I missed one of the best sports weekends of the year in Memphis -- a Carl Edwards win at Memphis Motorsports Park and a Tiger football victory over archrival Southern Miss at the Liberty Bowl -- but I have a decent excuse. I made a 400-mile pilgrimage to Neyland Stadium in Knoxville for my first Tennessee-Alabama gridiron clash. There are football teams and football programs. Then there's football culture. A few observations from my birthplace:
Among interstate rivalries in college football, the only series remotely close to Tennessee-Alabama are Michigan-Ohio State and Texas-Oklahoma. The only program with more bowl appearances than Tennessee's 47 is, you guessed it, Alabama with 55. In the now 76-year history of the greatest conference in the sport, the programs with the most wins in the SEC (each with more than 300) are, yep, Alabama and Tennessee. I was raised by UT grads who didn't adhere all that much to the tailgating life on fall Saturdays, and we moved so much that Knoxville has been more of a memory to me than a hometown. But my parents always emphasized that if I were to watch a single football game each year, it needs to be UT-Bama. Last Saturday, I fulfilled that lifetime obligation
About three hours before kickoff, I ran into Condredge Holloway outside the Tennessee football hall of fame museum. Now an administrator with the UT athletics department, Holloway starred for the Vols between 1972 and 1974, and was the first black quarterback in the SEC. When I asked him what kind of chances the home team had against the number-two ranked Crimson Tide, Holloway said, "They're going to have to take it; we're not going to give it to them. And that's the great thing about youth: these kids believe that." Holloway faced Alabama three times in his career, with the Tide among the nation's top four all three occasions. He never won. Saturday's 29-9 Alabama win had to look all too familiar
Shortly before kickoff, I saw a little girl -- no older than 5 -- on an entry ramp, twenty feet above a lot filled with tailgaters. Wearing an orange number-27 jersey (for all of you Al Wilson fans) the child -- at the top of her lungs -- led chants of "Go, Big Orange! Go, Big Orange!" and "Boo, Alabama! Boo, Alabama!" Somewhat creepy, I saw no adult within 20 feet of her. Should you doubt the permanence or cross-generational strength of the south's greatest football rivalry, I'll remind you of this little girl. And I'll be wondering just what kind of scholarship she'll pursue
Tennessee held a pregame ceremony to celebrate the 10th anniversary of its 1998 national championship team (the first winner, by the way, of a "BCS" title). Among the dozens of celebrants on the field were familiar faces in Big Orange country like Tee Martin, Peerless Price, and the aforementioned Wilson. But on this night, the ceremony did an ironic disfavor to UT coach Phillip Fulmer, as it served to merely contrast how far the program has fallen in but a decade. Even with three appearances in the SEC championship game (though no wins) since '98, the program comes across as several strides behind Florida, LSU, Georgia, and of course, Alabama
With a healthy Arkelon Hall, the University of Memphis has more talent at the offensive skill positions than does Tennessee. (And having scored 36 points with Hall on the sideline last Saturday night, the qualifier may not be necessary.) Considering the enormous recruiting advantages Fulmer has over Tommy West and his staff, this is a serious matter for the Volunteer program. Don't be surprised if UT starts looking at junior-college programs for a quick fix or two at the glamour spots.
On the subject of Fulmer's job status, I was asked by an orange-clad fan (presumably a student) as we were leaving the stadium who might be Tennessee's coach next season. When I suggested that I may just get in line to apply, the gentleman responded, "But why not me? I'm younger!" The entire drive home, I've been trying to figure out where that came from. Smarter? Okay. Better looking? Fine. But younger?? Next time I head to Neyland Stadium, I'm taking my walking stick
The best part of the trip were the hours I got to spend with an old friend I don't see nearly enough. A proud alum from Murfreesboro, he literally got sick 12 years ago when he witnessed the Tigers' epic upset of Peyton Manning's Vols on what he was sure was a casual visit to the Bluff City. Memories like these -- yes, even the gut-wrenching ones -- are what make college football the institution it has been and will always be. Friendships can grow distant as jobs and family steer us through one chapter of life after another. But on fall Saturdays -- especially here in the "American south" as my dad liked to describe it -- we have an easy excuse to catch up, to drive more miles than gas prices say we should, and to endure the barbs (and cheers) of those who choose different colors than ours. College football games -- and seasons -- begin and end, as they must. But the friendships they solidify will last beyond our lifetimes
Rocky Top. (And okay, just this once: Roll Tide.)
National Baseball Day, a still-to-be-declared official holiday, has never been needed more.
With the World Series opening this week, millions of fans -- old and older -- will enjoy what remains the most fabled, historic sporting event in America. Over the course of four to seven games, the Philadelphia Phillies or the Tampa Bay Rays will become the 104th world champion and cement themselves in the memory banks of all who watched from their living rooms, dens, or bar stools. The only trouble is, you won't find many children with any recollection of the 2008 World Series, whatsoever.
