5) Memphis 45, Tulane 6 (November 29) -- There may have only been 15,012 fans at the Liberty Bowl on this overcast Saturday after Thanksgiving, but two of them -- Sofia Murtaugh (age 9) and Elena Murtaugh (6) -- were attending their very first college football game. With more than 200 rushing yards, the Tigers left no doubt on the field in earning their 6th win of the season, qualifying for a bowl game (the fifth postseason contest for the Tigers in eight years under coach Tommy West). I insisted on a review from my daughters after the game. "The field was pretty," said Sofia, "but not as pretty as a baseball field." As for Elena's inaugural gridiron adventure: "I liked the way we scored lots more points than they did." Well put. And the hot chocolate was great.
4) Grizzlies 109, Rockets 97 (December 8) -- A sagging economy and lukewarm local interest screamed in the form of 10,000 empty seats on this Monday night at FedExForum. But the home team played some positively Bull-market basketball. With Rudy Gay benched at the start of the game for having been late to shootaround that morning, the Griz still raced out to a 10-0 lead over the Southwest Division-leading Rockets, and they never looked back. (Didn't hurt that Houston's Tracy McGrady and Ron Artest were out of uniform with injuries.) Channeling his inner James Worthy, Memphis rookie O.J. Mayo scored 10 points in the first nine minutes, on his way to 18 for the game. And Mr. Gay came off the bench to score a game-high 20. With Shane Battier and Joey Dorsey on the Rocket bench, it felt like Old Friends Night at the big barn on Beale.
3) Memphis 6, Omaha 5 (July 13) - Josh Phelps will likely join Ernie Young and Kevin Witt in the Memphis baseball history books as a one-year slugger who couldn't quite land a coveted big-league job, but took advantage of Triple-A pitching during his five months as a Redbird. Phelps was the hero of this Sunday matinee, drilling a three-run homer in the bottom of the 12th inning, after Memphis fell behind the Royals in the top of the frame. It was the most dramatic of the team-leading 31 dingers Phelps hit in 2008. Alas, even in Memphis this slugger was but the second-most famous Phelps of the summer.
2) Memphis 77, Tulsa 51 (March 15) -- Memphis fans are getting dangerously close to taking the Conference USA tournament championship for granted. And that's a shame. The Tiger program went 19 years between tourney titles, having last won a Metro championship in 1987 before taking the C-USA title in 2006 at FedExForum. Just as they did in 2007, the Tigers went undefeated in conference play on their way to the 2008 championship game, again at FedExForum but this time against the overmatched Golden Hurricane of Tulsa. Tipping off at 10:30 am for a national television audience, the Tigers ate their Wheaties and won the game by halftime with a 42-13 lead. This was Derrick Rose's last FedExForum appearance as a Tiger, and a rare spotlight moment for John Calipari's "glue guy," Antonio Anderson. After leading Memphis with 19 points, Anderson was named the tourney's MVP.
1) Tennessee 66, Memphis 62 (February 23) -- With apologies to Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson, this was the biggest showdown in Memphis sports history. Any matchup involving a top-ranked Tiger basketball team and the number-two squad in the country would likely have earned that status. But for the second-ranked team to be none other than the Tennessee Volunteers (the highest such ranking that program had ever achieved) made this Saturday night at FedExForum nothing short of epic. I hid my credential outside the arena two hours before tip-off and asked an invigorated scalper what he was asking for a single ticket. He laughed at the notion that such information would be volunteered before I stepped forward and established my demand. (This was Economics 101, in sneakers and a ball cap.) When I suggested $50, well, he laughed again. The home team missed a few last-minute opportunities after UT grabbed the lead, and fell by a score of 66-62. The Tigers' five-week reign as number-one in the country came to an end. If there was any solace, it came a few nights later when Tennessee fell at Vanderbilt. Five weeks beats three days, right?
As we count down the last days of 2008, enjoy a countdown of the 10 most memorable sporting events I attended this year. (Check in next week for the top five.)
