5) Redbirds 5, Oklahoma City 2 (July 1) — For the 12 years I’ve enjoyed as a father, AutoZone Park has been my family’s playground. Each of my daughters pranced along the leftfield bluff in diapers, each ran the bases on Sunday afternoons (following the directions of Rockey and the RedHots), and each have now played catch with me on the field to make Father’s Day unforgettable. But this midsummer Friday night was the first time I accompanied just my younger daughter, Elena. (Her sister had friendly obligations that kept her away.) It happened to be Baseball Card Night, which made me feel 8 years old (Elena’s actual age). Sitting at a table in the new rightfield patio section in the 6th inning, Elena pointed out that if the Redbirds could get one more player on base, a grand slam would be possible. The home team accommodated her wish and, yes, reserve catcher Steven Hill drilled a base-clearing homer over the leftfield wall, onto that bluff where Elena has so often pranced. Priceless.
4) Tigers 2, UTEP 1 (November 6) — I stood in line with my family at the Mike Rose Soccer Complex for the Conference USA women’s soccer championship about ten feet behind Mike Rose. Knew it would be a memorable afternoon. (The same two schools, of course, played in the C-USA men’s basketball championship last March.) Entering the game with a record of 20-0-1, the Tigers weren’t able to score until the 59th minute, when sophomore Christabel Oduro drilled a shot from the left side of the penalty area into the upper-right corner of the Miner goal. UTEP answered, though, with 15 minutes left in regulation, forcing two periods of sudden-death overtime. In the third minute of the second OT, freshman Kaitlyn Atkins took a pass in front of the goal from Oduro — C-USA’s Offensive Player of the Year — and buried a title-winning shot. The win gave Memphis five consecutive C-USA tournament championships, the stuff of dynasties.
3) Tigers 97, Belmont 81 (November 15) — Opening Day (the game tipped off at 11 a.m.) is always special for Memphis Tiger basketball. It’s the renewal of the longest running family favorite in town. And this year brought the challenge of a Belmont team that won 30 games last season. No gimme. But this game was more about presentation to me. The Tigers took the court at FedExForum wearing uniforms that matched those of the 1972-73 team that took on mighty UCLA for the national championship. Better yet, the intro video produced by Running Pony Productions had as many black-and-white shots — Larry Finch, Keith Lee, Lorenzen Wright — as it did color. If sports are about connecting with your fellow fan — and across generations — this game, as presented, was pure sentiment at the volume of a Tiger’s roar. Wesley Witherspoon and Joe Jackson combined to hit 14 of their 15 shots. The outcome was never in doubt.
2) Grizzlies 104, Spurs 86 (April 25) — This was the night Memphis became a favorite in the NBA playoffs. The Grizzlies shocked top-seeded San Antonio in Game 1 of their Western Conference matchup. And they edged the Spurs in Game 3 at FedExForum to take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. But this night (Game 4) was an ass-kicking. And by the time the final buzzer sounded, everyone leaving FedExForum — their ears ringing from the volume — knew Memphis would soon reach the second round for the first time in franchise history. The Grizzlies were actually down at halftime, 50-48. But the score was pure set-up. With Tony Allen running, O.J. Mayo gunning, and Darrell Arthur making the Spurs look their age (Arthur scored 14 points on 7-of-10 shooting in 17 minutes), the Grizzlies outscored Tim Duncan and friends, 30-15, in the third quarter. The final 12 minutes were a cruise for a team that saw nine players score at least 8 points, but none more than 15. In my mind, the perfect capsule for the greatest season in Grizzlies history.
1) Thunder 133, Grizzlies 123 (May 9) — Commentary during games is frequent on press row, reporters verbalizing the rough draft of their take on things. Head-shaking laughter is less common. What I’ll remember most about the sixth triple-overtime game in NBA playoff history is how little the result seemed to matter by the time the game ended well after midnight. Fans left disappointed, sure, but they left exhausted. The exhaustion had little to do with the game’s leap past midnight and everything to do with emotional exertion. Leading the series two games to one, the Griz stormed out to a 12-point lead in the first quarter. But Oklahoma City’s two young stars, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, did what rising stars do (the pair combined for 75 points). Marc Gasol played 57 minutes (scoring 26 points and grabbing 21 rebounds). Zach Randolph played 56 minutes (34 and 16). The wrong team won, but this was an instant classic.
Happy New Year to all. Here’s to cheers and laughter in 2012.
My annual countdown of the 10 most memorable sporting events I attended this year:
10) Tigers 67, Southern Miss 61 (February 12) — It’s always been fun watching Memphis butt heads with Southern Miss, but it’s gotten better since coach Larry Eustachy arrived in Hattiesburg in 2004. If Eustachy wears a sport coat to the bench, it’s off before the opening tip. His tie is loosened before halftime, his hair dripping with sweat whether or not the score is tight. Eustachy makes things easy for the courtside hecklers at FedExForum. On this night, the Golden Eagles were anything but easy, taking a six-point lead at the half behind the trio of Gary Flowers, D.J. Newbill, and Maurice Bolden. Southern Miss extended the lead to 10 early in the second half before the Tigers clawed their way back. Memphis didn’t gain the lead for good until the last four minutes when a pair of freshmen — Tarik Black and Chris Crawford — hit four straight free throws. The win was the second of three the U of M enjoyed over Eustachy’s crew, including the quarterfinals of the C-USA tournament.
