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Mike Norvell, head coach of the Memphis Tigers
Mike Norvell, head coach of the Memphis Tigers looks on against the Houston Cougars during the 1st half on November 23, 2018 at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in Memphis, Tennessee. Memphis defeated Houston 52-31 to win the AAC West Division.
Joe Murphy / Getty Images

Lang's World: The future of Memphis Tigers football? It’s complicated

by Lang Whitaker | Grizz Gaming GM

If you are a Memphis Tigers football fan, what is it that you want?

Before we get to the answer, in this case we need to examine the question, which is self-explanatory, really: What’s the goal?

This is also a good catch-all consideration for life, I suppose, but more than that it’s important for University of Memphis football fans to consider, particularly at this point in time.

I moved to Memphis one year ago, right as Tigers football was sizzling at a fever pitch. To be honest, I previously hadn’t been paying much more than cursory attention. Sure, I grew up in Atlanta and went to the University of Georgia, but Memphis football throughout the ‘90s and ‘00s did not demand much of my time. It wasn’t until Justin Fuente led the 2014 Tigers to a 10-3 record and a top 25 spot that the Tigers butted into my radar, and even then it was mostly in the context of Fuente as this popular young coach who might get hired elsewhere.

Since then, Fuente did get hired elsewhere and Memphis has remained consistently really good. They finished 9-4 in 2015, 8-5 in 2016, 10-3 in 2017, and 8-5 this season, and they’ve played in a bowl game for five years running. They replaced Fuente with a different offensive-oriented coach, Mike Norvell, who is consistently mentioned as one of the best young coaches in the country, and they have cool uniforms and a shiny new locker room.

By almost any measure, the University of Memphis football team can be quantified as a success.

But is that enough?

Well, all of this brings us back to my original question: What do you want? What do Memphis football fans want?

Do Memphis fans want to finish a few games above .500 and go to a bowl game every season? Or do you want to be better than that? And realistically, considering Memphis isn’t in a Power 5 conference, how can they finish a season any better than that?

As I see it, there are two reasonable foreseeable futures that Memphis football fans can entertain...

1. Keep It Going

Like I said earlier, would finishing each season with a plus-.500 record (going something like 8-5 or 9-4) and going to a bowl game really be so bad? To me this seems like the most reasonable goal, especially if you factor in the very real constraints on the program.

Tigers win AAC West Division

Mike Norvell, head coach of the Memphis Tigers raises the AAC West Division trophy with his players against the Houston Cougars during the second half on November 23, 2018 at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in Memphis, TN. Memphis defeated Houston 52-31 to win the AAC West Division. Photo by Joe Murphy via Getty Images.

Winning at a Power 5 school is hard enough; Memphis has now been good enough long enough that sustaining this level of winning, while certainly not easy, should be at least achievable. The program has been fundamentally altered and a new blueprint is in place. You’re a victim of your own success to a certain extent, stuck in an HR loop, as hiring promising young coaches gives them a chance to show what they can do and how they can succeed, but it also makes them attractive, affordable candidates for bigger schools.

But such is life. As long as Memphis is in the American Athletic Conference, it’s going to take a Flemish Cap-worthy perfect storm to shoehorn themselves into the BCS picture, and even then going undefeated doesn’t promise anything, as UCF showed us last season.

So as long as the status quo is what it is, maybe the status quo isn’t so bad? Memphis may never win a title, but maybe they can win more than they lose and muck it up for others?

2. Go big or go home

Or maybe the status quo is not enough. Maybe you believe that Memphis deserves every chance to compete on that very highest level, and that there’s no way they get that chance unless something dramatic happens. So you go big or go home.

Which means Memphis has to find a way into a Power 5 conference. Which is easier said than done. They tried to make a move to the Big 12 a few years ago, and couldn’t even get an invite to the listening party. That doesn’t mean it won’t happen one day, but if does it’s gonna take a magical bolt of lightning that nobody sees coming right now.

From what I can tell, most Memphis fans reside in some limbo between the two choices. They want to keep winning, of course, but they also understand that the way the system is set up now, they realistically don’t have a fair shot at winning the College Football Playoff, which is why everyone is playing anyway.

As a UGA fan, I enjoyed watching UGA win more than they lost the last decade, and when UGA brought in Kirby Smart as an attempt to upgrade Mark Richt, it actually worked. And now UGA is at least in the title hunt each season. But for every Mark Richt, there’s a Bret Bielema or Bobby Petrino, who showed up to take a program to the next level and never got there.

For Memphis, the best bet is also basically the only bet. The status is the quo. They may not be able to win a title, but they can keep cranking out wins and helping their coaches move on to higher-profile gigs and at best keep putting the NCAA in an uncomfortable spot.

Maybe that’s good enough. Considering it’s the only viable option, I sure hope so.

And hey, you never know when lightning might strike.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Lang Whitaker are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.


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