begin the search for the new coach, Tiger fans should have faith that they will find the right person who not only wants to leave a mark on a football team but an entire community as well. Those are the shoes they’ll have to fill.
But before anyone frets about who is chosen to take over heading into next year, we should enjoy the ride with this group that has achieved such great things during their time at Memphis. The mark they’ve left cannot be undersold in all of this.
Normally, I’d be against closing with a cheesy phrase that gets over-used. However, in this instance, with Mike Norvell now donning garnet and gold, this one feels appropriate for Memphis fans.
Don’t cry because it’s over; smile because it happened.
Cheer for Norvell and wish him luck. Continue to be there for the Tigers, and they might just continue to shatter what is expected to be possible for a team from Memphis, Tenn.