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UCLA ready to let 'er Rip against Memphis on Saturday

A reminder comes every time he’s asked for his personal email address.

Fans flooding the field. The goalposts coming down. His father wrapping him in a warm embrace on national television.

Would Rip Scherer be willing to give you his email address? Sure he would. It’s Ripper2117.

Scherer presided over a 21-17 victory over Peyton Manning and then-No. 6 Tennessee in November 1996 that might represent the biggest upset in Memphis football history. He’ll return to Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium on Saturday as the tight ends coach for UCLA, 17 years after he was fired for failing to sustain the promise of that electric evening against the Volunteers.

“Nervous isn’t the right word,” Scherer said when asked to describe the anticipation of walking onto the field. “It’s just a little different feeling.”

Scherer has been back to Memphis before. He was the offensive coordinator at Southern Mississippi in 2004 when the Golden Eagles lost to the Tigers at the Liberty Bowl.

Returning with the 25th-ranked Bruins (2-0), Scherer said, is different given the team’s national stature. Scherer said it would also seem “a little strange” given the plans of his son Scott, who played for him at Memphis and is expected to attend the game as part of a reunion weekend for Tigers players.

“His buddies are asking him, ‘Where are you sitting?’” Rip Scherer said, “and he goes, ‘I’m sitting on the UCLA side wearing UCLA stuff.’ ”

Scherer said he was on the verge of elevating Memphis football when he was fired in 2000 after completing six seasons without a winning record. The team started the 2000 season 4-2, but a rash of injuries left Scott Scherer, a 5-foot-9 walk-on, as the starting quarterback.

The Tigers lost their final five games — four by four points or fewer — and finished 4-7. Scherer said he understood the decision to fire him amid a 22-44 record but that Memphis was losing in other areas as well.

“I told our AD [athletic director] at that time,” Scherer said, “if his job depended on out-fundraising those schools, he wouldn’t have a job for very long either.”

Scherer credited Memphis for improving its facilities and playing a more palatable schedule since his departure, changes that have helped the Tigers (1-0) compile winning records in each of the last three seasons.

UCLA represents Scherer’s sixth coaching stop since he left Memphis — each as an assistant — though his initial job upon his arrival in 2013 was as associate athletic director in charge of football.

Like Bruins coach Jim Mora, Scherer is a coach’s son. His father, also named Rip, was a running back on Penn State’s 1948 Cotton Bowl team who became a longtime high school coach. The younger Scherer, whose given name was William, got his nickname from his father, who would often oversleep and was dubbed Rip Van Winkle by his parents. William was called “Little Rip” while hanging out in the locker room with his father and the nickname stuck even as he went on to play quarterback for William & Mary.

His desire to coach again awakened after about a year at UCLA. Scherer missed the field, the players and the feeling he would get in the locker room — win or lose. Mora asked Scherer if he wanted to resume coaching and it was agreed that he would coach the tight ends as part of the Bruins’ shift to a more pro-style offense last season.

“Going from a team that really didn’t play with a tight end to now a team that’s playing with sometimes multiple tight ends,” Mora said, “I think he’s just done a really good job of developing that group.”

Sophomore Caleb Wilson leads UCLA with 18 catches and 239 receiving yards, part of a group of promising young tight ends who appear poised to make the position a team strength.

Scherer turned 65 one day after the Bruins started training camp in August, making him the oldest member of UCLA’s coaching staff. That’s just a number to someone who takes the stairs every day inside the new Wasserman Football Center while players not even a third of his age take the elevator.

“I just have to put an exclamation on it,” Scherer said of his efforts to stay young.

Scherer has been around so long that he’s intersected with UCLA defensive coordinator Tom Bradley at two coaching stops. Scherer was a graduate assistant at Penn State in 1975 when Bradley was a freshman defensive back who failed to show up for study hall one day, prompting Scherer to tell coach Joe Paterno.

Said Scherer: “My job was to report who missed and he holds it against me to this day.”

Said Bradley: “I’m still mad at him. So we talk about it all the time and we laugh. But he did turn me in and it’s the truth.”

Scherer could easily retire with the savings he’s accumulated from his 15 coaching stops over the last 43 years but has no plans to do so.

Sometimes he’ll put on the game footage from that Memphis upset of Tennessee when one of his old players visits. It was a victory that Scherer said inspired the city after the Tigers had previously gone 0-15 against their in-state rival. The next day in church, a priest recognized Scherer in the back pew and the entire congregation stood to deliver an ovation.

Scherer doesn’t seem bitter about the way things ended in Memphis. The exhilaration of one victory, no matter how special, cannot compensate for a slew of defeats.

“Unfortunately,” he said, “we didn’t follow it up enough.”

ben.bolch@latimes.com

Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch

A caption with an earlier version of this post misidentified UCLA assistant coach Rip Scherer as a former coach of Tennessee. He was previously coach at Memphis, UCLA's opponent Saturday.
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