Football has never been a major attraction here in Memphis. It’s a basketball city. Always has been, always will be. As a result of this, what is it like for a struggling University of Memphis football program? A program trying to thrive in the middle of a die-hard basketball community? Enter The University of Memphis Tigers football program. An American Athletic Conference team located smack dab in the heart of SEC country. The University of Memphis has the ever-so-easy task of attracting fans who are either supporters of the SEC schools, or genuinely not interested in Memphis football. As you could imagine, there are bound to be learning curves. Moreover, before 2003, the program suffered a 32-years without a bowl game victory. And that’s only the beginning.
How did we get here?
First off, the University of Memphis football program has given Memphians little reason to support them in years past. In 2006, the team went 2-10. The next year they had their first winning season since 2005, going 7-6. In 2008, the Tigers compiled a 6-8 record. The 2009 season is when the program began to plummet. During one game on October 27, 2009, a total of 4,117 fans attended the game. The Tigers play at the Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. The stadium can seat 61,008 fans. That means there were 56, 939 empty seats during a division 1 football game. The fans stopped showing up.
That following week, Memphis traveled to Knoxville to take on their in-state rival, the Tennessee Volunteers. The term ‘rivalry’ should be applied loosely, however. The Vols have taken 22 of 23 games against the Tigers. The programs lone win came in Memphis on November 9, 1996. The Tigers outlasted the Peyton Manning led Volunteers, 21-17. Memphis would go on to finish the season 4-7. Fast forward to November 7, 2009. In a decision that was never in doubt, the Volunteers handed Memphis its third straight loss in a 56-28 beat-down. As a result, three days later, the University of Memphis fired one of its most successful coaches of all time, Tommy West.
Bidding farewell to a Memphis football legend
In his exit press conference, Tommy West decided to speak to the fans, the city, and the program as a whole. “Now is the time to stand up for your program,” he instructed the fans, “I’m the seventh straight coach that stands here, saying the same things to you.” His words were felt by the entire city. You could tell he was speaking from the heart, and as someone who has grown attached to the city. “History will repeat itself if they don’t do something about it.”
But it was how West ended his exit press conference that got everyone’s attention.
“Put something in it, or do away with it. That’s what they should do.”Tommy West
With administrators standing mere feet away from him, you could feel the tension in the room. As it turns out, this call out was necessary to wake this program up.
From 2009-2013, they won 11 total games Therefore, they would go on to lose 48 games. Doesn’t take a mathematician to know that those are just abysmal numbers. Every year, fans would discuss the infamous Tommy West press conference. They would discuss on forums, at school hall meetings, in the press, anywhere they would get attention. Fans began to WANT a winning program. That’s how it starts. The fans have to hold them accountable for a respectable product.
In 2011, Memphis hired Justin Fuente. He was a vital part of the TCU Horned Frogs undefeated run in 2011 where a QB by the name of Andy Dalton led them to a Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin by a score of 21-19. As a result of his past success, Justin Fuente began to change the landscape of football in Memphis. He began to show up to public events, and encourage fans to attend games. He began to recruit locally, and promote having local talent on the team. If that wasn’t enough, he beefed upped the schedule to make fans excited. In 2014, Memphis had one of its most successful seasons of date by going 10-3, ending the season ranked #25, and being part of a three way tie foe the conference title. They went on to defeat BYU in the Miami Peach Bowl, 55-48 on a 2OT thriller.
The Revival of Memphis Football is nearly complete
Memphis football Head coach Mike Norvell has been able to not only keep the program afloat, but consequently elevate it to heights that were never imaginable. From beating #13 Ole Miss at home, to beating #25 UCLA, the recent wave of momentum and positivism from Memphis football is undeniable. From 2014-2018, the program put together a 45-21 record after finishing 12-48 the five years previous.
The excitement for Memphis football is contagious. As a result, Memphis has gained notoriety not only locally, but soon to be nationally. This season, Memphis has the chance to make history that only the power 5 schools can normally achieve.
The revival of Memphis football is nearly complete.