There’s been a lot of discussion over expansion among the elite BCS conferences. Locally, we’re left to wonder where the University of Memphis might fit after all the musical chairs have been filled. Here’s one man’s view of potential new homes for a program desperate to consider itself among the big boys. (With respect to “nonrevenue sports,” this league shuffling is all about football and basketball, so I’ve kept the observations largely to the moneymakers.)
This is a pipe dream. Sad truth: If an SEC-Memphis marriage was meant to be, it would have happened years ago. This league will poach members from the ACC before it approaches the U of M.
PROS: These are all mighty athletic programs, among the largest in the country. And every school can claim some historical success on either the gridiron or hardwood or both. Tiger basketball would be fun to watch in the Big Ten, especially early in the transition, as Josh Pastner’s emphasis on running, frenetic play contrasts with the bruising reputation of programs like Purdue and Michigan State. In addition to big athletic programs, these schools have big student bodies, all but Northwestern with an enrollment in excess of 20,000. (Northwestern belongs in the Big Ten about as much as Sewanee belongs in the SEC.) Road trips would be to cooler climates, but would end up at many of the most famous football and basketball venues in the country.
CONS: The southernmost campus is Indiana’s, in Bloomington. Memphis would be the only school in a noncontiguous state. And in a league known foremost for its football, it’s hard to envision the Tigers competing with behemoths like Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State, or even second-tier (but quite successful) programs like Iowa, Wisconsin, and Purdue. On top of all the packed football stadiums and tradition, though, every last school in the Big Ten has an endowment that tops $1 billion. The U of M isn’t even in that ballpark. This is a partnership that will never happen.
PROS: Similar to the Big Ten, this league features huge campuses (meaning lots of alumni, meaning big TV ratings). While Tiger football would have a hard time with the powers from Texas (the Longhorns and Texas A & M), Oklahoma, and Nebraska, one could imagine an upset over the likes of Texas Tech, Missouri, or Iowa State. Basketball season would feature one of the five most elite programs in history (Kansas), along with regular NCAA-tournament teams like Oklahoma State, Missouri, and Kansas State. A bonus would be seeing one of the best baseball programs in the country (Texas) visit FedEx Park.
CONS: Memphis would be an anomaly (along with Baylor) in not representing an entire state in its title. Seven of these schools have endowments in excess of $1 billion, the Longhorns leading the way at — wait for it — $16 billion. There are haves and have-nots in college sports. The Tiger program would be a have-not in the Big 12. By the way, seven Big 12 programs have football stadiums smaller than the Liberty Bowl. What’s wrong with this picture?
PROS: Memphis basketball vs. Louisville, twice a season. That’s really all the argument needed here, but there’s more. Among the 16 member schools (counting Notre Dame, which does not compete as a football member), only three — Cincinnati, South Florida, and Rutgers — are significantly larger than the U of M. Six schools have enrollments of less than 10,000. Only four schools have endowments of more than $1 billion (Notre Dame, Cincinnati, Georgetown, and Pitt). Five schools, like Memphis, take their name from the city where they are located. The day South Florida joined the Big East, the league gave up any semblance of a regional boundary, so Memphis would fit as a charter Mid-South member. Not only would the basketball team contend among some of the sport’s giants, but the Tiger football team would join an eight-member league with at least a fighting chance for three or four wins each fall.
CONS: The Tigers and Cardinals can’t play four times a season.
Last Friday night was my 11th Opening Day at AutoZone Park. (And my 10-year-old daughter’s first. Her night was made when she appeared on the scoreboard video screen before the first pitch.) I can’t remember the concourse being as crammed with fans as it was for this lid-lifter, though the announced crowd of 10,717 was at least 3,000 fewer than the new management would like for a weekend night perfect for baseball. The fact that the new Yuengling-sponsored concession stand was out of Yuengling by the fifth inning is testament to the crowd’s thirst for baseball, or at least for the comforts our national pastime brings.
A few more observations:
• The arrival of Rockey the Redbird in a helicopter was a great touch, and hopefully a new annual rite. A friend and I agreed later that the only display that might top the chopper would be if the city’s finest mascot parachuted into centerfield. (I’m not convinced those oversized feathers actually allow Rockey to fly.)
• Returning members of the 2009 Pacific Coast League champions had their own pregame introduction and a quick photo-op. When a pennant was raised up the flagpole just below the Stars and Stripes, I’ll admit to some goose bumps. I’d sure love to see, though, a permanent display of some kind honoring both the 2009 champs and those from the 2000 team that christened the new ballpark with champagne.
• The Cardinals’ farm system has gotten young. And this doesn’t necessarily bode well for the 2010 season in Memphis. Among the top 10 prospects in the St. Louis system (according to Baseball America), exactly two were wearing Memphis uniforms last weekend: pitcher Lance Lynn (#3) and infielder Daniel Descalso (#9). And it may say something about the strength of the Cardinals’ farm that their 11th-ranked prospect — Friday night’s starting pitcher, Adam Ottavino — walked six batters in five innings.