10) Memphis 9, Ohio U 4 (March 2) -- One of the sunniest and windiest days of the winter provided the setting for my first baseball game at Nat Buring Stadium. With my mom visiting from frigid Vermont, this was as close to spring training in Memphis as we could imagine. Having split the first two games of their series with the Bobcats, the Tigers matched their run total from those games in just eight innings at the plate. Sophomore Trey Wiedman (a graduate of Houston High School) homered and drove in three runs, and freshman Robby Graham (a product of Cordova High School) made a pair of diving catches in front of my family's perch beyond the leftfield wall. (There was a time when Memphis kids filled the Tiger basketball roster, but these days, if you want to cheer Memphians, go see a baseball game. No fewer than 22 players from greater Memphis were in the Tiger dugout.) My 8-year-old daughter retrieved a ball hit over the centerfield wall by a Bobcat player, and I told her she could keep it if she could get a Tiger to sign the ugly off it. Thanks to Mr. Graham, that ball now sits in her playroom.
9) Memphis 3, Omaha 1 (July 11) - A pressbox is a comfortable place to watch a sporting event. And all too taken for granted by most members of the media, be they scribes or camera-toting talking heads. But to a 9-year-old girl, a press box -- as described by dad -- is a mysterious concoction of luxury, pressure, and technology, with free popcorn. On this night, I escorted Sofia Murtaugh -- with the blessing of the Redbirds' staff -- for her first inning in a press box. Hard to say if she was impressed, or merely distracted by the gargantuan bowl of popcorn. Later in the game, she was quite impressed when DeAngelo Jimenez fouled a ball directly into the second-level suite where we enjoyed most of the game. Jimenez later delivered the go-ahead RBI, cementing himself in at least two reflections of a baseball game begun in a press box, but finished where cheering is, indeed, encouraged.
8) Alabama 29, Tennessee 9 (October 25) -- Their rivalry is among the most fierce in the country and, even with the Crimson Tide ranked second in the nation and the Vols in a two-month death spiral, you had the impression on this fourth Saturday in October that another special chapter might be written. More than 100,000 fans were there. The Pride of the Southland Marching Band never looked better. You even had a reunion on the field of the 1998 national champs: Tee Martin, Al Wilson, Peerless Price and friends. After UT failed to punch the ball in after recovering a fumbled punt in the first quarter, the outcome was never in doubt. This was Phil Fulmer's 200th game as head coach at Tennessee. He would get to coach only four more.
7) Woodland 7, Second Baptist 2 (November 8) -- The six- and seven-year-olds of Second Baptist put up the best fight of their eight-game soccer season on this crisp Saturday morning in east Memphis. Having scored but a single goal in their first seven matches, the black-and-gold-clad "bumblebees" buried two in the final half of the season against a strong Woodland team. The final tally of the season was scored by rookie forward Elena Murtaugh, her first career goal . . . and with Grandmom in the stands.
6) Louisville 35, Memphis 28 (October 10) -- If Florida and Florida State can play one another every season despite being from different conferences, why can't Memphis and Louisville? While the gridiron rivalry is merely a stepchild to the version we know and love/hate from the basketball arena, it remains one of the few tilts that creates a vibe at the Liberty Bowl when no SEC team is on the field. On a Friday night, and on national television, the Tigers scored two third-quarter touchdowns to tie the Cardinals at 28 before Louisville returned a fumble 21 yards for the game-winning score. Memphis left the field a loser despite outgaining their opponents 481 yards to 299. Remarkably 11 Tiger players caught at least one pass in the game, including the U of M's starting quarterback, Arkelon Hall.
After 24 games, the Memphis Grizzlies have apparently agreed to a buyout of Antoine Walker's contract. While terms have yet to be announced, the NBA's version of divorce papers will allow the 32-year-old veteran to become a free agent and negotiate with any of the other 29 NBA teams that might consider him valuable. For those interested in the continued rebuilding of the Griz, this development is every bit as welcome as the team's first four-game winning streak since April 2006.
I enjoyed what may have been the team's finest start-to-finish performance this season on December 8th, a 109-97 victory over the Houston Rockets (the first game of the current winning streak). O.J. Mayo stole the show after the opening tip, with 10 points in the game's first nine minutes, and an admonished Rudy Gay -- he was late for that morning's shootaround -- came off the bench to score a game-high 20. But I left FedExForum with two fairly ugly images in the back of my mind: thousands of empty seats and Antoine Walker in a sport coat at the end of the Memphis bench.
The NBA's business plan doesn't work. Not any longer. Not in 2008. And this has everything to do with the skewed structure of the players' contracts, inflated salaries that drive up the cost of game tickets, leaving entire sections -- almost entire levels -- of NBA arenas empty. CEOs -- those still with their jobs -- can certainly shell out four figures for season tickets, or three figures for a few seats to a big game. But your average Memphis consumer (let's exaggerate and identify that person as someone making less than $100,000 a year) is tightening his budget and, if he's paying attention, wondering about the accounting department at his local NBA outfit.
