Spring football practice is in full swing on The University of Memphis Park Avenue campus, and die hard Tiger fans are making plans to invade the Liberty Bowl on Friday for the annual Blue-Grey game. With the exciting, engaging, oh so delicious 2014 campaign now safely stored in memory's attic (with dozens of dingier packages from more forgettable seasons pushed further into the cobwebby shadows), there is a novel sprit wafting throughout the crags and corners of the Bluff City.
Could it be...optimism? Based on something other than wishful thinking?
Memphis football has a coach who seems to make the right calls, say the right things, and effectively develop his players. A potent offense returns eight starters. A tough defense, though depleted by graduation, shows promise as former underclassmen step up into starting roles.
Even the brief but wonderfully television-worthy fight with BYU at the end of the Miami Beach Bowl couldn't put too much of a damper on Memphians' spirits. You hate that it happened, but, at least we won the brawl, right?
So, how do magical seasons like this one happen? Is it just the ambiguous mixture of the right coach, right players, and right schedule, mystically aligning occasionally to create a Good Season? Or is there a unassuming man behind the curtain, pulling the levers and pushing the buttons that operate the Great and Powerful Oz?
Tom Bowen became athletic director of The University of Memphis on April 16, 2012, almost three years ago. The notoriously mediocre football squad had just completed one of the worst football seasons in the history of mankind (note the lack of hyperbole in that statement), with head coach Larry Porter losing his job as a result.
Justin Fuente had just been hired, and had completed an impressive introductory press conference, so there was reason to hope. But the athletic director, R.C. Johnson, widely considered to be a spent force unable to effectively navigate Tiger athletics through the myriad challenges of 21st century college athletics, hovered like a shade over the proceedings.
Enter Bowen. His tenure at San Jose State was marked by nearly unprecedented football success. Again, there was reason for hope.
As athletic director, Bowen began to quietly emphasize football in ways that left many long-time Memphis fans scratching their heads. Remember the scheduling conflicts with head basketball coach Josh Pastner? A program that elevates its chief cager to near-deific heights was not used to an AD doing his own thing. "Why should we schedule Ole Miss in basketball?"--the argument went--"It will just give the Rebels an edge in recruiting Memphis."
The unspoken answer, of course, was the potential damage that might come from Ole Miss playing an occasional game in FedEx Forum would be more than compensated by the benefits of the Rebels playing an occasional game in the Liberty Bowl.
Throughout his time at Memphis, Tom Bowen has shown an inclination toward Football Preeminent. Perhaps this is based upon the understanding that, in the reality of FBS NCAA athletics, the only programs with true brand value are those with robust football presence. Perhaps it is a purely financial concern; a realization that a sold-out Liberty Bowl has maximal coins-in-the-coffer potential.
Whatever the reason, Bowen has shown a dedication to the football program unmatched in recent Tiger memory.
With a similar football program, mired in similar malaise, being unilaterally disbanded just a few hours down the nascent I-22 corridor, Memphis fans can wipe their brows, exhale ironically, and contemplate the bullet they dodged.
Hiring a solid coach is a fine thing, though it didn't save UAB.
Hiring an athletic director, dedicated to the idea of football as a flagship program...
Well, that's worth its weight in gold.
Update: an earlier version of the article indicated that Bowen was AD at San Diego State, when he was actually at San Jose State. We apologize for the error.