Memphis has big dreams and a chance to achieve them

Memphis looking to sustain success

Memphis athletic director Tom Bowen relates what this year of success has been like for the Tigers, and how they can continue to play at a high level.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- The game ended at 9:16 p.m. local time, not midnight, and the Memphis Tigers left the field wearing cleats, not shattered slippers. Yet to many, the Cinderella narrative still applied.

How many programs like Memphis sashay into the spotlight, only to vanish upon first slip? In the Group of 5, Boise State has been the only program with true staying power. Two others -- TCU and Utah -- have elevated to Power 5 status. The rest disappear until the next surge.

Some expect a similar fate (fade?) for Memphis following last Saturday’s 45-20 loss to Navy. The defeat snapped Memphis' 15-game win streak, ended any talk of a College Football Playoff spot and made a league title increasingly difficult with Saturday's trip to undefeated Houston looming.

Memphis' star isn't quite as bright today, but those in and around the program don't expect it to fade. They forecast better nights, in bigger leagues and -- surprise, surprise -- with coveted coach Justin Fuente on the sideline.

"There really is no ceiling here, none, as an athletic program or a university," athletic director Tom Bowen said. "Memphis can be highly sustainable and highly competitive."

It won't be easy. Financial challenges remain, and Memphis' history can't be ignored. The Tigers last fall recorded their first 10-win season since 1938. They won more than six games only four times between 1977 and 2014.

Success is fleeting for college football's underclass. Look at UCF's dramatic fall this season, or the gradual declines of programs like Fresno State, Miami (Ohio) and Hawaii.

Most Group of 5 programs aspire to be something bigger. For most, the dream isn't realistic.

"Memphis," star quarterback Paxton Lynch said, "is it's own deal."

Here's why:

  • A metropolitan location -- More than 1.3 million live in the area, with only one major pro and one college team ("It's us and the Grizzlies, really," Bowen said). More important, there's support from the city, which in 2010 spent $16 million to spruce up Tiger Lane near the Liberty Bowl. The school and the city are working on a $4.5 million stadium upgrade for 2016, which would feature more premium seating.

  • Corporate clout from companies like FedEx and Nike, both of which have executives on Memphis' board of trustees.

  • A long overdue administrative commitment to football, which began several years ago with a new weight room and will continue with a new $40 million indoor practice facility that will contain coaches' offices. Groundbreaking is expected in the next few months.

  • Effective leadership. Fuente last season led Memphis to its first conference title since 1971 (Missouri Valley). He's 18-4 since the start of 2014. Bowen is a football-minded AD, and university president David Rudd understands football's value.

  • Fan support. Game days have gone from sad sights to vibrant happenings. Memphis averages 46,547 fans, and last Saturday's attendance of 55,212 marked its largest ever for a conference game. "It was neat to see how far we've come," Fuente said. "It speaks volumes to some of the progress we've made."

Tailgates line Tiger Lane and the surrounding lots before games. Fans gather to greet the team buses and huddle around the cage containing TOM III, Memphis' live tiger mascot.

"We made a football game into an all-day party and a destination," said Mike Fredi, a past president of the Highland Hundred, Memphis' football booster club. "We used to have livestock barns and asphalt out here. Who wants to tailgate on that?

"The biggest turnaround is the administrative support. They finally woke up."

Outside his suite before the Navy game, Rudd mentions a picture taken at the Liberty Bowl a little over four years ago before Memphis' Oct. 17 home win against Ole Miss, which drew 60,241 fans. On that day in 2011, Memphis lost to East Carolina. The announced crowd: 17,975.

"People say a picture's worth 1,000 words," Rudd said. "Look at that picture, and you'll see a few thousand fans. It's a snapshot of not only how far there was to go but how far we've come."

Former coach Tommy West saw the potential here. West won at Memphis -- his teams made bowls five times between 2003-08 -- but knew "it could go further."

The problem: neglect. Memphis needed a new weight room, new practice fields, locker room upgrades, more money to retain talented assistants. West moved some practices to Christian Brothers High School, not only because Memphis lacked a turf field but because the drainage on its grass fields was so poor. He also saw the men's basketball program operating with a "top-10 budget." West's teams beat Ole Miss in consecutive seasons but given both programs infrastructures, "there was no reason we should have," he said.

"You had little administrative support, little financial support, poor facilities -- the weight room was a rust bucket," Fredi said. "It was just languishing. It had become a basketball school, so they paid lip service to football.”

West presented a plan, which was largely ignored. Memphis fired him after a 2-10 season in 2009, but before exiting, he sounded off about his nine-year "fistfight" in a charged four-and-a-half minute statement. His most memorable line: "Put something in it, or do away with it! One or the other." West also mentioned a negative element at Memphis, unlike any he'd seen before.

"Today's game, it’s harder to win than it's ever been," he said on Nov. 9, 2009. "If you've got to fight battles around your own program, around your own campus and around your own city, it's hard."

The coach often had said similar things behind closed doors, but this was a public call to action.

"Tommy West did us a remarkable favor by articulating incredibly well the nature of the challenge at the university and for the city," Rudd said. "I didn't see it as bitter. I saw it as incredibly helpful and appropriately blunt."

West, now defensive line coach at Middle Tennessee, has relished Memphis' renaissance. The things he lobbied for are in place or coming soon. After Memphis beat Ole Miss, West texted Fuente to congratulate him.

"I'm extremely proud of where they are," he said. "They're not sitting still. They're moving. Coach Fuente has done a tremendous job, I've got a lot of respect for him. But now they've got a program."

The next step is sustaining it. Memphis has advantages most Group of 5 schools don't, but it remains in the have-nots category for revenue. So Bowen has to be creative. He considers non-traditional paths with media rights -- Direct access? Pay-per-view? -- and other areas.

The goal is to be in prime position for the next round of realignment. Memphis offered little during the last cycle. It went 5-31 in football between 2009 and 2011, and its attendance average plummeted to 20,078. Rudd expects realignment rumblings to begin in the next 18-24 months and thinks no Group of 5 program is more attractive than Memphis. Still, Bowen cautions, "To count on that is dangerous."

Fuente isn't a look-way-ahead coach, but he has a reference point in TCU, where he served as an assistant in 2007-11.

"When TCU the first time around was left out of Big 12 expansion, they made a concerted effort as a university, not just as an athletic department, to be included the next time," Fuente said. "It was a long time, 10 or 15 years, however long, before it came around. And when it did, they were ready."

Memphis is ready to keep Fuente around for a possible Power 5 move. He received a new contract last December with a starting salary of $1.4 million. Bigger offers from bigger schools are coming, but Bowen and Rudd are confident they can keep their coach. "We are way out in front of this issue," said Rudd, who calls Fuente's hiring "undeniably the most critical variable" to the program's success.

Yet, even if Fuente departs, Memphis thinks it can keep making progress.

"They don't just have a great coach, and if he leaves, it falls," West said. "They've built a program. Shoot, when I first took that job, I can't tell you how many people said, 'No, don't do it. It's a graveyard. Everybody walks across that river when they come in, and they drag 'em underneath it when they leave.' "

Memphis' playoff hopes might have died last Saturday. Tigers football, though, is very much alive.