by J.R. Moorhead
Special to The New Tri-State Defender
After a disappointing 2011 campaign, the University of Memphis injected change into the football program.
The biggest news of the off-season was the announcement that the Tigers would be joining the Big East Conference. Many had embraced the notion that Memphis might miss out on a bid to a bigger conference during all the conference shifting and realigning,
Another change, more directly pertaining to football, was the replacement of head coach Larry Porter with new head coach Justin Fuente.
The Tigers' new head coach was most recently the co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Texas Christian University, which has grown into a college football powerhouse over the last decade. Now he is out to change the culture of Memphis football.
That might be easier said than done, but Fuente is making steps in the right direction.
It's not that hard to spot some of the Tigers' glaring problems. Go to a game. The largest crowd last year was for the home opener against Mississippi State and an overwhelming amount of those at the game were wearing maroon, not the hometown blue.
How do you capitalize on this? Fuente's answer: Schedule more SEC and top-tier conference opponents. Teams that Memphis could be competing against in the near future include Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, Tennessee, Missouri, Kansas, Miami and Louisville, not to mention significantly better conference opponents once the Tigers transition into a Big East schedule.
Fuente's thinking is along the lines that better opponents and higher attendances could significantly help with recruiting, coupled with the conference change. Sounds like a good plan. Well, unless the Tigers don't win any of these games. Filling the stands is one thing, but at the end of the day winning is still the most important goal.
The first-year head coach has also required the entire team to learn the words to the fight song. When the Tigers record a victory they will all sing together in front of the band after the game. Quirky, yes, but it also may create a deeper bond between players and fans in the stands.
Fuente is definitely not the first coach to institute such a "tradition." It happens at schools all across the nation. However, it is much more fun when you get to participate in this tradition more than twice a season. Otherwise, you risk the chance of just looking down right silly.
With just over a week remaining before their first game, Fuente looks to have the Tigers ready to face University of Tennessee-Martin. Yet, every journey has bumps along the way. The most recent problem facing Memphis is the injury bug. It seems to have bitten the offense pretty bad as the Tigers top three running backs – Rhodes, Steib and Gibson – are all banged up.
Coach Fuente has made it known that he would like to have Rhodes and Steib on the field for the first game, but if they can't go, then he will find creative ways to use the run-game until he gets his between-the-tackle runners back into action.
These injuries will most certainly not be the last obstacle placed in front of Fuente and the Memphis football program this year. We will learn about the new head coach's resilience, ability to push forward and keep everyone focused by the decisions he makes in the face of adversity.
No one said it was going to be easy, Coach.