With the likes of Allen Craig, Joe Mather, and Jaime Garcia wearing two birds on their chests in St. Louis, the Redbirds will be counting on outfielder Jon Jay (ranked 13th), shortstop Tyler Greene (14th), and outfielder Tyler Henley (18th) to keep the team competitive in a division where Nashville is off to a 8-3 start.
• Get used to on-the-field entertainment. For the first time in the ballpark’s history, fans witnessed the much-talked-about, never-quite-understood “Dizzy Bat” race. And some kind of beanbag-tossing contest, with oversized plastic mats the target. A harsh reminder, perhaps, that the Redbirds remain a minor-league operation. One that must entertain however and whenever it can, including the “quiet time” between innings.
• Best intro music, hands down: outfielder Mark Shorey (Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man”). Here’s hoping Shorey hits well enough to stay in the lineup every day.
• Signage on the outfield wall is new. FedEx has a prominent spot, and seems right for a Memphis ball team. But a waste management company? If the Redbirds begin to struggle on the field, just wait for the jokes and juxtaposition.
• The Redbirds play 16 of their first 24 games on the road. This can be seen in one of two ways: an unfortunate handicap for the defending champs as they gather form for a new season or the chance for a group of players to develop cohesion and an early sense of singular purpose that defines a contender. If you enjoyed Sunday afternoon at the ballpark, as my family did, sit tight. The next Sunday matinee will be May 16th.
• The two biggest stars from the Redbirds’ early days (1998 and 1999) at Tim McCarver Stadium were J.D. Drew and Rick Ankiel (the pitching version). On April 9th in Kansas City, the Royals beat the Red Sox, 4-3, in a relatively meaningless game for any Memphis fan. In that game, though, two players hit their first home runs of the season: Boston’s J.D. Drew and Kansas City’s Rick Ankiel. How many would have forecast such 11 years ago?
If you thought filling out your 64-game bracket was a head-scratcher last month, you’ll soon be able to look forward to a 95-game maze to the national championship and office-pool glory. If McDonald’s can add a third patty of beef to a sandwich, the NCAA can sure as hell expand its signature event.
The decision to inflate the tournament hasn’t been made official, but it will be in a matter of weeks. With the backing of its dutiful presidents — each of whom knows the value of an extra $1 billion on a television contract — the NCAA is set to reinvent what became a perfect sporting event 25 years ago. A 64-team basketball tournament was a rarity in sports: the synchronized, balanced distribution of a single challenge among contestants mighty and undersized. Every team had to win six games over three weekends to hear “One Shining Moment” played in its honor. The best team — over those three combustible weeks — always won. Single-elimination makes every minute count in this event. The seeding system, while hardly beyond criticism, has been sound. Only three teams seeded lower than four have ever raised the trophy (North Carolina State in ’83, Villanova in ’85, and Kansas in ’88; Butler would be the fourth if they beat Duke Monday night).
Expansion to 96 teams will mean the top 32 teams receive a bye, instantly altering the mission: six wins for the privileged, seven required for the hoi polloi. Just as troubling, the second-tier NIT — if it survives — would have a field with teams primarily outside the country’s top 100. It won’t mean as much to qualify for the NCAA tournament, but it will mean nothing to be selected for the NIT. Imagine your high school prom expanding to include freshmen ... and still receiving an invitation to the Freshman Ball. The NIT will be that irrelevant. (A side thought: Perhaps the first round of the expanded tournament can simply adopt the NIT’s name and logo. It will, after all, include teams otherwise headed for the older event.)
This is all about television, of course, which in turn is all about ad revenue. If CBS can sell ads for 63 games (the silly play-in game is televised by ESPN), imagine what it might bring in with 95 on the menu. But you can count me among those who will check in no earlier than the second round, with second-round teams and second-round advertisers. Let the frosh have their day, but not in the grand ballroom of this magnificent event.
• Tiger Woods’ love life interests me as much as his taste in music or his preference among ice-cream flavors. On the other hand, I’m considerably interested in his career tracking of Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major golf championships. The twin Tiger tales collide this week when Woods ends his four-month, self-imposed exile from golf with a return to play at the year’s first major, on the hallowed ground of Augusta National. “A tradition unlike any other” — as CBS tells us again and again — will become an event unlike any sports fans have witnessed before. Part Kentucky Derby and part O.J. trial, this year’s Masters will place the world’s most famous athlete in front of a gawking media contingent only partially interested in whether or not Woods can actually win the green jacket.
And this is precisely the script as written by Tiger Woods. As controlling a celebrity as sports has seen since Joe DiMaggio, Woods has determined where, when, and to whom he speaks since the infamous driveway wreck at his Florida estate last Thanksgiving. With sponsors running as though they’d heard gun shots in a crowded mall, Woods knows the PGA Tour and all its television advertisers need him, perhaps more than the land’s richest athlete needs them. So he gave those interested parties a four-month sampling of what business would be like without Tiger Woods, Inc.
Decide for yourself this weekend if it’s a better world with Tiger in the fairway.