On Tuesday night, the University of Memphis football team will take the field in Boca Raton, Florida, and play its third bowl game in three years. The spotlight will be on first-year coach Mike Norvell. The ESPN cameras will follow quarterback Riley Ferguson, or wide receiver Anthony Miller.
But for every recognizable star, there is an equally-important actor at work behind the scenes.
For every quarterback, there is a director of football operations like Jeff Kupper or an administrative assistant like Sherri Schwartz, arranging travel and booking hotel rooms. For every coach, there is an equipment manager like Marc Hohorst or athletic trainer like Darrell Turner, ensuring that a violent game remains as safe as it can be. And for every star wide receiver, there is a director of high school relations like Marcus Bell, or a director of player personnel like George Pugh, or a director of player relations like Braxton Brady.
“There’s 30, 40, 50 people that have a hand in some aspect of our program,” Norvell said. “It’s easy for them not to get recognition, just because there’s so much focus on the game or on the individuals that are out there. But it can’t be done without everybody.”
So, as the Boca Raton Bowl against Western Kentucky approaches, here are some of the people who have helped the Tigers reach the postseason for a third straight year. Brady, Kupper, Schwartz and Turner may not be the most recognizable stars of the Memphis football program. But they are its backbone.
The Switchboard Operator
So what, exactly, does director of football operations Jeff Kupper do for the Memphis football program?
Senior kicker Jake Elliott still isn’t entirely sure.
“Basically all I know about him,” Elliott said, “is that he has every job you can imagine.”
On any particular day, Kupper might be scheduling charter buses or ensuring that lunch is waiting for the team after practice. He might be reserving hotel rooms for a future road trip, or assigning seats on a team flight, or ordering awards for a football banquet. He’s often a liaison for community members, a scheduling guru for players and, in many ways, Norvell’s right-hand man. His own staff bio describes him simply as “the go-to guy” for several administrative duties.
“The best way I think to describe it is almost like the old-school switchboard operator,” Kupper said. “You’re answering the phone and then basically connecting this plug to this plug, so that these people can communicate and talk and get something accomplished, whatever that might be.”
More specifically, Kupper’s job revolves around details. He is just not the guy who orders lunch and books buses to the stadium. He’s the guy who makes sure that lunch is healthy, tasty and still warm when the team gets off the practice field, that the buses are picking up and dropping off at the appropriate places, and always on time.
“He’s in charge of all the operations of where we’re going, what we’re doing, a lot of the behind-the-scenes preparation,” Norvell said. “He’s involved in every aspect. And he does an incredible job. It’s a job that takes a great deal of energy, because it’s literally on-call, 24-7.”
Kupper didn’t set out to work behind-the-scenes in college football. Originally, in fact, he wanted to make a life out of his childhood love, the rodeo, by doubling as a youth minister and rodeo clown. From Sunday through Thursday, he figured he could be a faith organizer for those on the rodeo circuit. On Friday and Saturday, he thought he could be the clown, distracting bulls and protecting fallen riders.
“But that didn’t last long,” Kupper said. “That wasn’t a long-lived dream.”
Kupper grew up in Odessa, Texas, the setting of the best-selling book and subsequent movie and television show “Friday Night Lights,” and graduated with a bachelor’s in religious studies from Texas, where he worked as a student equipment manager. Unlike some student workers, he never wanted to be a coach. In fact, he said his main goal was not to become a coach.
“I couldn’t be mad at an 18-year-old, 22-year-old athlete for not being able to tackle that guy or block him because I drew the X over the O,” Kupper said. “That would be an unfair expectation.”
So instead, Kupper shifted to the operational side. He worked at Ohio, where he earned two master’s degrees, and then at Columbia before being hired by Larry Porter at Memphis.
In the nearly seven years since, he has played a role in redesigning some of the rooms of the Billy J. Murphy Athletic Complex. He’s helped organize the whiteshirt program, a screening process designed to help walk-ons, including running back Brandon Hayes and wide receiver Phil Mayhue, earn their spots on the team. And he has worked for three different head coaches, watching the program grow first-hand.
“He’s been through the highs and lows of Memphis, and he just kind of remains pretty steady,” running backs coach Darrell Dickey said. “He’s a guy that wears a whole bunch of hats in this program.”
