“Build up your weaknesses until they become your strong points.”—Knute Rockne
For the second time in five years, the Big East Conference has exposed the weaknesses of the current leadership of RC Johnson, the athletic director of the University of Memphis by taking Texas Christian University (TCU), a school 450 miles west of the city of Memphis into their BCS fold. Mr. Johnson has been the AD for Memphis for nearly 15 years and Memphis is now no closer to getting into a BCS conference than they were before he came to Memphis.
Alarm bells should have gone off in 2004 when it was announced that former Conference USA programs, Louisville, Cincinnati and South Florida (USF) were being poached and taken into the Big East for the 2005 season. Now in fairness to Johnson, USF was a no-brainier for the Big East. USF is the ninth-largest university in the USA, has the luxury of playing in Raymond James Stadium and allowed the Big East to continue to have ties into the rich recruiting and media markets of the state of Florida. Likewise, Louisville had been making great strides in their football program with Papa John's Stadium and hiring coaches like Bobby Petrino.
However, the taking of Cincinnati should have been the concern. Cincinnati much like Memphis was traditionally a "basketball" school and had been mediocre at best in football with C-USA. Unlike Memphis who at least has the semi-modern Liberty Bowl, the Cincinnati Bearcats play in Nippert Stadium, the fifth-oldest football stadium in Division I, which seats around 35,097.
Memphis had, in some ways, more to bring to the table than Cincinnati did, including leading 18-12 in the all-time series in football. All it took was a great sales presentation and a commitment to the Big East that Memphis would upgrade its football program. A sales job that obviously Cincinnati was successful at doing and RC Johnson was not.
As the football world found out, Cincinnati followed words up with deeds. They fired Rick Minter as head coach and went out and hired first Mark Dantonio and then Brian Kelly as head coach in 2006. By 2009, the Bearcats were playing in the Orange Bowl and the next year were 12-1 and playing in the Sugar Bowl.
Likewise, Memphis fans have seen newer teams added to C-USA in 2005 like Tulsa and University of Central Florida (UCF) and watched those schools in a short period of time become conference champions in football. Tulsa has been the Western C-USA champs three times in 2005, 2007 and 2008 and UCF won the Eastern Division in 2005, 2007 and 2010. UCF not only won the C-USA title in 2010 but just became the first C-USA school to defeat an SEC school in the Auto Zone Liberty Bowl matchup. Memphis has yet to win a division title much less a trip to the Liberty Bowl as conference champions.
Now five years later, the failure of leadership shows its ugly head with the taking of TCU, for which Johnson said only shows Memphis needs to get its football program "geared up." One has to wonder, why after 15 years years on the job, Johnson now has an epiphany about the importance of gearing up the program.
The few years of success under former head coach Tommy West masked the fact that the football schedule had been weakened for some easy wins. Back in the 1990s, under former coaches Chuck Stobart and Rip Scherer, Memphis would schedule non-conference games which included Alabama, Florida State, Miami (FL), Michigan, Michigan St, Minnesota, Missouri and Southern Cal.
Compare and contrast those schools to the non-conference games during the West era, which included FCS (formerly D-IAA) programs such as Jacksonville State, Murray St, Nicholas St, Tenn-Martin and UT-Chattanooga. Many question if going 6-5 in 1993 with three SEC teams and the Miami Hurricanes on the schedule or going 7-6 in 2007 with only one SEC team on the schedule is really a sign of progress.
Furthermore, Johnson allowed former Memphis Tiger basketball coach, John Calipari, to wreck the Memphis-Ole Miss rival. Calipari did not want to play Ole Miss in basketball anymore and Ole Miss decided two could play that game and tore up the football contract with Memphis. Thus a regional rival that had first been played in 1921 and one of the few games the Tiger football team made money on was torn asunder.
By allowing the Calipari tail to wage the athletic dog, Johnson was left to try and sell the Memphis product to the Big East something they didn't need. Memphis' only strong point, the basketball program, was really irrelevant. The Big East is already top-loaded with basketball schools; they didn't need another "Memphis." Since Calipari had no interest in developing a rival on campus for his basketball program and ego, Memphis football was put on the back burner even further than it already was.
Just as a sidebar, while Calipari was the de facto chief of the athletic department, Johnson watched as Calipari got the Memphis basketball program in NCAA trouble and had to vacate their 38 wins from the 2007-2008 season, which had ended with a trip to the National Championship Game against Kansas.
Of course Johnson let the tiger out of the bag when after firing head coach Tommy West in 2009, he told reporters that one of the selling points for Memphis football was that the city of Memphis had a "great airport." After 15 years on the job as athletic director, what a glowing admission of failure if an airport is your program's best selling feature.
Frankly, it is time for the alumni for the University of Memphis to have a serious intervention with RC Johnson. It's time to ask point blank, does he even care about football? If so, can he develop a five-year plan whose ultimate goal is getting Memphis in a BCS conference and if not, it's time for him to type up his two-week notice.
Nothing personal, I am sure RC Johnson is a fine and honorable man but if Memphis football was a NASCAR driver and RC Johnson was the crew chief, Johnson would have been gone a long time ago.