Walker was never a part of the plan being implemented by Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace and coach Marc Iavaroni. His contract merely balanced the trade last summer that sent Mike Miller to Minnesota and brought O.J. Mayo to Memphis. For his toil at the end of the Grizzlies' roster (and bench), Walker was scheduled to earn $9,320,500 this season. For additional perspective, consider that Gay -- simply the team's best and most important player -- will earn $2,579,400, roughly twenty-five percent of Walker's pre-buyout take-home. There's no other company on the planet with that kind of salary structure for its staff.
The NBA has rules that don't allow a player's contract to be ripped apart (as they can be in the NFL). A franchise cannot tell the Antoine Walkers of the world to go away (at least not without paying him what his contract stipulates or offering a buyout which, in Walker's case, will include six zeroes). And this is precisely the breaking point -- in public perception -- with the NBA's business plan. Because the rest of us are learning the hard way how easy it is for bosses to say "go away". . . and without a seven-figure guaranteed contract (or buyout) to cushion the fall.
The Grizzlies deserve more fans in their arena, particularly to watch a club with the kind of youth, energy, and yes, talent that should lead to good things around the bend. But the scales of what the Grizzlies spend and what they ask of their consumers must find a sense of balance before those seats will begin filling. Among the empty seats at FedExForum, the first one to actually bring a smile this season will be Antoine Walker's.
You gotta love the breakout season DeAngelo Williams has enjoyed for the Carolina Panthers. The former Memphis Tiger has rushed for 1,229 yards in leading his team to a record of 11-3 and first place in the NFC South. Williams is fourth in the NFL in rushing, leads the league in touchdowns (16), and is a lock for his first Pro Bowl appearance next February. In the meantime, his Panthers have their sights on a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs, with visions of Super Bowls dancing in their heads.
The University of Memphis football team is on its way to the Sunshine State, to take on the South Florida Bulls in the inaugural St. Petersburg Bowl on December 20th. (With 34 of these postseason extravaganzas, you had to know we'd run out of clever titles. The Tulip Bowl?) While it's the fifth bowl game in six seasons for coach Tommy West's Tigers, this will be the first contest in which the U of M is matched up with a so-called "BCS" team, a program belonging to one of the six conferences that qualify for the mythical BCS national championship. But Memphis fans should take pause before posting a tiger-striped "mission accomplished" banner.
To begin with, USF plays in the Big East conference, the weak sister among the six power conferences (behind the SEC, Big 12, Pac 10, Big 10, and even the ACC). For some perspective, consider the Big East champion Cincinnati Bearcats (also on their way to Florida, to face Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl). This is a team that went 11-2, but lost to mighty Oklahoma, 52-26, and to not-so-mighty Connecticut (yes, they play football), 40-16. (For what it's worth, Cincinnati beat USF, 24-10.) As recently as 2004, the Bearcats were members of Conference USA. If I were a fan of the 12-0 Boise State Broncos (on their way to the prestigious Poinsettia Bowl, with a payoff of $750,000), I'd have a serious gripe with the Big East's automatic pass into the BCS five-bowl party. Cincinnati's trip to the Orange Bowl will earn the program a cool $17 million.
That, alas, is but a long-winded way of explaining the simple notion that the Big East is not that far removed from the level of competition Memphis is familiar with in C-USA. USF spent the 2004 season in C-USA before joining the Bearcats in the Big East. Less than 20 years old as a program, the Bulls have grown competitive fast. (It never hurts to have a campus in talent-rich Florida.) This will be the team's fourth straight postseason appearance, though the Bulls are hardly charging toward St. Pete, having lost four of their last five games. Looking at common opponents, USF beat UCF (a team that beat Memphis at the Liberty Bowl) and lost to Louisville (another team that beat the Tigers at home). They led the Big East in total offense, and finished second in the league in total defense (a unit that ranked 13th in the country).
Perhaps most worrisome for Tiger fans is the fact that this game will essentially be on home turf for the Bulls. A packed Tropicana Field, though, will be an atmospheric improvement on the thousands of empty seats at the New Orleans Superdome when the Tigers played there in 2003 and 2007. And heck, folks, it's a bowl game, "BCS" connection be damned. Ask Tennessee and Arkansas fans how much they'd mind playing a road game this time of year.
