When Mike Norvell took the University of Memphis football job two seasons ago, he immediately made a significant change. Players were no longer allowed to wear headphones, earrings or hats when entering Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium or practice.
The change led players to ask why, and it was an easy question for Norvell to answer. He wanted the Tigers to be unique.
“I did believe if we could truly develop a culture and a family that was set up on being unique, that would give us an opportunity to compete on a higher level,” Norvell said. “Do something that is uncommon to every program in the country so that we could build something and separate ourselves in a few little areas.”
On Tuesday, Norvell spoke at The Bluff to members of the Rotary Club about the upcoming football season, the Memphis community, his pathway to the Tigers and more.
Norvell faced the tough challenge of taking over for Justin Fuente, who had led the Tigers to their first 10-win season in program history. After an 8-5 first season, Norvell led the team to their second 10-win season.
“The truth is, I think Mike has built a team and a culture that is even stronger than what he inherited,” sports columnist Geoff Calkins said in his introduction.
The success led to the Tigers being ranked nine consecutive weeks in the top-25, but that wasn’t the only way it paid off.
As a community, the fan base gathered around the Tigers, leading to record-breaking ticket sales for the school and a discernible buzz.
People truly embrace each other in Memphis, Norvell said.
“I tell our football team to understand that we live in an unbelievable community. Every single day that I walk through this town, I hear someone yell ‘Go Tigers.’”
The Tigers recently hosted roughly 1600 recruits at their football camp. The players included Memphis-area natives and many other players from various parts of the country. Norvell invited 45 other college football programs to the recruiting camp, including teams that compete with the Tigers for recruits.
As a fan, that may be sort of a head-scratcher, but that’s just one way that Norvell has built relationships in his career. It’s something he always emphasizes to his players because he knows the benefits.
When Norvell was a freshman wide receiver at Central Arkansas, he built a relationship that seemed minor at the time, but turned out to be monumental.
One day at practice, Norvell noticed a visitor watching the team practice, but no one was walking up to him to speak. Norvell later approached the man and introduced himself. That same man recommended Norvell to Gus Malzahn as a coaching assistant.
“I tell our kids pull your hood back, let somebody see your face and go shake their hand because that might be the handshake that changes the path of your future,” Norvell said.
Many have big expectations for the Tigers and so does Norvell. Despite losing Anthony Miller (all-time leader in receptions, yards and touchdowns) and single-season passing yards record-holder Riley Ferguson on offense, Norvell expects big numbers.
Last season’s high-scoring offense scored 79 touchdowns, which was third in the nation. Norvell is expecting even more.
Next season’s roster will include just eight seniors, and will depend on youth. The most interesting battle is the quarterback position.
“I feel better about our quarterback room than any point since I’ve been here,” Norvell said. “I believe that as these guys progress, the overall depth and talent that we have there… it could be a special group.”
This offseason the fan base dealt with Norvell’s name popping up in several head coaching rumors. He stayed put and was rewarded with a five-year, $13 million dollar extension.
Memphis, Norvell, said, has given him the best experience of his football life.
“Coming to Memphis has been the greatest decision that I’ve ever experienced during that 31-year period of time (playing and coaching football),” Norvell said. “I came to a place that was truly the right fit.”
(Damichael Cole is a rising senior at UT-Knoxville and an MPLOY Youth Summer Experience intern at The New Tri-State Defender.)