Much of Kupper’s responsibilities revolve around travel and scheduling. He said he tries to work as far in advance with details like dates and times, mapping out as much as he can. The date for last weekend’s football banquet was set in May, for example, though the details of the event weren’t finalized until last month. He and Norvell have already planned out dates and times for football camps next spring, and he sent the date for the 2017 spring game to the Liberty Bowl all the way back in June.
“The way I try to do things is get a lot of the known factors out of the way, so that we can start taking time to work on everything in real time, on the finite details,” he explained.
Kupper’s penchant for planning makes preparing for a bowl game one of the most challenging aspects of the season. The Tigers learned on Dec. 4 they would be playing in the Boca Raton Bowl and were scheduled to fly to Florida just 12 days later. It’s a quick turnaround, with little room for error and little promise of positive recognition.
“In that role as director of football operations,” said deputy director of athletics Mark Alnutt, who was Missouri’s director of football operations for six seasons, “your name is not really mentioned unless something bad happens.”
Kupper said there are moments, both concrete and abstract, that make the challenging times worthwhile. He believes college football can change the trajectory of a player’s life, by exposing him to internship or career opportunities that he might not otherwise have had. More generally, he said, it can create good habits.
Kupper hopes that if the program is operating well, it will not only lead to success on the field but also create ripple effects away from it.
“Players’ lives are abruptly changed at the end of this experience. And you want them to look back on it with the most fond memories,” Kupper said. “You want it to be a launching pad for their future successes, because you’ve set the standards and expectations of success.”
It was right around National Signing Day in 2002, Sherri Schwartz recalled, when then-offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner mentioned a recruit from Wynne, Arkansas, named DeAngelo Williams. Arkansas wanted him. Memphis did, too.
“It was so much going back and forth that even (former Arkansas coach) Houston Nutt was calling here, mad,” Schwartz said. “Out of nowhere, there’s this kid from Wynne, Arkansas, and we get him. And look at him now.”
Behind every recruit like Williams, there’s a process more time-consuming and detailed than most people realize. There are evaluation periods and contact periods, as many as 10 coaches on the road simultaneously, scattered across the country. There are flights to be booked, hotels and rental cars to be reserved. Targeted players and travel plans change abruptly based on changes in the recruiting landscape.
Schwartz, the football program’s longest-tenured employee, understands this process as well as anybody. In her role as assistant to the head coach, she maintains Norvell’s schedule and helps plan various events, among other administrative tasks. But she is also responsible for booking, cancelling and juggling travel plans for the entire coaching staff during evaluation and contact periods.
“At a lot of football programs, there’s four people that do her job,” running backs coach Darrell Dickey said. “We couldn’t function without her.”
Schwartz, a native Memphian, is wrapping up her 16th season with the football program, so she knows it as well as anybody. But she actually started her sports administration career in basketball, serving as the administrative assistant for men’s and women’s basketball at Division II Delta State. When her husband’s job brought them back to Memphis in 2000, Schwartz hoped to continue working in basketball. But there was an immediate opening in football, so she leapt at it.
When she first joined the program in Rip Scherer’s final season as head coach, she was working primarily with recruiting. She remembers bundling up VHS tapes and sending them to prospective recruits, so they could transfer their film to the tapes and return them. When they came in, Schwartz said, she would help organize them on bookshelves in the graduate assistants’ office.
“They were coded by state, recruiting area and all that. But they were bookshelves of VHS tapes,” Schwartz said. “Now, obviously, everything’s over the internet with YouTube and Hudl and all that stuff. So it’s evolved that way. It’s amazing.”
When Justin Fuente arrived prior to the 2012 season, he asked Schwartz to become his administrative assistant. Now program services specialist Akoya Nelson is the team’s primary recruiting administrator, though Schwartz still plays a major role with r travel.
“The toughest part is during recruiting, getting the coaches where they’re supposed to be,” she explained. “Getting their flights, getting their cars, getting hotels — that is the toughest, because it changes on a day to day basis. And you never know what’s going to happen.”
During contact periods, one of which concluded last week, Schwartz may spend an hour booking an assistant coach’s hotel room, rental car and flights in one city. Then that coach could call with a change of plans, and she’s back to square one.
“Sherri does an incredible job,” Norvell said. “She has to deal with an entire staff of coaches and support staff, and she really helps keep a lot of the direction in our daily lives. … Her advanced planning makes it as easy as it can be for the coaches to be able to operate the job that they’re called to do.”