With six catches in his San Francisco 49ers' victory over the New York Jets on Sunday, Isaac Bruce now has 987 in his long and illustrious NFL career. Which means that, barring injury, Bruce should finish the 2008 season as the fifth player in NFL history to catch 1,000 passes (following Jerry Rice, Cris Carter, Tim Brown, and Marvin Harrison). Among this quintet, only Rice, Harrison, and Bruce have won a Super Bowl.
Though you'd never know it by visiting the Liberty Bowl, Bruce is one of four former Tiger football players to have his jersey number (83) honored. In but two seasons for Memphis, Bruce caught 113 passes (most of them thrown by Steve Matthews) and compiled 1,586 yards, still seventh in school history. Thirteen more catches, and he'll punch his way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. And consider the irony there: a Memphis football player will reach his sport's Hall of Fame before any Memphis basketball player reaches Springfield, Massachusetts.
Say this for University of Memphis football coach Tommy West: he knows how to close a regular season. His Tigers beat Tulane Saturday afternoon at the Liberty Bowl, 45-6, to finish West's eighth season with a record of 6-6. The victory marked the fifth consecutive year Memphis has won its regular-season finale, a streak unmatched since 1966-70. Better yet, the win clinched a bowl berth for Memphis, the program's fifth trip to college football's postseason in the last six years (and three more than the program had seen before West's arrival in 2001).
The ghosts of Woody Hayes and Bear Bryant are grinding their teeth over a 6-6 team heading to a bowl game (and searching for a celestial punching bag at the notion that 68 teams deserve such a trip). Nonetheless, the 2008 Tigers are a pretty decent story. A team that loses its first three games, then sees its top three quarterbacks fall to injury should not be scheduling practices in December. But with a group of seniors who have experienced late-season rallies before, and a coach who recognizes every Conference USA game as a potential win, these Tigers took advantage of mismatches when they could -- which included the likes of Nicholls State and a depleted Tulane squad -- to earn a 13th game. No apologies necessary to critics, living or dead.
The Tiger program will never again see the likes of DeAngelo Williams, the tailback who rushed for more than 6,000 yards before jaunting off to the NFL's Carolina Panthers (for whom he scored four touchdowns Sunday in a win over Green Bay). But if we're lucky enough to be here, we should resolve to check in on Brandon Patterson in the year 2028. Last week, the Tigers' senior safety was named an Academic All-America by ESPN. A year ago, Patterson became the first Memphis player in 15 years to earn such a prestigious national honor. He now is the only Tiger player ever to earn the honor twice. Patterson is holding down a 3.7 GPA as a graduate student and will earn his master's degree in finance later this month. He's been an outstanding football player, too, a three-year starter with almost 200 career tackles. Best of all, he -- like Mr. Williams -- embodies the class and decency Tommy West sells as the foundation of his program. Something tells me that in 2028, Brandon Patterson will be recognized for achievements that dwarf his gridiron exploits.
I took in Saturday's game from the stands with my family, which led me to a few thoughts on the ongoing stadium debate. For those who gripe about the comfort of sitting on aluminum bleachers, I'd point them to Oxford, Fayetteville, or Knoxville, where thousands upon thousands sit on the same hard benches, one Saturday after the next, and a good deal further away from the action than were the 15,012 in attendance at the Liberty Bowl last weekend. The stadium's concourse may be a bit narrow for the all-too-rare sellout crowd. But there was plenty of elbow room at concession stands for the Tigers' home finale. (Consider: The combined attendance of the Tigers' last two games would barely fill half the stadium, which has a capacity of 62,000.)
Bottom line: Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium is too large for the Memphis Tiger program. From the lowest days of the Rip Scherer era to the heights of Williams' prime, attendance at Tiger football games maxes out around 45,000 and tends to drop no lower than 15,000. But even with 45,000 in the stands, the stadium is left with considerable empty space, which gives a poor impression, particularly as the stadium sits in the middle of a metropolitan regional destination. And when only 15,000 show up? It gives the impression a minor-league outfit is borrowing the home of a larger enterprise.
I continue to vacillate between the virtues of an on-campus facility for the Tigers, or a new stadium at the Fairgrounds. But I've come to firmly believe that the best move for the football program -- and its many loyal boosters and fans -- is a dramatically smaller stadium. If nothing else, place some value on a Memphis Tiger football ticket. Make them harder to come by in a market where the program's niche is smaller than many would like to believe. I'll leave it to the big-time developers to decide where the stadium belongs. But the day must come when the most striking feature of a U of M football game isn't entire sections of empty seats (or benches).