You want to know what I like most about watching University of Memphis football this season? It's the feeling that we are watching this program's Golden Era. This is a backhanded way of measuring success, to be sure. The likes of Alabama, Texas, and Nebraska have their own standards for past greatness that each program has to try and match, year after year after year. But here in Memphis? This, Tiger Nation, is it.
It was oddly cathartic to sit in a stadium called the Liberty Bowl on September 11th (the Sound of the South's pregame performance of "God Bless America" maybe a little more poignant than usual). Enhancing the vibe, of course, were 38,133 football fans greeting the most anticipated Tiger season in a generation. And it appears they'll have much to cheer in the weeks ahead.
The opponent, the Division I-AA Mocs of UT-Chattanooga, put a mild twist on things by staying within 10 points of the Tigers for the first half of Saturday's contest. The script calling for a Tiger blow-out was ripped to shreds by Memphis quarterback Danny Wimprine starting the game two for nine. But not to worry. The stars came out after sunset.
DeAngelo Williams is looking more and more like a turbo-charged BattleBot on a field full of wind-up toys. The junior tailback churned out 251 all-purpose yards while (ho-hum) tying Dante Brown's single-game school record with four touchdowns. As for Wimprine, the senior signal caller overcame his sluggish start to pass for 263 yards and a pair of scores. DW heroics aside, though, the play of the game in my view was made by the Tigers' senior nose guard, Albert Means. Early in the second quarter, Means -- all 328 pounds of him -- chased Moc tailback Eugene Cousart all the way to the sideline before smothering the ball carrier for no gain. (Means will always be best known as the centerpiece in a recruiting scandal, but with plays like this, he'll be sharing his take on that scandal from an NFL locker room.) Final score: Memphis 52, Chattanooga 21. Hello, Top 25.
The postgame press conference had to be the most surreal in Memphis football history. A Tiger coach whose team had just scored seven touchdowns was fielding questions on how his squad can improve. "We talk about needing to get better," snickered Tommy West, "and we just scored 52 points. Man, we've come a long way. That used to be a season. But it's true, we have to find a rhythm on offense. We're not there yet. This team's in a great frame of mind, though. They take coaching."
The Tigers are now 2-0 and for the first time since 1961 have opened two straight seasons with a pair of victories. With road games against Arkansas State and UAB the next two weeks, Memphis could welcome Houston for homecoming on October 2nd with an unblemished 4-0 record. (That '61 team started the season 6-0.) The U of M has a nine-game winning streak in their series with the Indians and a far more motivating four-game losing streak against the Blazers. The homecoming game may as well be Christmas in Tommy West's mind, though, as he holds to the "one-game-at-a-time" philosophy like a grade school teacher does the three R's. "I worry about us," he stressed Saturday night. "I don't worry about the opponent."
Zach Curlin's 1929 Tigers were a special bunch, going 8-0-2 and outscoring their opponents 146-27. The 1938 Tigers went 10-0 and put an even bigger whuppin' on the opposition, 281-41. But these were one-year flashpoints on the timeline of Tiger football history, and Memphis was rolling over the likes of Cumberland College, Little Rock College, and Arkansas A&M. (You think this year's schedule is light?) No, the closest thing to a Golden Era the U of M can claim is the four-year period from 1960 to 1963 when Coach Billy Murphy and tailback Dave Casinelli led the Tigers to a 33-5-1 record. Even those Tigers, though, couldn't beat Ole Miss in three tries. (They tied the third-ranked Rebels, 0-0, in '63.)
So here we are in 2004, with a Top-25 Memphis football team that one SEC school (in Oxford) is trying to figure out how to beat, while another (in Knoxville) is more than a little thankful it isn't on their schedule. It's a long, long way to a New Year's bowl game, even longer before thoughts of an undefeated season become reasonable. But with a dressed-up Liberty Bowl, star players on both sides of the ball, a coach with his shoulders up and feet firmly on the ground, and momentum behind each and every shoulder pad, the Golden Era in Memphis football has arrived.