photos courtesy of University of Memphis
Tiger football coach Ryan Silverfield has done almost everything right since he took over the helm at Memphis. In raising expectations at a program that appeared to be on life support for so many years, improvement has been rather astonishing.
Because of this, he’s almost attained rock-star status – especially in our small community. One might even say that he showed up on that December day in 2019 wrapped in Hanukkah colors of Blue and White instead of Tiger colors, Blue and Gray.
But what’s so amazing about Silverfield is that he never seemed to miss a beat after following former coaches Justin Fuente and Mike Norvell at the helm. He told the administration, and anyone who wanted to hear, that he was the right man for the job. Since then, he’s proved it. He signed 14 players at his first early national signing day and hasn’t let his foot off the pedal since.
He’s turned this basketball-crazy town into a college football hotbed. Everyone loves Silverfield: the players, the administrators, almost everybody. And he feels the same way about them.
“It starts with the city itself,” he said. “We love the city, we love the people, and people here are great. I always say the people make the area; we’ve been able to make relationships and friendships, and the way the university has supported the program – that’s very important. They support it, they care about it. And I think we’ve got some of the best fans in the country. It’s always better to be where you’re happy.”
Once the job opened, both players and the public were squarely in his corner. He openly campaigned for the job. “I had been here for four years and felt like I knew this city and program pretty well,” said Silverfield. “I knew that coach Norvell did a heck of a job as head coach, but I felt I could build on that.
“Look, I was fortunate that I coached in the NFL at 23,” he continued. “It was about being loyal to where you are and working your tail off. I think I was ready. Obviously, it’s worked out in my favor, and I’m glad to be here.”
As soon as the Tigers played their first game, though, reality struck, and COVID-19 impacted the program. They had to reschedule games, incurred numerous delays in their schedule and spent nearly a month between the home opener and their second game at SMU. The rust showed, too, as the Tigers fell to the Mustangs of SMU, 30-27; they then recovered to win seven of the remaining nine games.
“I’ll take the way the rest of the season played out,” he said.
And after that 8-3 year, which included a Tiger win in the Montgomery Bowl – the first bowl triumph in the last six tries – he hasn’t looked back. He’s reeled off the highest-rated football recruiting class in program history. But as an inexperienced head coach and in a year that challenged veteran coaches – not to mention rookies – he found himself in uncharted waters.
“The biggest thing I had to consider was the constant changing of the schedule,” he explained. “I was concerned with the wellbeing of our student athletes. There were things out of our control. Playing an 11-game season was not easy, and to go about business in a safe way was very difficult.”
Virtual meetings in lieu of regular practice made it rough, and once the protocols eased, they still had to deal with social distancing practices, “which sounded rather silly,” he said.
At the same time, he’s fully aware of the everyday challenges his staff continues to face.
“Every day and every year are a different battle. I just hope I continue to get better as a head coach. I’m still learning on the job,” he admitted.
Recruiting is the lifeblood of a program, and it’s why he’s grateful for the gains of the Fuente and Norvell years. But he’s since built on that and improved on the game plan.
“When I first got here, Memphis wasn’t really a national brand, but now people are starting to recognize us,” said Silverfield. “When I first got here, we didn’t have a single player from Nashville. I thought that was important. That part of the state just wasn’t recruited and now we have at least 20 kids from there. It’s nice to see that we’re not just a city with music and great basketball.”
It helps the recruiting process that Silverfield has hired coaches from all regions of the country, too. “We have to be cognizant of ties and relationships,” he said. “You have to be a good teacher and coach. First and foremost, I want to find good people, good husbands and good fathers who will be good examples for our young men. We make sure they set that mold for the players, but we also try to match a geographical area where we want to recruit heavily.”
But it’s that age-old question. Does recruiting lead to winning or do wins lead to better recruiting? It’s really goes hand-in-hand.
“Recruiting is definitely easier than it was.” he said, “There are definitely more men who want to come out and play football for the University of Memphis. That’s huge, probably more so than at any time in our history.”
It also adds a bit more pressure to recruit on an even higher scale.
“We’ve got to recruit the higher type of athlete to elevate ourselves, because if we stay at the same level – we really haven’t gone anywhere.
“The future is very, very bright for Memphis football,” he continued. “A lot of people throughout the country, student-athletes in high school are excited about what we have to offer and about the future of Memphis football. I expect our recruiting to continue to head in the right direction.”
And if that happens, expect to see Silverfield here for many more Hanukkahs to come.