University of Memphis Magazine
A New Tiger in Town
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A New Tiger at Town

New U of M athletic director Tom Bowen is blunt on the front end: “This thing is not about me. It is about the University of Memphis. It is about our student-athletes. It is about winning and classroom performance.” It is, he says, all about entering a new era of Tiger athletics.

By Greg Russell

Hall of Fame strength and conditioning coach Al Vermeil remembers a young Tom Bowen from the days he played on his Moreau Catholic High School football team in Hayward, Calif., in the late 1970s. "He’d get out of line just ever so often and I would have to get in his face, rattle and shake his grill a little bit," recalls Vermeil with a laugh. "But I was an old-school coach. I made it tough to be on my team. Players complain about two-a-day practices these days. I had four-a-days. But Tom was hard-nosed, smart. He stuck it out. And he has taken that hard-nosed work ethic with him throughout his career."

Vermeil, brother of former NFL coach Dick Vermeil and a former strength coach for the San Francisco 49ers and for the Chicago Bulls, says Bowen will be a good addition to Memphis as it readies to join the Big East.

"You see how he turned around the program at San Jose State, got it going in the right direction? They had extremely tough academic challenges. He was able to get the school on solid ground, including in football. Memphis should be proud to have him."

It was another coach, though, one known as "The Genius," who first put Bowen on the path to collegiate athletics.

Legendary 49ers coach Bill Walsh, an alumnus of San Jose State University, was searching for an athletic director to help his alma mater out of a number of major problems that had the program crumbling in 2004. The NCAA was breathing down the school’s neck because of extremely poor academic performance; a number of faculty were demanding an end to or drastic cutbacks to the athletic program. Season ticket sales for football were weak at just under 400. The athletic department’s budget was in tatters.

"They were at rock bottom," says Jon Wilner, the highly respected San Jose Mercury News sports columnist who has covered collegiate sports on the West Coast for a decade. "They were thinking about dropping football. The Academic Senate was going crazy because the academic side of things was terrible — they were rotting away."

Walsh, who passed away in 2007, felt he had the answer and it came in the form of longtime confidante Tom Bowen, who was working for the San Francisco 49ers as director of community affairs and executive director of the 49ers Foundation. Walsh had first crossed paths with Bowen while Bowen was the athletic director and assistant football coach at De La Salle High School in Concord, Calif., in the late 1980s.

Bowen, though, wasn’t so sure.

Bowen says the first thing Tiger fans can do to help him in his role as athletic director is to fill Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium Sept. 1 for the game against UT-Martin
Bowen says the first thing Tiger fans can do to help him in his role as athletic director is to fill Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium Sept. 1 for the game against UT-Martin “to help get coach Justin Fuente off on the right foot.”

"I was very happy in the NFL," recalls Bowen. "I could have envisioned myself there a very long time. After all, it was the 49ers, the NFL and that is what you aim for. I think I could have retired from there.

"But Walsh, he had a way of sitting you down and getting you to listen, getting you to change your mind."

Walsh had almost a sixth sense for knowing what it would take to fix a major problem in athletics; he had chosen Joe Montana in the third round of the 1979 draft to turn around a horrendous San Francisco team. With Bowen, he was persistent, strong in his belief he had the ethics and business knowledge that San Jose State needed to stop its bleeding. Bowen soon succumbed. And just as Walsh’s pick of Montana would result in a string of Super Bowl rings for the 49ers, his recommendation of Bowen was equally as effective.

"San Jose State was a tough gig but look at them now," says Wilner. "They were about to do away with the program when he came in 2004 and now they are in the Mountain West Conference (the most significant step in its athletic history). Unless you have seen the financial books and the Academic Progress Rate numbers from early in his tenure — and I have — it’s difficult to comprehend the mess SJSU was in at the time Bowen was hired. He rebuilt the foundation of that program across the board. He implemented academic reforms that resulted in a dramatic turnaround. San Jose State has been on an upswing ever since."

So why leave a program that he had built back to respectability? The new athletic director says the BCS affiliation as well as Memphis’ growing reputation for academic excellence among its student athletes were two of the major reasons he left the West Coast.

"It is an exciting time to be a Tiger," Bowen says. "The sky is the limit. This town is all about Tigers — you drive around town and you see those 100 ‘Tigers Around Town’ statues that are part of the Centennial celebration. Those statues are incredible."

Almost immediately after his first day on the job in June, Bowen created a "coaches council," made up of all the head coaches at the U of M. One of his first orders of business has been to stress to his coaches they need to begin transitioning now for a move to a new conference.

"The Big East is extremely competitive and we don’t want to go in and fall on our faces," Bowen says. "(On the one hand), from a recruiting standpoint, it makes our school more attractive to recruits because we will be a BCS school and in the Big East. Tell a kid you are in the Big East and that means a lot to him or her. But the level of competition will be higher and our coaches need to begin preparing now for that. We won’t settle for mediocrity. I am talking about both revenue and non-revenue sports."

Wilner says he believes Memphis football, in particular, will benefit with Bowen’s hiring.

Bowen, with wife Mia and sons Andrew (age 14) and Peter (age 9) and daughter McKenna (age 8). (Photo by Kathy Little)
Bowen, with wife Mia and sons Andrew (age 14) and Peter (age 9) and daughter McKenna (age 8).
(Photo by Kathy Little)

"He played the game, he has coached it, he worked for the 49ers and has seen the ins and outs of a successful program. He knows what structure it takes to build a winning football program. People on the West Coast recognize that.

"In the Bay area, San Jose State is like 10th among the teams there (in terms of popularity) so it was not an easy job but he made it happen, including in football."

Bowen is steadfast in his belief Memphis will field a winning football program in the near future.

"In my experience, you have to take a systematic approach to building a winning football program. I believe it takes three recruiting cycles," he says.

"We have the coach in place. I have complete confidence in (Justin) Fuente in that he will get the job done. Look at what he did at TCU as the offensive coordinator. He has a sound, practical and fundamental approach.

"For this year, we are rebuilding so do you want to use that as an excuse or a point of motivation? I think you know the answer to that."

Bowen inherits an athletic academic program that is on the opposite end of the spectrum than the one he took over at San Jose State.

"We have an extraordinary academic program here. One of the major things that attracted me to Memphis was its outstanding academic record for its student athletes. That is one thing I will be involved in. If a player isn’t going to class, isn’t cutting it in the classroom, I will meet with him or her one on one.

"If you don’t go to class, you won’t wear our jersey. I don’t care who you are. You can check my record at San Jose State on that. That is a guarantee."

Bowen says Tiger fans can have a major impact on the program starting Sept. 1 when Fuente debuts as head coach against UT-Martin.

"People have constantly asked me since I got here, fans, alumni, donors, what they can do initially to help me. I tell them go to the first football game. Let’s get Fuente started on the right foot with a full stadium. Let’s show people what it means to be a Tiger. Let’s send UT-Martin home crying."

Wilner says Memphis fans should feel lucky to have Bowen.

"He is a tireless worker, passionate about what he does. He knows football. He knows budgets. He knows how to field a winner. He is the complete package."

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