It's all about football.
That's the bottom line for the University of Memphis and its prospects for getting into a big-name conference, as well as the $16 million redevelopment of the fairgrounds.
Put up or shut up time is here. There's no blaming those carnies or the Mid-South Fair or a lack of parking or corporate apathy or Tommy West.
To accommodate a tight schedule, construction crews are working seven days a week. Most of the old buildings have been demolished, and the 61,000-seat big sombrero of a stadium stands out more than ever.
I have to say it looks pretty cool without all the junk around it, except for the Coliseum, which is the big pimple next door. The handicapped seating issue has been handled, the field is new, the locker rooms are new, and the concourses and bathrooms are more than adequate. By September, there will be a grand, grassy entrance four football fields long on the west side called Tiger Lane, plus a lot of new parking and picnic areas. The fountain could be, uh, let's just say it won't make anyone forget the Zippin Pippin.
What will it take to make this project a success? Well, for some people, it probably won't ever be a success, including those who wanted Libertyland, the fair, an on-campus stadium, or a Target store at the fairgrounds. For all the talk about everyday use, this is a football-driven project, at least until the neighboring Kroc Center opens next year. In time that could change, but first impressions will be formed between September, when the University of Memphis and the Southern Heritage Classic take the field, and December 31st, when the AutoZone Liberty Bowl game is played.
Here's what they have to do to justify the expense:
The University of Memphis has nowhere to go but up after finishing 2-10 and firing head coach Tommy West last year. Only four of last year's six home games sold more than 21,400 tickets, and thousands of those were unused. The biggest crowd was the opener against highly rated Ole Miss, which drew 45,207. Tennessee is the only SEC team on the home schedule this year.
The fan base has to be expanded, and the boosters who wanted an on-campus stadium must be coddled and somehow convinced that "old and off-campus" is okay. Success would be a sellout against Tennessee, 35,000 for everyone else, and a winning record. And in a 61,000-seat stadium, that still leaves 26,000 empty seats in case the Big East Conference is watching.
The Southern Heritage Classic is now in its 20th year. The game between historically black colleges has drawn 50,000 or more fans 11 times, but attendance slipped to 43,306 last year. This year's game on September 11th will be the first in the new fairgrounds. The pre-game events will be the first test of the Tiger Lane premium parking spots and tailgating areas, which were big concerns of game promoter Fred Jones. Positive reviews are a must. Attendance has to get back to near the 50,000 mark.
The AutoZone Liberty Bowl had strong television ratings and sold-out games for the last few years, so what's not to like? Once dismissed as third-tier or worse, the game has been on a roll with good weather, exciting teams, and close scores. The 2009 game got higher television ratings than any ESPN bowl game in the last four years.
The competition is tough. This year there will be 35 football bowl games. The AutoZone Liberty Bowl has a tie-in with Conference USA, the Big East, and the SEC for this year's game on Friday afternoon, December 31st, which is considered a desirable date. The ideal match-up would be the University of Memphis and an SEC team. A Big East also-ran against some other Conference USA champ could be a bummer.
Steve Ehrhart remembers the stadium when it was the home of the Memphis Showboats in the United States Football League in 1984 and 1985. Capacity was only 50,000, and the team played in the spring. By the end of the season, the grass had turned to dirt in the middle of the field. But with star player Reggie White, the Showboats filled the stadium for their only playoff game. Their success encouraged Memphis to pursue an NFL team and expand the stadium and add sky boxes — all in vain except for a short layover by the Tennessee Titans.
It was child's play, really. The Rev. Kenneth Whalum Jr., the class cutup on a school board of goody two-shoes, had two motions he wanted to make at Monday's meeting. One was on corporal punishment; the other was on reinstating teachers' aides who lost their jobs in budget cuts. They were prompted, Whalum said, by a meeting he had with teachers and interested parties earlier this month.
But Superintendent Kriner Cash took him to school. Filibustering members of Congress should take notes. The meeting lasted for four hours, which is not a record for school board meetings by a long shot. A student musical group performed. Videos were shown. Thirty-six principals were introduced, and each one had their picture taken and shook hands with Cash. Various academic programs were summarized in PowerPoint presentations. Citizens and aggrieved former school-system employees each had their three-minute say.
By the time Whalum made his motions, which were seconded by board member Sharon Webb and put on the July agenda, most of the crowd that had packed the auditorium earlier had gone home, including a dozen or so teacher aides carrying signs that said "Keep Us Working, Students Learning." Under the Cash plan, they will be replaced by volunteers and paid "educational interventionists."
Score another one for the superintendent. If, as appears likely, Memphis City Schools gets its billion-dollar budget through the Memphis City Council unscathed plus another $57.4 million in back payments, it will be due in large part to two things: the council's lack of direct control over the school budget and Cash's ability to manage the school board, the teachers' union, and the media.
