What a difference a decade makes.
It was 10 years ago plus one month that outgoing Memphis head coach Tommy West said this of the program: “We’ve gotta do the things necessary to make this what we want, or do away with it. I couldn’t say that as a coach. It’s too painful. It’s painful for coaches, for players, for fans. Put something in it or do away with it, one or the other.”
Memphis put something in it, all right. The program is 57-21 since 2014, and the 2019 team is a school-record 12-1 with an American championship in hand and a Cotton Bowl bid waiting. Former head coaches Justin Fuente and Mike Norvell left for ACC jobs, and Norvell’s $2.66 million salary was among the highest among all Group of 5 coaches.
Add the pieces together and, a decade after its coach begged the administration to put the program out if its misery, Memphis will be arguably the most desirable job Group of 5 job on the market in the 2019-20 cycle.
As such, Memphis AD Laird Veatch won’t lack for options as he hunts for Norvell’s replacement.
For starters, two qualified candidates are on the Tigers’ staff right now in the form of Ryan Silverfield and Pete Lembo.
Silverfield is the Tigers’ deputy head coach, run game coordinator and offensive line coach, and Lembo the assistant head coach and special teams coordinator.
Memphis has never lacked for quality running backs as long as Silverfield’s lines have cleared the way — in the past two seasons alone, Darrell Henderson rushed for 1,909 yards, Patrick Taylor for 1,122 and Kenneth Gainwell for 1,425. Silverfield has been on staff for the past four years. Norvell promoted him to deputy head coach ahead of the 2019 campaign, and 247Sports has honored Silverfield’s work as a recruiter.
Lembo joined the staff this past January, but holds a 112-65 career record as the head coach at Lehigh, Elon and Ball State. After leaving Ball State in 2015, Lembo served as an assistant head coach at Rice and Maryland in addition to Memphis.
Obviously, promoting from within would offer Veatch the benefit of keeping Norvell’s staff and recruiting class together. Memphis clearly has a good thing going right now, and promoting from within would provide the smallest amount of disruption.
Another internal-ish option is on the table as well, as Barry Odom is currently on the market after his dismissal at Missouri last week. Odom spent three successful years as the Tigers’ defensive coordinator on Justin Fuente’s staff from 2012-14 and remains a popular figure in Memphis. Many assumed he would re-join Fuente as Virginia Tech’s defensive coordinator, but Fuente elected to promote Justin Hamilton to serve as Bud Foster’s replacement.
Of course, Veatch would also field plenty of interest should he opt to look outside the family. Norvell’s $2.66 million salary sends a strong signal to the coaching market, but the fact that the past two Tiger coaches spring-boarded into the Virginia Tech and Florida State jobs sends an even stronger one.
A coach like Louisiana-Lafayette’s Billy Napier would be a natural target. The 40-year-old is 17-10 with two division championships in as many seasons at Lafayette and claims Dabo Swinney and Nick Saban as references. He also happened to replace Norvell as Arizona State’s offensive coordinator when Norvell took the Memphis job.
Other possible options also present themselves. The whisper in the profession this past week was the Memphis could potentially look at Hugh Freeze. Tulane offensive coordinator Will Hall spent the 2018 season at Memphis as assistant head coach. Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long was Norvell’s offensive coordinator in 2016.
The interest in the job will be long. Veatch’s job is to pick the right man to carry the torch.
As always, stay tuned to The Scoop for the latest.