Give me Liberty
Tigers headed to the Liberty Bowl – with or without Coach Mike Norvell
Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson reached down and merrily clanged the Liberty Bell on display at the Liberty Bowl press conference. So one mystery was solved. The Memphis Tigers will stay home and play the Iowa State Cyclones in the 59th AutoZone Liberty Bowl.
The other mystery is whether Mike Norvell will be coaching Memphis in that game. That considerably more significant mystery remains.
Will Norvell be there to lead the Tigers to yet another win at their home stadium?
Or will he have up and moved to
Arkansas by then?
“I’m not going to comment on any of that,” said Memphis athletic director Tom Bowen who, incredibly, was himself the subject of (false) Arkansas rumors as the day progressed.
OK, but did Arkansas or any other school ask for permission to talk to Norvell? “No comment,” said Bowen. Ding! Ding! Ding! Yes, it is that time of year again, the time when football programs learn where they are headed for the postseason, and when football coaches decide if they will be accompanying their teams.
Memphis fans went through this two years ago, when the Tigers traveled to the Birmingham Bowl and Justin Fuente bolted for Virginia Tech.
Now the question is whether Norvell will join the Tigers at the Liberty Bowl, if not Sunday’s Liberty Bowl press conference.
Steve Ehrhart presided over that event, and it was appropriately celebratory. Back when the Liberty Bowl was affiliated with Conference USA, Ehrhart desperately wanted Memphis to qualify for the game but the Tigers were never good enough.
These days, the Liberty Bowl is supposed to match a team from the SEC with a team from the Big 12. But the SEC didn’t have enough teams eligible, so Ehrhart was able to grab Memphis instead.
“It’s really momentous, especially here in the city of Memphis,” Ehrhart said, “We’ve never had the opportunity to have the hometown university play in the hometown bowl.”
If the presence of Memphis in the game might mean less money spent on hotel rooms and ribs — and it does — none other than Kevin Kane, the president of the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the honor was worth the lost bucks.
So then it was on to the continuing mystery, which is the coaching future of Norvell. Memphis officials had previously announced that Norvell would not be able to make the press conference because he was on a recruiting trip.
But unlike Iowa State coach Matt Campbell, Norvell did not even join the press conference by phone. When various observers made note of that curious development, Memphis officials clarified that Norvell’s plane didn’t land until 3:45 p.m., well after the press conference had ended.
By then, however, the mystery had taken another twist. Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn had declined a massive offer from Arkansas and accepted a contract extension at Auburn.
That meant that Arkansas would move on to other candidates, with Norvell and SMU coach Chad Morris reportedly at the top of the list.
Oh, and if that weren’t distracting enough, Arkansas radio host Bo Mattingly tweeted that it was his “belief” that Bowen is a candidate for the open Arkansas athletic director’s job.
That one, I can tell you, is false. Bowen denied it Sunday night. The Norvell situation is more complicated.
Norvell certainly could have quashed any Arkansas rumors if he wished. That’s what Fuente did when reports started to surface that he was a candidate for the Florida State job. He told Virginia Tech players he wasn’t going anywhere. And that put an end to that.
Norvell, by contrast, tweeted a heartfelt congratulations to his players Saturday night, ending it with, “Now let’s get ready to win bowl game!”
You could read that to mean that Norvell is staying because he seemed to be including himself in the bowl game plans. Or you decide that reading too much into an intentionally vague tweet is silly, and that we’ll have the answer before too long.
I suggest the second approach. Norvell will stay or he will go. Either way, the program is better off than when he arrived in Memphis, and isn’t that the point?
So onward to the Liberty Bowl, and another celebration of what Memphis football has become.
“It should be a great day,” said Ehrhart.
With Norvell or without.
Memphis receiver Anthony Miller celebrates a 68-yard touchdown against UCF during second-quarter action of the AAC Championship on Saturday in Orlando, Fla.
Iowa State coach Matt Campbell, right, celebrates with linebacker Tymar Sutton following their game against Oklahoma in Norman, Okla., on Oct. 7. Iowa State won 38-31. The Cyclones will play Memphis in the 59th AutoZone Liberty Bowl.