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New coach Ryan Silverfield has big plans at Memphis. But first, there's Penn State

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AAC can earn some respect in Cotton Bowl (1:29)

Joey Galloway says Memphis can raise the profile of the AAC by putting on a good performance vs. Penn State in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic. (1:29)

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Occasionally, Obinna Eze's cellphone buzzes with texts in his native tongue.

It's not unusual for Eze -- Memphis' 6-foot-8 left tackle who was born and raised in Nigeria -- to receive a message that says "Good morning. How are you?" in Igbo from his new head coach, Ryan Silverfield.

It's a ritual that dates back to recruiting. When Silverfield courted Eze, who had offers from power programs across the country, he took the time and effort to not only know Eze's family but learn his language.

"None of the coaches that recruited me wanted to know anything about my family back home," Eze said. "Coach Silverfield knew my parents. He talked to my mom on the phone multiple times. He knew how many sisters I had. He would often, randomly, text me stuff in my language. He started getting proficient with a few words."

It wasn't just a recruiting tactic, Eze said, because nearly three years have passed and it's still happening, even as recently as this month, after Silverfield was promoted from offensive line coach to head coach following the departure of Mike Norvell to Florida State.

On Saturday, the No. 17 Tigers will make their first New Year's Six bowl appearance in school history, meeting No. 10 Penn State in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic (noon ET, ESPN and ESPN App). Silverfield will make his head-coaching debut, succeeding Norvell, who won 38 games in four years.

This is an important time for Memphis football, which is in the midst of a historic run, winning at least eight games for six consecutive years. Memphis had only eight such seasons in the previous 54 years.

It's also the Tigers' sixth consecutive bowl appearance after beginning the decade as one of college football's worst programs; in a three-season stretch from 2009 to 2011, they won five total games. What helped turned the tables were the previous two coaches: Justin Fuente, who led Memphis to 19 combined wins in 2014 and 2015, and Norvell.

Outsiders may wonder whether Silverfield, 39, can keep the Tigers on the upward trajectory. Upon being introduced, Silverfield pledged that to be the case.

"I want you all to know, this program is going to continue to go in the right direction," he said. "We're going to do it the right way at all times."

Those within the program are betting on him in large part because of one word: relationships.

"He took time as the offensive line coach the last four years to get to know every single kid on offense and defense," offensive coordinator Kevin Johns said. "So he has a relationship with everybody."

Said Eze: "He's really, really great with relationships, and I think that's a side of him that is very, very underestimated and underemphasized."

It's the little things, like the Igbo texts to Eze. Or asking players about their families or tidbits that were discussed weeks or months prior. While those are simple, everyday aspects of relationship management, doing it on a roster of more than 100 players takes time and effort.

"There's certain things you can do for kids that will impress them, but at the end of the day, they want to know, 'Do you love me? Do you care about me? Do you have my best interests in mind?'" Johns said. "And our kids have no doubt that Ryan has all those things."

Said receiver and kick returner Antonio Gibson: "Everybody respects him. I don't think anybody here wanted anybody from the outside coming in."

The players made their voice heard in that regard. When athletic director Laird Veatch began his search for Norvell's replacement, he solicited their input, giving them note cards and asking them to write down the traits they desired in a head coach. A "significant percentage" wrote just two words.

"Ryan Silverfield," Eze said.

"Ryan Silverfield," offensive lineman Brian Thomas said.

"Coach Silverfield," defensive lineman Bryce Huff said.

"I've had respect for him since the beginning," Huff said. "Just being a defensive lineman and going against the O-line every day, I've seen the level of discipline that the O-line has, and I've seen the level of respect that they have for him: a very calm, cool, collected coach."

Though Veatch anticipated that -- when a program has been winning and must replace a coach, it's not uncommon for players to advocate for a current staff member -- it was still revealing. And among those who actually listed attributes, the words they wrote, such as "real," "winner," someone who was "all-in," matched with Silverfield.

"It was clear to me that the relationship thing was already there," Veatch said. "So that didn't necessarily surprise me. It was more of seeing the other things that they listed for me and the other people that were involved around me in the process to be able to identify that Ryan truly does fit those things."

Veatch won't disclose how many candidates he interviewed during his five-day search, but he said the work done in the process was "significant." The vision Silverfield laid out impressed Veatch; it was in large part "a continuation of what we've been doing," but also small ways to improve the program, from staff structure, the type of people he wants to bring to Memphis and even ideas on how to tweak practice.

While hiring from within the current staff may not excite some, it has worked out well for numerous power programs, including every team in this year's College Football Playoff: Clemson (Dabo Swinney), LSU (Ed Orgeron), Ohio State (Ryan Day) and Oklahoma (Lincoln Riley). Memphis is nowhere near the level of any of those programs, which have ostentatious resources and booster and fan support, but the sentiment is similar: If you have a coach you believe is special and he has been a part of your previous success, why not give him a shot?

"When you find a formula and a culture that's established and that works, it's hard to find," Veatch said. "They've been working on it for years here and maybe now have figured it out. To be able to maintain and continue that was important."

Silverfield is the lone member of the current coaching staff who remains from the original one Norvell hired in 2016. His 20-year résumé includes stops at the high school, college and NFL levels, the latter coming in six seasons with the Minnesota Vikings and a short stint with the Detroit Lions. Before joining the Lions, he spent time at Arizona State with Norvell.

In Memphis, Silverfield has been there for all 38 victories of the Norvell era and has been a big piece of the program's recruiting efforts. Before this season, he was promoted to deputy head coach and took advantage of that opportunity.

"Ryan really did a great job of immersing himself in all aspects of this program," said special-teams coach Pete Lembo, himself a former head coach.

Lembo was once in a similar position at Lehigh -- the assistant head coach and offensive line coach who was promoted. "I felt like I knew every nook and cranny of the program and knew the players well," he said. "To Ryan's credit, he did all the right things in the four years he's been here."

Though the athletic department is what Veatch called "extremely lean" from a staff and budget standpoint, the university has increased its investment in football. A new indoor football practice facility is being constructed and is scheduled for completion in the spring. Players have access to a new nutrition center for meals. The coaches moved into new offices before the season.

"Where things are going," Johns said, "they're not going to lack anything."

The school also sits in a solid recruiting footprint. Atlanta and New Orleans, two talent-rich areas, are within a six-hour drive. The city neighbors Mississippi. Nashville and St. Louis are each a few hours away. And Memphis itself produces talent annually. It's not quite the recruiting advantage enjoyed by the Tigers' American Athletic Conference peers like Houston, SMU, UCF and USF (which are in two of the three most fertile states for Division I talent), but Memphis' area is far from barren.

Facilities, recruiting, commitment and coaching are key ingredients if Memphis is to continue its recent success.

"I think we're a program built for sustainability," Silverfield said.

That will be Silverfield's task: recruit and win. But first, Penn State.

"We're focused on this game this Saturday, but we want to continue to come back to these types of games," he said. "At the end of the day, it's my job to make sure I provide that structure and that sustainability moving forward. We've got a very bright future ahead of us."