Give me Lib­erty

Tigers headed to the Lib­erty Bowl – with or with­out Coach Mike Norvell

The Commercial Appeal - - Front Page - Ge­off Calkins Colum­nist Mem­phis Com­mer­cial Ap­peal USA TO­DAY NET­WORK – TENN.

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.

MARK WE­BER / THE COM­MER­CIAL AP­PEAL

Mem­phis receiver An­thony Miller cel­e­brates a 68-yard touch­down against UCF dur­ing sec­ond-quar­ter ac­tion of the AAC Cham­pi­onship on Satur­day in Or­lando, Fla.

SUE OGROCKI / AP

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.

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