9) UAB 41, Memphis 35 (November 12) — Emphasis on memorable here, not enjoyable. The Tigers scored five touchdowns and more points than in any other game under coach Larry Porter. Jerrell Rhodes and Billy Foster combined to rush for 182 yards in a virtually empty Liberty Bowl. The Tigers led by 11 at halftime and 18 after the third quarter. Then it all collapsed. Memphis quarterback Taylor Reed couldn’t complete a pass, killing the clock and buying the Blazers time for a comeback. The Tiger defense made UAB signal-caller Jonathan Perry look like this year’s Cam Newton. One of the weakest offenses in the entire country — the visitors this time — scored 24 points over the game’s final 15 minutes. Shortly after the game, another reporter looked at me and said, “I thought Larry would get three years.” Not after this game.
8) Tigers 4, Tulsa 0 (October 9) — I have two soccer-playing daughters who essentially direct weekend activity in the fall. The U of M women’s soccer program has gained some spotlight in my family just as it’s gained in national prominence. On a brilliant Sunday afternoon at the Mike Rose Soccer Complex, we saw Tiger freshman Natalia Gomez-Junco score the first hat trick (three goals) for the U of M in four years. And she did so on her 19th birthday. The win improved the Tigers’ record to 13-0-1. And decreased once more the likelihood of seeing two Murtaugh girls anywhere near a football stadium.
7) Grizzlies 89, Mavericks 70 (January 15) — Hindsight is heavy. Memphis was three games under .500 entering this game, one that saw Dallas All-Star Dirk Nowitzki return to the floor after missing two weeks with a knee injury. The Grizzlies raced out to a 31-19 lead after the first quarter and were never really challenged. Nowitzki had as many fouls as he did field goals (2), thanks largely to Zach Randolph’s relentless pressure. Having played only 14 minutes, Nowitzki was ejected in the third quarter after protesting one of those foul calls. Randolph was the star this night, with 23 points and 20 rebounds. One of three times (in four games) Memphis beat the eventual NBA champs last season.
6) White Station Middle vs. Cordova Middle (October 15) — Honest and full disclosure: My older daughter played in this girls’ soccer city championship. My rooting interest gave this contest weight before foot met ball. But it happened to be among the most tightly fought contests I saw all year, so it makes this list. Having tied (0-0) less than two weeks earlier, the Spartans and Cougars were scoreless at halftime, the bleachers at Cordova High School close to full, a youth-league football game being played in the adjacent stadium. White Station took the lead nine minutes into the second half on a laser strike from atop the penalty area. But the defending champs evened things six minutes later. The game extended to overtime, and White Station took the lead in the first 10-minute session (many parents and friends thinking the game was over at the end of the period). Cordova managed to bounce a loose ball over the Spartan goalie midway through the second OT period, forcing the game to decisive penalty kicks. A cruel way to decide a World Cup (ask Hope Solo), and purely painful for 12- and 13-year-old girls. The Cougars made one more PK than did the Spartans.
Check back next week for the Top 5.
You know the names being tossed about: Pittsburgh Steelers assistant Randy Fichtner. Louisiana Tech coach Sonny Dykes. You can cross New Orleans Saints assistant Curtis Johnson off the list (he’s taking the job at Tulane). And it appears Arkansas State coach Hugh Freeze will take the challenge of winning games at Ole Miss. (And if he doesn’t leave Jonesboro for Oxford, he’s not leaving for Memphis.) Fichtner would be a safe hire, a former member of the family. Not unlike bringing Larry Porter back in some respects. You’d like to think Fichtner’s success with a model NFL franchise would translate to a Conference USA cellar dweller.
But does Randy Fichtner excite you? Does his name have you wondering when and how you’ll get to the Liberty Bowl for the opening game of the 2012 season? Will he have lines snaking outside the Hardaway Hall of Fame, football fans buying Tiger season tickets as stocking-stuffers this holiday season?
I’ve got some free advice for Eastman & Beaudine, the search firm leading this chase (and I’m charging from this point on): Call Bill Cowher. Yeah, the guy with the Hollywood jaw and a Super Bowl ring seen these days in the CBS studio, picking apart Sunday highlights. Lunacy, you say? Bill Cowher to the University of Memphis? Kinda like asking Jerry West to leave Los Angeles and rescue the Memphis Grizzlies. Cowher has long been a college coach in NFL clothing. Who knows?
Let’s say Cowher answers the call from E & B and says nothing more than “no.” National headlines would have to report: “Cowher Contacted About Vacant Memphis Job.” And just like that, the conversation about Memphis football changes. Then you call Jeff Fisher.
Is this over-reaching? Maybe (probably). But why has this latest coaching transition at the U of M been reduced to finding the best available NFL assistant or second-tier head coach? Why can’t the Tiger program start by aiming high ... at least to establish a new baseline? Why does Memphis have to play the bookworm scanning only the girls with no chance at a prom date? That cheerleader at the top of the pyramid, with the freckles and knee-weakening dimples? Ask her!
• I hope Alabama beats LSU by a field goal in the BCS Championship Game and Oklahoma State puts up 50 and beats Stanford by halftime in the Fiesta Bowl. College football’s silly season is upon us, and the NCAA powers-that-be — those in charge of the BCS “series” and the 30 other bowl games — have exactly what they deserve. I firmly believe the two best teams will be playing each other for the crystal football, but the belief stands on a hypothetical: that Alabama would whip Oklahoma State. Which means, after all is said and done, college football’s national champion will be crowned on a hypothetical.
• I’m not sure LSU would beat the Indianapolis Colts. (In an informal survey among media types at Saturday’s U of M basketball game, opinions were 50-50.) But I am sure that the LSU secondary — led by Tyrann Mathieu and Maurice Claiborne — is better than many in the NFL. I watched the Dallas-Arizona game Sunday, and would be comfortable replacing the Cowboys’ cornerbacks (Mike Jenkins and Terence Newman) with the LSU pair ... right now. The only way any team beats this LSU force is by running the ball, which is precisely why Trent Richardson and Alabama (and not Oklahoma State) should get one final chance.