On top of booking recruiting travel, and handling invoices and reimbursements for that travel, Schwartz serves as Norvell’s administrative assistant and is responsible for maintaining his schedule. He’s the fifth head coach she has worked with, and the second in her current role.
Part of the challenge of working in the football office, Schwartz said, is learning each head coach’s leadership style, how he wants the program run.
“They’re all different,” she said. “You have to learn their personalities. You have to be able to adapt to their personalities, to their way of coaching. And it takes a little bit of time, but it can be done, obviously.”
After all, Schwartz has been doing it for 16 years. And she doesn’t plan on leaving any time soon.
“The most rewarding part is watching the team go out and win, and knowing that the program is succeeding,” she said. “That’s the best part of it. It really is.”
At around 9 or 10 p.m., Braxton Brady got a phone call.
Brady was in his first year as the Memphis’ team chaplain, and Mitch Huelsing, a senior safety, was on the other end of the line, bawling. Brady said they weren’t particularly close at the time, but Huelsing was in the middle of “a major life event” and needed someone to talk to.
Soon, Huelsing was sitting on the couch at Brady’s home.
“And at that point,” Brady said, “our relationship changed.”
This was the role that Fuente envisioned for Brady when he brought the native Memphian and U of M graduate into the program in 2012. Fuente wanted to give his players a resource, someone who could help them tackle spiritual, social or emotional issues off the field. It’s a role Brady still fills for Norvell’s staff, even though his title has changed to director of player relations.
“Braxton’s another good set of ears,” offensive coordinator Chip Long said. “Sometimes our kids don’t want to come to their position coach to tell them if something’s bothering them, thinking it might hurt their position on the field or their playing time. So they go to Braxton.”
Brady’s conversations with players range from girlfriend issues and family conflicts to homesickness or choices of friends. He said they generally remain confidential, unless there is a situation with a player that would have an immediate impact on the team. In those instances, Brady said, he will ask the players if he can inform the coaching staff.
In an atmosphere that revolves around football, Brady hopes to be an outlet.
“They know that we don’t have to talk football. We can talk about anything,” Brady said. “I’m not ever going to judge them. It’s not my job to judge them. It’s my job to love them, serve them and help them to be successful. That’s it.”
Senior kicker Jake Elliott said he and other players regularly eat dinner at Brady’s house with his wife and three kids. Redshirt senior tight end Daniel Montiel described him as both a source of advice and a role model.
“When you first get here, you’re kind of lost,” Montiel said. “Me being from out of state, I know I was lost, just didn’t know what to do. He took me under his wings and showed me the way, showed me how to be a man.”
“He’s basically been a second family to me,” added Elliott.
Originally introduced to Fuente by former interim university president Brad Martin, Brady started off by spending just a couple hours a day around the team, standing on the sidelines during practice or hanging out during meetings and meals. “I don’t want my guys talking to strangers,” Fuente would tell him. “I want somebody that they know and trust.”
Over time, Brady said, that trust has grown — and so has his role. When Norvell took over, he put a priority on community service and charged Brady with serving as a liaison in that respect. He’s strengthened partnerships with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital and is the point person for all other community service projects.
“He’s helping guys whether it’s with community service, whether it’s with a personal issue,” Norvell said. “And he’s done a remarkable job of continuing to connect our players to the community.”
Brady said Norvell’s goal was for every player to serve at least 10 hours of community service and exceed 1,000 hours of service as a team. “We’ll probably end up blowing that out of the water,” Brady continued.
Brady has also added an on-field responsibility this season. During practices and games, it’s his job to make sure that offensive plays are properly relayed to the quarterback, by both a numerical board and a series of hand signals. He also speaks to the team at chapel before each game.
A longtime chaplain and Bible teacher, most recently at Presbyterian Day School, Brady said he only gives spiritual or religious advice to those who seek it.
“My role is, if there’s a spiritual need, a social need, an emotional need, any of those,” said Brady, whose father played football at Memphis. “I’m going to go in all three of those circles.”
At its core, Brady’s role revolves around relationship-building. It’s about listening to a player’s story and sharing his own, or learning a player’s career interests and connecting him with people in the community who might be able to help.
The most meaningful moments, Brady said, are instances like last week, when Huelsing returned to Brady’s house, this time with his girlfriend. Once again, they sat down on his couch. They talked about Huelsing’s nearing graduation from physical therapy school, and a life after football.