My 9-year-old daughter Sofia has played baseball (now softball) for four years already, and she's attended more than 70 games at AutoZone Park, almost all of them Sunday matinees, under the sunshine, when the game was intended to be played. But my 4th-grade daughter -- who has a book report about Stan Musial to her credit, and a photograph with Stubby Clapp -- has yet to see the 7th-inning stretch of a World Series game. And that is a modern American atrocity.
There was a time, believe it or not, when American children missed World Series games because they were in school -- during the daytime -- when the contests were played. But at least on weekends until 1983, kids might have a chance to cheer the sight or sound of DiMaggio, Koufax, Gibson, or Rose playing baseball on its biggest stage for the kind of acclaim that turns human beings into super heroes. But no more. For fully a quarter century now, World Series games have begun long after the sun has set on the east coast. Games end well after midnight far too frequently, with responsible parents having tucked their children into bed so they'll have plenty of energy to read about the results the next morning.
National Baseball Day would change this. On the Wednesday when Game 1 of the Series is scheduled to be played, government offices and -- most importantly -- schools would close. The game would start at 3 pm eastern time, and every child in America would have the option of watching nine innings (if the gods are watching, more) of World Series baseball.
Television executives continue to take their eye off the ball of ad revenue with this venture. With ratings having sagged for a decade, National Baseball Day would be Super Bowl Sunday in October, and while adults will continue to fall for one beer sale after another, the audience for video games, soft drinks, and potato chips will double for an afternoon World Series game. Best of all -- pay attention, Commissioner Bud Selig -- baseball will gain new fans, many of them lining up in a few short years to buy that precious beer being hocked.
And what if you don't call yourself a baseball fan? No obligation to watch at all. Take this blessed break -- midway between Labor Day and Thanksgiving -- to enjoy something you haven't in a while. Particularly if you're a parent, do something with your sons and daughters you haven't been able to squeeze in over what have become all-too-busy family weekends. That bike ride around the neighborhood you've promised. Flying a kite near the lake. When's the last time you sat down and "played pretend" with your kids? Enjoy the day however you choose. Just remember it was baseball -- our national pastime, still -- that got you the bonus time.
In a recent episode of "Baseball's Golden Age" on Fox Sports, veteran broadcaster Bob Costas reflected on the day in 1963 when his 6th-grade teacher brought a television set to school so Costas and his classmates could watch Game 1 of the World Series between Whitey Ford's New York Yankees and Sandy Koufax's Los Angeles Dodgers. Said Costas: "I don't remember the lesson of the day before, or the lesson of the day after. But I'll remember THAT day as long as I live." It's time America did for its children what that teacher did for Costas.
Friday night at the Liberty Bowl, University of Memphis quarterback Arkelon Hall awoke memories of the "triple threat" hero of college football days gone by. Opposing the Louisville Cardinals in front of 40,248 fans and a national television audience, Hall passed for two touchdowns, ran for a third, and actually caught a fourth (courtesy of wideout Maurice Jones, who took a handoff from Hall on an apparent end-around, only to sling the ball back across the field and into the end zone). Alas, it was the fifth touchdown Hall was responsible for -- a fumble recovered by the Cardinals' Johnny Patrick and returned 21 yards to paydirt -- that made the difference in Louisville's 35-28 victory.
Even with Hall's heroics, this showdown between arch rivals was shaped more by the shortcomings of the Tigers' special teams. Immediately following that touchdown reception by Hall - which gave Memphis a 14-7 lead midway through the second quarter -- Louisville's Trent Guy took the kickoff 95 yards for a deflating equalizer. And in the waning seconds of the first half, down 21-14, the home team lined up for a 37-yard field-goal attempt, only to see the kick blocked -- by the supremely opportunistic Patrick -- and returned 60 yards for a touchdown by Brandon Heath.
"We are not gonna beat a good team playing special teams like that," said Memphis coach Tommy West after the game. "Offensively and defensively, I don't know if I've ever been more proud of a football team, because we played hard tonight. Outside our special teams -- which didn't show up at all -- we dominated the game. I challenged them to step up. I told them it was going to be a grown man's game -- and it was -- but our special teams didn't show up. There's no way to sugarcoat it, and we have to find a way to correct that. We have four or five guys who this game was too big for."
It's hard to argue with West's take. Memphis outgained Louisville 481 yards to 299. The Tigers gained 27 first downs to the Cardinals' 13, held the ball seven minutes longer and were penalized 19 fewer yards. If anything, the Memphis coaching staff shifted too heavily to Hall's hot passing hand, as the Tigers threw the ball 56 times compared with only 30 rushing attempts. Which brings up this season's chicken-or-egg statistic.
