When I first set foot at the University of Memphis four years ago, little-known coach Justin Fuente was tasked with resurrecting a Tiger football program that was on life support, and Josh Pastner and Memphis basketball were riding high.
In the spring of 2014, I was promoted to sports reporter at The Daily Helmsman, and I was on cloud nine. I would finally start covering Tiger athletics. Before I started the job, basketball was the unquestioned number one sport, with football trying to gain respectability. Along with my life, that all changed rather quickly.
Memphis footballâ€™s incredible rise
The semester before I started covering sports for the Helmsman, I had a conversation with the sports editor at the time, Hunter Field. We discussed how he felt Fuente needed to make a bowl game in year three after his struggles in his first two seasons, and the schedule was set up for him to do so, in Fieldâ€™s opinion. I agreed with my future boss, but we never thought the 2014 season would unfold the way it ultimately did.
As I started my new job in the fall 2014 semester, Tiger football started out of the gates promisingly. Despite losing to ranked teams such as Ole Miss and UCLA, Memphis held their own and started the season 2-2, with convincing wins against Austin Peay and MTSU in between those losses.
The MTSU game was the first Memphis football game I covered for the Helmsman, and I felt the change in the air about the program that night. Not only was the 38-17 win impressive, but also the crowd, which was more than 46,000 people, was equally as impressive. Things were finally on the up for Fuenteâ€™s men.
That change was shown throughout the program, as Memphis won its final seven games of the 2014 season, including clinching a tri-share of the American Athletic Conference Championship and winning the infamous Miami Beach Bowl against BYU a few weeks later.
Last season, which was during my second semester as sports editor at the Helmsman, I honestly thought Memphis had the chance to finish the 2015 season unbeaten. Of course, after starting 8-0, the Tigers lost to Navy 45-20 at the Liberty Bowl in heartbreaking fashion.
Memphis finished 9-4, as it lost four of its final five games, but everyone was paying attention to Tiger football on a national level, it seemed almost movie like.
Of course, that meant everyone wanted the people who helped take Memphis to greater heights to take their respective teams to similar levels. To the surprise of absolutely no one, Fuente left last December and became the coach at Virginia Tech, and Paxton Lynch forewent his senior season and declared for the 2016 NFL Draft after becoming the best quarterback Memphis football has ever seen.
It was one of the great turnarounds in recent college football history. Nevertheless, covering Memphisâ€™ rise to respectability as a football program will always remain one of the highlights of my life.
I still remember the first time I saw Josh Pastner in person. It was during my first week as sports editor, and I went to Pastnerâ€™s weekly press conference. I was amazed, and Iâ€™ll admit kind of star struck, when I first met him. After all, I was just a 20-year-old college journalist, and he was the coach of the historic Memphis basketball program.
On the court, Pastner and Memphis basketball entered the 2014-15 season in rebuilding mode. Ultimately, Memphis struggled and failed to make the postseason for the first time in 15 years. Fans began tuning out the team, players were transferring left and right and the media, myself included, began wondering if Pastner could turn this around.
Even when you thought it was all over for Pastner after a disappointing 2015-16 regular season for Tigers, you would go to one of his press conferences, and he still had the determination to defeat the odds. Memphisâ€™ run in the AAC tournament proved that.
However, the fact remained Pastner earned $2.65 million per season following his contract extension in 2013. He was paid like a top-15 coach, but Pastner simply didnâ€™t build the resume to reflect that in his time at Memphis.
Iâ€™m sure youâ€™ve heard this a billion times by now, but Pastner really is one of the kindest people you could ever meet. He always agreed to interviews whenever I requested them, and he never dodged away from any questions I asked him.
One of the hardest parts about this job is writing stories or columns criticizing people or teams. Especially people like Josh Pastner, who are such kind human beings, and who everyone is rooting for to succeed. I never enjoyed writing columns or stories about Memphisâ€™ struggles in basketball or Pastnerâ€™s struggles over the past two seasons, but they had to be written.
I was never â€œout to getâ€ Pastner, as some people may have thought, especially toward the end of last season. I believed Memphis basketball was capable of more, whether Pastner made the changes, or another coach was brought in. It was evident this wasnâ€™t working anymore.
Iâ€™m disappointed Pastner didnâ€™t enjoy more success at Memphis. It wouldâ€™ve been nice to see Tiger football and basketball enjoying success at the same time. Still, Iâ€™m happy Pastner and Memphis ended their relationship, and both can get the fresh starts both parties desperately needed.
The honeymoon period
As I leave the Helmsman, I enter a bit of a honeymoon period with the publication that has given me so much over the past three years. Iâ€™d like to thank everyone Iâ€™ve had the pleasure of working with, whether it was for one story, a semester or even all six semesters I spent at the Helmsman. Iâ€™d also like to thank everyone who read a single one of my stories and gave me praise or criticism; it was always appreciated.
Of course, Memphis athletics is also in a rare honeymoon period in both football and basketball. The hiring of Mike Norvell in December has only kept the momentum built from Fuente and Lynch over the past two seasons. I have every confidence he will succeed at Memphis, especially given his early success in recruiting. Norvell also doesnâ€™t seem concerned or fearful about replacing Fuente, and that should only help him down the road.
Tubby Smith, for better or worse, will benefit from not being Josh Pastner for the next year or two. He has the best resume of any coach Memphis has ever hired, and Iâ€™m confident heâ€™ll succeed in the Bluff City. My hope is that Tiger basketball and football can enjoy success at the same time, and I feel with Norvell and Smith in charge, this is the time that happens.
Regardless of where I go from here, Iâ€™ll always follow Memphis athletics and will always be curious to see what happens next because the narrative is always changing.