“There’s nothing better,” Brady said, “than waking up and being able to have relationships with these guys.”
Darrell Turner’s day starts with treatment at 5 a.m., waves of sleepy players filing into the training room for tape, stretching, ice, massages or whatever else their bodies need to get through the day.
Then he’s delivering a report to Norvell and his staff, about who can’t practice, who can and to what extent.
Then he’s hydrating players during practice, while evaluating and possibly treating whatever injuries occur.
Then more ice, more massages, more treatment. Talking with doctors, as needed. Facilitating trips for X-rays and MRIs, as needed. Monitoring and ordering supplies. Meeting with staff members. Answering e-mails.
During the season, the days are 13, 14 and sometimes 15 hours long.
“They may spend less time with their families than some of the coaches do,” redshirt senior tight end Daniel Montiel said. “I mean, Darrell does a lot. (Arranging) doctor’s appointments, dentist’s appointments, anything.”
“Oh yeah. They do everything,” Montiel continued. “They’re miracles.”
As Memphis’ assistant athletic director for sports medicine, and the head athletic trainer for football, Turner’s job is smack in the middle of the health care spectrum. He’s not a doctor by trade, but he evaluates injuries that occur on the field. He’s not an EMT, but he is trained to provide emergency care. He’s not a physical therapist, but he helps oversee rehabilitation processes. And he’s not an administrator, but he’s responsible for purchasing supplies and keeping the Tigers’ policies in line.
Perhaps the largest misconception about Turner is that he just tapes ankles and hands out water. The second largest is that he’s trying to keep players off the field, rather than get them back on it.
“We are not the bad guys that people sometimes make us out to be, like, ‘Oh, if I go see the athletic trainer, they’re not going to let me practice or play today,’ ” Turner said. “Sports medicine is aggressive by nature. If it’s safe for somebody to participate, we’re going to make every effort to get them out there, as long as it doesn’t put them at risk.”
In fact, much of what Turner and assistant athletic trainer Larry Reynolds do revolves around pushing players out of their comfort zones during the rehabilitation process. “With the blessing of our team physician,” Turner added.
When defensive lineman Latarius Brady tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during spring ball, for example, Reynolds and Turner pushed to preserve as much of Brady’s senior season as they could. Less than six months later, Brady was back on the field. Though the rehab process was difficult, he said later, the payoff of an earlier return than expected was worth it.
“I think the players trust him, because they see the time that he puts in, the love that he shows to them,” Norvell said. “So even when we ask them to push and get themselves back, to do things that might be uncomfortable at times in their rehab, they’ve got a great deal of trust in him and what he asks them to do.”
A Florida graduate, Turner has worked for five universities, two NFL teams and two teams in the United Football League, most recently the Virginia Destroyers. He’s also worked with a long line of renowned coaches, from Dan Reeves and Steve Spurrier to Dennis Green and Marty Schottenheimer.
Turner arrived at Memphis in 2012, a few months after Fuente took over as coach. He was hired on the cusp of spring ball, so after taking the job, he drove from North Carolina to Memphis, with an overnight pit stop in Nashville. He showed up for work around midday.
“I ate lunch and started taping,” Turner said. “It’s been a whirlwind ever since.”
While a major part of the job is planning and charting rehab, Turner’s primary focus is to prevent injuries from occurring at all. He and his staff are constantly in evaluation mode, analyzing everything from how players warm up for practice to different types of tape that might better withstand moisture or hold tension longer. Turner said preventative measures are both cost-effective for the university and build players’ confidence, allowing them to feel stronger and play faster.
“Guys are constantly getting pre-hab. Not rehab, but pre-hab,” offensive coordinator Chip Long said. “People don’t understand what it takes, the discipline it takes to get that body right for a game with a long season. And he does a tremendous job with those guys.”
The hours are long, Turner said, and the job can be tough. It’s frustrating when a player eschews treatment that Turner knows will help him, and sickening when players that he considers family suffer scary injuries, like B.J. Ross did against South Florida this season.
But the reward, Turner said, is in the rehab.
“Just the relationships you establish over what could be a four-to-six month process with some surgeries,” Turner said. “You see them when they’ve hit rock bottom and they’re in pain. They don’t think they’re ever going to get back to that moment, where they get that big sack, or whatever play on the field, after coming back from a long rehab.”
And then, they do.
“That’s just special,” Turner continued. “That’s what keeps us going on a daily basis.”