Seven games into the 2008 campaign, when the Memphis Tigers pass more than they run, they lose (to Ole Miss, Rice, Marshall, and Louisville). When they run more than they pass, they win (over Nicholls State, Arkansas State, and UAB). Whether or not this is a game-changing strategic decision by West or a trend built on the score of Tiger games -- teams generally throw more when trailing -- is worth a debate. But having reeled off three straight 100-yard games (all Tiger wins), Curtis Steele averaged 5.0 yards a carry Friday night, but only got the ball 16 times. There were third-and-short plays in which Memphis lined up with five receivers, Hall alone in the backfield. (One of these was the Jones-to-Hall touchdown pass.) On fourth-and-one at the Louisville two in the first quarter, Steele got the ball on a direct snap, but not till Hall had turned to the official to fake that he was calling timeout. (The Tigers converted and Hall scored on the next play.) Trickery seemed to be emphasized Friday night. Perhaps it was the bright lights of the ESPN cameras.
"That's what I've thought this team can be," said West, "but you can't make the errors that we made."
The Tigers played most of the game without star defensive tackle Clinton McDonald -- he of seven sacks over the last three games -- who left the game in the second quarter with an injury to his left foot. Linebacker Greg Jackson and safety Alton Starr (nine solo tackles and five assists) led the Memphis defense in McDonald's absence.
The Tigers remain three wins shy of the six necessary for bowl eligibility, with five to play. After traveling to East Carolina next Saturday, three of the season's final four contests will be played at the Liberty Bowl with the fourth at Conference USA cellar dweller SMU. Plenty to play for, but now with what would have been the biggest win of the season deep-sixed by two or three game-turning plays with a kicker on the field.
"You know, I've won games that I haven't been happy with," said West. "I really am proud of the way our offense and defense played. I have to find a way to get our special teams better. We'll bounce back. There's no doubt in my mind."
This Friday night at the Liberty Bowl, we'll have a rarity: a stop-what-you're-doing-and-pay-attention University of Memphis football game.
It's a matchup that makes memories. Memphis Tigers vs. Louisville Cardinals. Put those words on a stadium scoreboard or television screen and a legion of Mid-South sports fans will stop what they're doing long enough to make another palm-sweating deposit into their collective memory bank. And the sport doesn't matter. You get the impression, after living in these parts a few years, that a televised thumb-wrestling showdown between the Tigers and Cardinals would trump the latest offering on ESPN 2.
The sad truth, though, is that these two rivals haven't met on the gridiron or basketball court in more than three years, not since the epic 2005 Conference USA basketball championship, when Darius Washington collapsed at the free-throw line having missed a pair of foul shots that would have given his Tigers a berth in the NCAA tournament. Not to be forgotten, though, is the last football game between Memphis and Louisville. Played merely four months before that basketball tilt, the Tiger-Cardinal game on November 4, 2004, remains the best Memphis football game of the decade. Oh heck, let's say it: the best Memphis football game of the century.
Played on a Thursday night in front of a national-television audience, Memphis and Louisville combined for 105 points and -- grab your seat -- nine lead changes. The teams were led on offense by players who would share C-USA's Offensive Player of the Year honors. Memphis tailback DeAngelo Williams carried the ball 26 times for 200 yards and scored on a 31-yard jaunt that gave the home team a 10-point lead early in the second quarter. Louisville quarterback Stefan LeFors passed for 321 yards and three touchdowns with nary an interception. Each team had a rusher and receiver surpass 100 yards. Memphis won the total-offense battle, 603 yards (you read that correctly) to 599, but Louisville, alas, had the ball at game's end, LeFors converting a two-point conversion with 37 seconds on the clock to give the bad guys a 56-49 win.
A year later, Louisville joined the Big East Conference, and there went a football rivalry that had seen 38 games in 44 years. This Friday night at the Liberty Bowl, that rivalry is reborn.
The Tigers will take the field looking to extend a winning streak to four games for the first time since 2003, when the fourth game in a five-game run happened to be a 37-7 drubbing of Louisville. The Memphis offense -- which looked rather pass-happy when the season opened -- has rediscovered the running game, with Curtis Steele having romped for more than 100 yards in each of the last three victories. Most promising of all, the Tigers (even with rookie quarterback Arkelon Hall) don't appear intimidated by deficits, having hung tough at home against Arkansas State after falling behind, then erasing a 10-point UAB lead in Birmingham.
And what of the Cardinals? They enter the game 2-2, having lost to another pair of basketball-first universities (Kentucky and Connecticut), while beating Tennessee Tech and Kansas State. Victor Anderson and Bilal Powell are every bit the "thunder and lightning" tandem at tailback the Tigers would like to consider Steele and Charlie Jones. Having given up 220 yards on the ground to UAB, Memphis will have to close some gaps to keep the Cardinal offense off the field.
Four years is too long between Tiger-Cardinal clashes. Each program would benefit from gatherings more frequent than presidential elections or Olympiads. But if Memphis and Louisville fans are going to be forced to quell the fiery emotions these two combatants tend to elicit, they'd do well to heed the wisdom of that ancient Roman sports fan, Ovid: "Bear patiently with a rival."