Thanksgiving is next week and in that spirit I want to take a break from the BCS, player arrests, and the coaching carousel to tell you a good story about a good man.
About a million years ago I played high school football against Tommy West. His Gainesville High School team beat my team from Greene County for a conference championship. West was a running back and a really good player. That’s why he played college football at Tennessee and I became a sports writer.
I followed his career at Tennessee and then later when he became an assistant coach on the rise. He worked for Danny Ford at Clemson and later became the Tigers’ head coach. After he was let go at Clemson he eventually became the head coach at Memphis. Personally, I always knew him to be a class act.
Last week he proved it to the rest of the world.
Tommy West got fired last week. He’s 55 years old and had done just about everything he could do at a place like Memphis. He made them competitive and took them to four bowl games, which is not an easy thing to do in the middle of SEC country. But this season the program took a dip and is currently 2-8. The powers that be decided they wanted somebody to “take the program to another level”, as they always like to say.
After his dismissal was announced, West stood before the press and told Memphis some stuff it didn’t want to hear. He told Memphis that if they wanted to get to another level in football, they had better start investing some money into the program as their competitors have. Most fired coaches take their settlement and go quietly. West said what needed to be said. I admire that.
West agreed to coach for the rest of the season and last Saturday Memphis played its final home game against UAB. It had to be a bittersweet moment for a man who has given so much of his life to college football and isn’t quite sure what he is going to do next.
I didn’t do the original reporting on the story that follows. That was done by my friend Geoff Caulkins of the Memphis Commercial-Appeal. But because it is such a good story, and because West is from Gainesville, I wanted to share it with you here.
Memphis was getting absolutely destroyed by UAB, which led 31-7 in the third quarter. But with less than two minutes left Memphis blocked a punt and recovered it on the UAB six-yard line. West sent Brett Toney into play quarterback.
Toney, you should know, is the Memphis version of Notre Dame’s “Rudy.” He was a good high school player who grew up loving Memphis football but wasn’t good enough to get a scholarship. So he walked on and was content to ride the bench of for five years. He got to play some when other quarterbacks got hurt but in all that time Toney had never, ever, scored a touchdown.
But West sent Toney into the game with a play designed for him to either keep the ball or pitch to a running back. To no one’s surprise, including West’s, Toney kept the ball and scored. It allowed West the luxury of a smile in what was otherwise a dismal week and a dismal season.
“If I don’t do anything good in my life, I feel like I did some good there,” West told the Commercial-Appeal after the game.
So while we’re consumed with who’s going to get fired and who’s going to get hired and whose team is going to get a $19 million payday from the BCS, let’s take a moment to remember that there are a lot of guys out there like Tommy West and Brett Toney. To them the game is about more than just getting paid. It’s about doing something you love.
Brett Toney will never make a dime playing football but no one can ever take that touchdown away from him. And the older he gets, the more priceless the moment will become.
Tommy West has two more games to coach at Memphis, on Saturday at Houston and on Nov. 27 at Tulsa. Those could be the last two football games that he ever coaches. But he will always remember how he felt when Brett Toney crossed the goal line.
College football can break your heart and often does. But every now and then it can also make your heart soar. That’s why it is a helluva game.
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