Like many programs at the FBS level, the history of the Memphis Tigers is a blast to the past when football was a much different game. The Tigers have endured their fair share of struggle in route to earning a spot with the preeminent G5 conference.
With a renewed interest in the program and a fan base that actually cares about the product, Memphis is finally finding that glory that have worked so hard to attain.
The Memphis Tigers started as a product of a bygone era. The program officially started in 1912 when the school was still called West Tennessee Normal School. Missing from the program was a mascot. The only guarantee was the colors of Blue and Grey. Even that was from a long lost era as the two school colors were chosen to help unite an area that was still recovering from the Civil War.
Now to the product on the field. Memphis was an independent program from 1912-1927. This was well before the NCAA setting classification. During the ancient years, they sported an overall record of 41-69-9.
The 1928 season saw Memphis join a conference for the first time, the Mississippi Valley Conference. Despite spending only seven years in the MVC, the Tigers roared to conference titles in both 1929 and 1930 while sporting an overall record of 35-20-10.
A move to the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association in 1935 was another short experience that included a conference title in 1938. More important was the beginning of football classification with Memphis landing in the NCAA College Division (Small College).
The Golden Years:
Once again independent in 1942, it was a the start of something new at Memphis. The Tigers set aside the program due to WWI, starting back up in 1947 in what I call the golden years of Memphis football.
After seven winning records in nine seasons, the 1956 season finally saw the Tigers break through. The season marked the first bowl berth in school history, a 32-12 win over East Tennessee State in the Burley Bowl. Memphis legend Ralph Hatley (59-43-5) was the architect of that team.
Hatley left after the 1957 season, handing the keys over to Billy Murphy. Early in Murphy's tenure, the landscape of the NCAA changed once again as the Tigers joined the NCAA University Division (Major College).
Even with the changes, the new coach won eight or more games in four of his first six years at the helm.
The 1963 season was particularly impressive with the program's first ever top 25 finish, #14 in the Coaches Poll. That season included a tie with Ole Miss, a win over Mississippi State, a win over South Carolina, and a win over Houston.
Two years later, in 1965, the Tigers moved into the Liberty Bowl.
In addition to the top 25 appearance, Memphis added Missouri Valley Conference titles in 1968, 1969, and 1971 during a six year membership. Murphy left the Tigers at the top of his game, winning the 1971 Pasadena Bowl over San Jose State by a score of 28-9. He left as the winningest coach in school history at 91-44-1.
Fred Pancoast took over for Murphy, leading the Tigers to a 20-12-1 record in three years while the program made the transition to NCAA Division I football and another run of conference independence.
A Fall From Grace:
From 1975 to 1994, the Tigers pulled out five wins over Ole Miss, eight wins over Mississippi State, five wins over Vanderbilt, three wins over Arkansas, two wins over Auburn, a win over Florida and a win over Alabama. 25 wins over current SEC programs sound amazing, but those 20 years were no cake walk.
Rock bottom was a three year span from 1980-1982 in which Memphis went 4-29 and were outscored by 12 points per game. The Tigers were held to single digits in 17 of the 33 games.
Overall, Memphis went a paltry 88-126-6 overall during that span.
Conference USA to Tommy West and back to the bottom:
The 1996 season saw Memphis join the newly formed Conference USA, their first football conference affiliation since the 1973 season.
It became immediately clear that head coach Rip Scherer was not the solution and he was let go after the 2000 season in favor of defensive coordinator Tommy West.
The new head coach finally broke through in the 2003 season with an 8-3 regular season record. They were invited to the New Orleans Bowl, defeating North Texas 27-17. West proceeded to lead Memphis to bowls in 2004 (GMAC Bowl: Lost to BGSU 52-35), 2005 (Motor City Bowl: Beat Akron 38-31), 2007 (New Orleans Bowl: Lost to FAU 44-27), and 2008 (Saint Petersburg Bowl: Lost to USF 41-14).
After a 2-10 season in 2009, West was unceremoniously fired. He went on a historic rant, venting about the inability of the Athletics Department and fan base to support the program.
After West was replaced by Larry Porter in 2010, the bottom fell out of the program as he predicted. The Tigers went 3-21 in two seasons before Porter was fired with Memphis a strong candidate for the worst team in the FBS.
A return to glory:
Little did anyone know that the loss of Porter was the greatest thing that could happen. TCU assistant Justin Fuente accepted one of the toughest jobs in the country.
After going 4-9 in his first season, Memphis left Conference USA for a spot in the American Athletic Conference. Year two under Fuente was another struggle, but there was hope of something special happening.
The 2014 season was a gamechanger as the Tigers ended the season on a seven game winning streak and ten wins. During that historic season, the Tigers finished 10-3, won the Miami Beach Bowl, and ended the season ranked #25 in both polls.
The Tigers just missed out on back to back 10-win seasons in 2015, finishing 9-4 with a loss in the Birmingham Bowl. Fuente left for Virginia Tech, but Memphis was able to hire one of the best up and coming coaches in Mike Norvell from Arizona State.
After a tough stretch that looked to never end, Memphis football has never looked healthier with talk of joining a P5 conference and an influx of money that has never been donated to the program before, raising the spirits of Memphis fans everywhere.
Things are definitely looking up for Memphis football.