Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Big Time and the Big East

What Memphis needs and doesn't need to upgrade football.

Posted By on Wed, Feb 15, 2012 at 11:26 AM

As athletic director R.C. Johnson said, by golly, they did it. The University of Memphis is in the Big East Conference starting in 2013.

And, by golly, it's about time and somewhat miraculous given the Tigers' recent ineptitude in football. Memphis will join former Conference USA members Louisville, Cincinnati, South Florida, Marquette, and DePaul, members since 2005, and Central Florida, Houston, and SMU, admitted in 2011. Better late than never.

Looking ahead, in 2013, Memphis will need a bigger travel budget, bigger home crowds, a better team, and by some accounts better facilities, including a new JumboTron video screen, suite upgrades, new playing surface, an indoor training facility, and upgraded press box. Football and basketball pay the bills for the minor sports, and only basketball has been carrying its share of the load lately.

As it prepares to join the Big East, Memphis should look 60 miles to the northwest to Arkansas State University in Jonesboro for inspiration. Arkansas State disproves so many platitudes about how to succeed in college football.

Arkansas State beat Memphis 47-3 last year. The two teams will meet again in Jonesboro on September 8th. For the Tigers, the date is sandwiched between games against UT-Martin and Middle Tennessee State. The Red Wolves, on those dates, will be playing Oregon and Nebraska. Johnson, who will retire this summer, and ASU athletic director Dean Lee made the schedules.

Former ASU coach Hugh Freeze, who earned $210,000 last year, got promoted after the regular season to head coach at Ole Miss. Former Tiger coach Larry Porter, who made nearly $800,000 and got fired after his second season, was hired last week as running backs coach at Arizona State.

Since 2009, Arkansas State has played Auburn, Louisville, Indiana, Illinois, Virginia Tech, Nebraska, and Iowa — trading competitive losses for tough experience and paydays. Over the last three years, the Red Wolves went 18-19. Memphis scheduled few big-name schools and lost anyway. Over the last three years, the Tigers went 5-31.

Arkansas State succeeded without any of the advantages Memphis has and overcame several things that supposedly keep Memphis from being more competitive. Jonesboro is a much smaller city, the Sun Belt is a smaller conference, there are no major corporate sponsors, no big television contract, no local recruiting base, no highly paid coaches, no big screen, no fancy stadium.

What Arkansas State had was better players, better coaches, and a better schedule. Success on the field does not necessarily depend on spending big bucks.

After last week's Big East announcement, representatives of the three tenants of Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium — the University of Memphis, the Southern Heritage Classic, and the AutoZone Liberty Bowl — met with Mayor Wharton about stadium issues. In recent years, the city has spent millions of dollars from its capital improvements budget for Tiger Lane and seating changes to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act. Chief administrative officer George Little said the city "already has a full plate with projects like Overton Square and Elvis Presley Boulevard that would have a broader impact."

Taxpayers should not have to pay for additional stadium improvements. The money should come from the tenants, boosters, or user fees.

Can the tenants afford it? I think so. Before appropriating a dime, the city administration and the Memphis City Council should ask the tenants for their budgets and tax returns. Nonprofit organizations are required to make their tax returns public, but the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, unlike most other bowls, does not break out salaries from other expenses.

If the tenants plead hardship, which would be a joke, user fees are another option. A $2 per-ticket surcharge — less than the price of a hot dog or a soft drink at the concession stands — would raise $500,000 a year, based on average announced attendance of 50,000 for the Liberty Bowl and Southern Heritage Classic and 25,000 for U of M over the last 10 years.

"I suggested to one of the tenants that we add a $2 surcharge to pay for the JumboTron," said city councilman Jim Strickland, a season ticket holder for more than 10 years. "The city could advance the cost and then use the surcharge to pay it back." Strickland said the suggestion "was not embraced."

Fine. If the tenants persist, there is a simple solution, well known to every parent: Turn off the television.

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