Memphis City Schools had operating expenses of $1,036,319,007 in fiscal year 2009. The budget is basically bulletproof "for the sake of the children." But there aren't as many children as there used to be. The Achilles' heel in the budget is student enrollment, which has been going down for several years while the number of administrators, schools, teachers, and per-pupil spending has been going up.
Cash and his staff have done a masterful job of confusing the issue. Reporters trying to get a definitive enrollment number are told to file a Freedom of Information Act request. City Council members don't fare much better. Councilman Shea Flinn needed three tries to get the MCS chief financial officer to turn over current financial estimates. When he got them, they gave the "weighted full-time equivalent average daily attendance" for 2009 as 127,073 and the "average daily membership" for 2010 as 107,738.
The most recent Tennessee Report Card, which is the state jargon-free standard for enrollment and other school-system data, says the 2009 MCS enrollment was 104,829, down from 110,753 in 2007. During that time, the number of schools has increased from 194 to 199, teachers from 6,438 to 7,259, administrators from 359 to 439, and per-pupil spending from $9,254 to $10,394.
The bigger the enrollment, the more money MCS can get from the state and the city of Memphis. An MCS report that was given to Flinn says that "a financial solution cannot come from external sources alone; it also must come from within, by confronting complex structural problems."
Two years ago, the City Council, rashly perhaps, cut the city's contribution to MCS while giving city employees raises and adding some new programs. The net effect was a lower tax rate, but it was short-lived. State courts ordered the money reinstated.
At press time, Councilman Jim Strickland was going to reopen the discussion in the council meeting Tuesday. Options include paying the $57.4 million over three years (Flinn's idea), taking back part of the pay raises granted to city employees in 2008 (Stickland's idea), pressing the lawsuit in hopes that the state Supreme Court will overturn the lower court, and restarting discussions of shifting the funding responsibility to Shelby County (The Commercial Appeal's idea), possibly with a public referendum (Councilman Harold Collins' idea).
Or the council could vote to raise city property taxes (the school board's idea). Memphis residents pay a combined city and county tax rate of $7.22, the highest in the state. Unpopular as it is, a tax increase is the most likely outcome. As we all learned in school, you are not going to win an argument when the teacher, principal, and superintendent are on the other side.
The summer solstice is less than a week away, but summer starts in May around here. More important, the summer sports solstice is less than a month away.
There are two days a year when there are no major-league baseball, basketball, football, or hockey games scheduled. This year the dates are July 12th and July 14th, the days before and after the baseball All-Star game. It's as close to a dead zone as there is in sports. There aren't any college football or basketball games either. The World Cup and the vuvuzela (you say obnoxious, I say 200-point Scrabble word) will be history. So will Wimbledon. The British Open doesn't start until July 15th. The Tour de France, which will be at the midway point, will own ESPN.
There's a great new book for the off-season and Father's Day: The Only Game in Town: Sportswriting From the New Yorker, edited by New Yorker editor David Remnick.
Famous writers like John Updike, John Cheever, Ring Lardner, and A.J. Liebling write about baseball and boxing with high style. "Gods do not answer letters," Updike says about Ted Williams' refusal to acknowledge the cheers after hitting a homer in his last at bat. Liebling compares fighter Archie Moore to Captain Ahab and Rocky Marciano to the White Whale and pulls it off. Lardner gripes about the juiced baseball and $80,000 salaries ruining the grand old game. (It was 1930.) And Cheever proves that being able to write fiction does not mean you can write a decent baseball essay. But the best essays are about no-names and their sports obsessions.
Haruki Murakami explains how taking up distance running at the age of 33 propelled his career from Tokyo nightclub to successful novelist. He wasn't athletic or coordinated or good at sports "where things are decided in a flash":
"I think that I've been able to run for more than twenty-five years for one reason: It suits me. Or, at least, I don't find it all that painful. Human beings naturally continue doing things they like, and they don't continue doing what they don't like."
Nancy Franklin takes on Ping-Pong, "the number two sport in the world after soccer," and the difference between "hardbats" and "sponge racquets" that impart more spin. A player named Marty Reisman won the U.S. Open in 1960 after converting to a sponge racquet and then never played with it again. "Reisman," Franklin writes, "marches to his own drummer and likes to talk about his march and his drummer at length."
Dr. Mark Renneker, aka "Doc Hazard," was a legendary surfer in San Francisco, who "tore up the surfing social contract and blew his great, sunburned nose on the tatters," in the words of writer William Finnegan. "The only audience that matters to most surfers is other surfers, for they alone can truly appreciate what they are seeing. They have been through the ordeal of learning to surf."
