On November 9, 2009, Tommy West made his biggest impact on Memphis football. That's the day he was fired. It's also the day he spoke for what remained of the Memphis fan base, and set in motion the change the program needed.
Memphis is a basketball school, with a football problem. That would be funny on a t-shirt if it wasn't so painfully true. West had his ups and down's as the Tigers' head coach, but during his tenure, he took Memphis to five of the six bowl games in it's history. Attendance at the off-campus Liberty Bowl averaged more than 200,000 per year.
And all of this was accomplished in spite of an administration and athletic department that lacked a desire to invest in football. Former athletic director R. C. Johnson even suggested one time that the school didn't need to invest in recruiting because Memphis could always lean on their airport as an advantage.
Since West was fired, Memphis is averaging 2.5 wins per year. They still haven't broken 200,000 annual attendance since 2007. But that doesn't mean there hasn't been progress.
Last season was defined by a signature win over eventual Sun Belt co-champion, Arkansas State. Under second year head coach Justin Fuente, Memphis would go 3-9 (1-7), but keep things interesting against quality Duke and Middle Tennessee teams.
We are at a point where Memphis football is defined by "quality losses." But progress is progress. Even when it doesn't feel like it.
Since hiring Tom Bowen as their new AD in 2012, Memphis is making the right moves to be competitive again. They've invested in recruiting, and made plans for a new indoor football practice facility. Even more impressive is that Bowen has secured donations to cover most of these new projects. Obviously basketball is getting their share, but for once, football isn't being left behind.
Fuente's third season wearing the headset is also expected to be a step forward. While many would be shocked to see the Tigers do better than 1-5 in the first half of their season, they close out with a schedule that could put them in bowl contention.
Back in 2009, Tommy West said that without support, the next coach after him would fail. Larry Porter was hired, and true to West's words, he barely lasted two seasons. But, under immense pressure, R. C. Johnson went with him.
The Tiger faithful heard the message. Attendance has risen, to the point where an additional 40 tickets per game would have put Memphis over 200,000 again in 2013. Eight figure donations are rolling in.
West said that he would continue to root for Memphis, and support each coach that came after him. Well his words are helping rebuild this program long after he took the podium for the last time. Justin Fuente was the right guy to bring this program back, but Tommy West was the man who gave it the push it needed.
All it took was someone saying what everyone was thinking.