Driven by doing: The rise of the Norvell-Smith era in Memphis Tigers athletics

Head Coach Mike Norvell ponders over the gameplan on the sidelines.

Twitter- @GCarver_WREG3

Head Coach Mike Norvell ponders over the gameplan on the sidelines.

Driven by doing. This University of Memphis slogan echoes through the hallways, making its message heard even in the locker rooms of the Memphis Tigers football and basketball teams. The slogan perfectly describes Tigers athletics today: a well-oiled sports machine that is constantly working to be seen and heard in the major world of college sports.

Both the Tiger football and basketball teams have made some major changes since their last seasons. Both teams found new head coaches, Mike Norvell (football) and Tubby Smith (basketball), after the departure of coaches Justin Fuente and Josh Pastner. In addition to the changes made to coaching staffs, both programs brought in young, fresh players that have plenty of potential to grow. While there are still many questioning whether Coach Smith’s new basketball squad can improve from a somewhat dismal 2015-16 season, the Tigers football team has seen an overall impressive 2016-17 season with great hope for a future bowl game win.

On November 29, 2015, Justin Fuente, the coaching hero and man that brought Memphis football back to relevancy, was hired by Virginia Tech University to be their new head coach. It had been a magical season for the Tigers, beating the Ole Miss Rebels and being ranked as high as #13, but it ended with the departing of a sensational coach and quarterback Paxton Lynch.

The up and coming program needed a new coachsomeone that could keep the program relevant and continue to lead the team to bowl games. Just four days after Fuentes’ departure, that new someone was hired. Mike Norvell, the 34-year-old offensive coordinator at Arizona State, was given the position of head coach.

The new quarterback of the team, Riley Ferguson, has excelled under Norvell. He had the tough job of replacing one of the Tiger’s top players, Paxton Lynch. However, Norvell created a dominant offensive system in which Ferguson and other key players, such as Anthony Miller, could thrive. Miller became the second Tiger in the history of the school to have more than 1,000 receiving yards. The defense has been shoddy at times, but stout for the most part. The offense, however, has been dazzling. The Tigers opened the season with three straight big wins, including a gigantic 77-3 rout of Bowling Green. The team then lost three of their next five games, including a loss to Ole Miss. However, Norvell and the Tigers refused to give up and won three of their next four- including a victory against a top 25 ranked Houston- bringing their record to a respectable 8-4. With a win-loss record like that, Memphis will likely find itself in a solid bowl game.

“The bowl game is so important for us because we’re not a Michigan or an LSU who expect bowl games every year,” Memphis Tigers sports fanatic Caroline Danziger (12) said. “It’s obvious that we are going to have to work a heck of a lot harder than those schools to get national attention and the bowl game is a perfect way to do that.”

In contrast to the middle of college football season, the late-November/early-December period of every season in college sports is one of major transition and early-predictions.

The previous three seasons of University of Memphis basketball have been nothing short of underwhelming and disappointing. Under the leadership of now-former head coach Josh Pastner, the team experienced some of the worst records and fan attendance rates the university had ever seen. After coming out with a dismal 19-15 season record as well as failing to reach the 2015-16 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, Tigers fans were looking for a fresh new start after Pastner transferred to a head coaching position at Georgia Tech.

“I feel as if it’s good to have a new slate and good for Pastner to move on to a new team,” avid Tigers fan Brandon Nwokeji (11) said.

Starting off with a 5-1 start to the season, new head coach Tubby Smith and the Tigers look as promising as ever. Starting brothers Dedric and K.J. Lawson have been the outbreak stars so far in this season, both averaging near or at a double-double for the first three games. Other starters, such as Baylor graduate transfer Chad Ryhoek, have caught the attention of many as they continue to be a consistent force as the season progresses.

“Keeping the Lawson brothers was an incredible score for Smith’s program, and it’s important for them to stay healthy because I think they’ve emerged as leaders by helping some of the younger guys through the coaching change,” Danziger said.

The season’s schedule includes many hard-hitting competitors such as Southern Methodist University, Cincinnati, and out-of-conference rival Ole Miss. However, few doubt Smith’s ability to beat these teams in the regular season. The real issue is whether or not Smith can restore this program to the championship caliber team it once was.

Coming from a long background of coaching the University of Kentucky Wildcats basketball team for 10 seasons as well as holding coaching positions on seven other different college teams, Smith is anything but unprepared for this coaching job. Smith’s slow, defense-oriented style of coaching led the Wildcats to an NCAA Championship in 1998 and many more tournament appearances in the next 10 years. Despite facing animosity over some of his major coaching mistakes at Texas Tech and his reluctance to retire, Smith is confident in turning this Memphis Tigers program into a team the city can be proud of.

It’s going to take time,” Smith said in an interview with Sports Illustrated after accepting the coaching job in Memphis. “I’m pretty secure in what we do and how we do it. For the long-term, we will restore. I still have a lot that I want to accomplish.”

As the athletic programs at the University of Memphis continue to grow and change, the Tiger fan experience follows. Behind the new leadership of Mike Norvell and Tubby Smith, fans can expect a rich new era of Tiger athletics. Both of these programs are continuing to rebuild and expand in order to create the legacy and dynasty that their fan-base craves. By bringing that blue-collar mentality that is Memphis sports wherever they go, the programs are just beginning to scratch the surface of their true potential.