Lynne Cox is an open-water swimmer, 5 feet 6 inches tall and 180 pounds with 35 percent body fat, who swam the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia in 44-degree water without a wetsuit, shark cage, or lanolin grease. Fifty yards from the end of her 2.4-mile swim she discovered she was slightly off course from the Russian welcoming committee. So she swam an extra half-mile through "an ocean that was like a washing machine" because the purpose of her swims is to promote international harmony.
Malcolm Gladwell probes "The Art of Failure" and the monumental collapse of Greg Norman in the 1996 Masters golf tournament (since eclipsed by the triple bogey by Robert Garrigus on the 18th hole of the St. Jude Classic in Memphis last Sunday). "But was he choking or panicking?" writes Gladwell, who has taken the journalism of sports performance to new heights. "Here the distinction between those two states is critical."
Adam Gopnik gets 7,000 words out of coaching his 8-year-old son's football team, the Metrozoids, and the sublime connections between coaches and kids. Gopnik carefully crafts a motivational speech about separating men from boys and warriors from men and heroes from warriors and so on. His son is not impressed:
"Nobody wants to be motivated to play football, Dad. They want to play football."
There is a little of each of these obsessives in all of us weekend warriors. They get us through the off-season, which is really not an off-season at all.
Is Memphis on its way to becoming a "city of choice" for college graduates? Or is Memphis a poor, black city in decline? Pretty stark contrast, but that's the core of a discussion that will play out this year in the national as well as the local media.
On Sunday, The New York Times published a long story headlined "Decades of Gains Vanish for Blacks in Memphis." It started at the top of the front page — coincidentally under an unrelated picture of tombstones — and jumped to a full page inside. A highly edited version appeared the same day inside The Commercial Appeal.
The gist of it was that the recession and home foreclosures have had a disproportionate impact on blacks in our city, once seen, the Times wrote, as "a symbol of the South where racial history no longer tightly constrained the choices of a rising black working and middle class."
Among those interviewed was Mayor A C Wharton, who may have unwittingly delivered the killer quote: "I remember riding my bike as a kid through thriving neighborhoods. Now it's like someone bombed my city."
Ouch. This from our foremost salesman. Wharton was a kid 50 years ago, when the NAACP had to outfit some of the dozen first-graders who desegregated the school system in borrowed clothes and shoes. And now things are worse. So much for "city of choice."
(In a "correction" on his Facebook page, Wharton noted that he grew up in Lebanon, outside Nashville.)
I asked Robert Lipscomb, head of the Division of Housing and Community Development and a 50-year resident of Memphis, if the story was on target. By and large, he thinks it was. "There is no wealth in the black community," he said. "Wealth means you can sustain a bad event. The people on the margin with very little margin of error are the problem."
Lipscomb oversaw the demolition of most of Memphis' housing projects and the dispersal of their residents. The Down Payment Assistance Program of 1994 helped 13,000 of them become homeowners. Otherwise, things would be worse, he said.
The black "everyman" in the Times story is Tyrone Banks, a single father who lost one of his two jobs and refinanced his home at a low teaser rate that ballooned to a payment he could not afford. It is not clear whether he was a victim of a vulture loan from Wells Fargo or knowingly took on too much debt. The story drew hundreds of comments, with the verdict split on that point.
Memphis lawyer Webb Brewer who, along with the city of Memphis and Shelby County, is suing Wells Fargo, said Banks was "seriously misled" and will be "a fairly key witness" in the suit.
"Mortgage misconduct started the collapse of the housing market," Brewer said. "It's primarily African-American neighborhoods where home equity has just fallen like crazy. It's a huge reversal of fortune."
William Mitchell, an African-American Crye-Leike real estate agent also quoted in the story, thought it was "right on target."
"It's almost like the oil spill," he said. "Who gets hurt the worst? The wealth of people I am dealing with is evaporating."
Henry Turley, a developer of the downtown mixed-income Uptown neighborhood, said Wells Fargo helped revive downtown by making 100 percent loans for condominiums several years ago. He does not doubt, however, that predatory loans were made in other parts of the city.
"I don't know if blacks were affected disproportionately or not, but for lots of structural reasons you can see how they would be more vulnerable," he said.
If it is not already, Memphis is soon to become the first metropolitan area of more than one million people with a majority-black population. That milestone may prompt another round of stories along the lines of, "Memphis: more like Detroit or Atlanta?"
The next time Memphis goes national is likely to be the Herenton-Cohen congressional battle in August, with race at the forefront. Bob Levey, former Washington Post columnist and former journalism professor at the University of Memphis, said Herenton-Cohen is "one of those pop-in stories for the national media just because of the demographics. Here's a district created for blacks to have representation and its representative is not black."
Vanishing wealth in the black metropolis. The trial of Wells Fargo. Herenton versus Cohen. Important national stories, but they don't bode well for the city of choice.