Before the arrival of head coach Justin Fuente, the Memphis Tigers were one of the worst in the country. After a bowl appearance in 2008, the Tigers went 5-31 over the next three seasons, and the feeling around the program was that of hopelessness.
After firing head coach Larry Porter after two seasons and a 3-21 record, Memphis hired TCU co-offensive coordinator Fuente, a guy who many in the Bluff City had never even heard of before he took over the team in December of 2011. He immediately instilled toughness and a new attitude into the team, leading the Tigers to a 4-8 season and a 4-4 mark in C-USA, the most wins in both since the 2008 campaign.
With the move from C-USA to the AAC this year, the Tigers weren’t expected to see a big jump in wins because of the increased level of competition. Through six games, the Tigers are 1-5 and 0-3 in conference play. That’s not a good record, but Memphis has had chances to win every game its played, even against SMU last weekend after coming back from a 31-3 halftime deficit.
It’s a work in progress, but the Tigers have perhaps made more progress over the last year and a half than any other team in the country. The school has also finally began putting money into the program with major renovations to the Liberty Bowl and a new indoor practice facility in the works.
So, you’d expect fan support to be on the rise, right? Wrong.
The crowd for last Saturday’s matchup against SMU can be summed up in one word: pathetic. A grand total of 16,241 fans showed up and with a stadium that holds around 60,000, it looked like even less.
It’s a slap in the face to a Tigers squad that has worked so hard and come so far since Fuente took over. The progress has been remarkable, especially the defense. In 2011, Memphis was in the bottom three among FBS teams in total defense. It jumped into the top 60 last year and so far, it ranks 14th in the entire country, giving up just 331.0 yards per game. The offense has struggled, but is very young and has a bright future.
There’s no excuse for the turnout to Saturday’s game against the Mustangs. Was it a little chilly? Yes. Were there dark clouds outside and was it a little dreary? Yes again. But, it’s football and that’s what makes it great. Unless there’s lightning, the game goes on whether it’s raining, snowing, foggy or the if wind is howling.
Memphis fans constantly wonder why they can’t keep players at home or attract big-time recruits. A big reason why is because they want to play in front of an electric home crowd, not a stadium that’s not even a third of the way full.
The home and season opener against Duke was raucous and a great environment as 44,237 came to watch the Tigers and see their new uniforms, chrome helmets and additions to the stadium. Memphis lost, but even Fuente said after the game that the turnout was incredible. It seemed that maybe support for the program was beginning to take a step forward, but attendance has dropped in each of the last three home games.
Memphis played admirably against Arkansas State, pounding the Red Wolves 31-7 in front of 36,279, 8,000 less fans than game one. The Tigers had a huge test versus the Central Florida Knights, who are now ranked. They dominated the Knights until the last two minutes after some very questionable calls led to a 24-17 defeat. Once again, attendance took a dip, this time to 30,274. It was a shame because a lot of people missed a fantastic game.
That culminated into last Saturday’s extremely thin 16,241. It’s even worse when you take into account that some of those fans were there for SMU.
Look, I understand that winning is what brings fans to the stadium, but if you want a program that has lost a lot as of late to turn things around, you have to support the guys. Game one was fantastic and game two was a good one too. Since then though, it’s taken a serious decline and there’s no excuses for it.
Fuente and this team are headed in the right direction, and it’s time for the fans to stop complaining about the program and help build it themselves. There are loyal fans that don’t pertain to this but to the vast majority, you’ve been challenged to step up.