by James P. Hill
The last time the University of Memphis Tigers played in a bowl game was 1971. The president was Richard Nixon and the U of M was Memphis State. As Missouri Valley champions, the Tigers rolled over the San Jose State Spartans in the Pasadena Bowl by a final score of 28 to 9. A paltry 15,000 fans filed into the Rose Bowl to see the game.
During that 1971 season the Tigers didn't exactly set the world on fire. Their regular season record was four wins and six losses. After manhandling SJS, Memphis finished the season at 5-6.
Fast-forward 30 years to the 2001 Tigers season, when the final record was also 5-6. But there were some big differences. The Tigers had a new coach, several new players, and a new system. It was, for want of a better cliche, a rebuilding season.
According to Coach Tommy West, the 2002 Tigers are ready to compete with Conference USA's elite and secure a bowl berth for the first time in 31 seasons. "Yeah, I expect this team to be in a bowl game," says West. "That's not a goal. It's more than that. It's an expectation. We expect to play in a bowl game this season."
If hard work, high hopes, and passion can bring about bowl games, the Tigers are in good shape. For Wade Smith, a senior offensive tackle who played several games last season with a broken thumb in a cast, it's all about staying healthy and playing consistently. "Last season, there was a point where we were 4 and 2, and we went to East Carolina and basically didn't show up," says Smith. "That's the kind of thing we can't have happen this year. We shouldn't have to come down to the last game of the season to decide if we're going to a bowl game or not."
Smith is enthusiastic about potential bowl possibilities but remains focused on taking the season one game at a time. "Right now, I'm focusing on Murray State," he says. "We have to come out and play up to our potential."
Every season, the Tigers assign team goals and objectives in their quest for a Conference USA championship. In the past, the team often hasn't had enough depth to sustain those goals in the face of injuries, ineligibility, etc. But, this year, the team and the coaching staff feel they have enough talent to fill in for players who fall by the wayside. That list already includes acclaimed Trezevant High School phenom Albert Means, who will miss the entire season due to academic ineligibility.
"There's not a void, because what it creates is a window of opportunity for another player," says West. "I expect Kenyun Glover to be the guy to step up."
Another enthusiastic Tiger is Tony Brown, a senior defensive end who has bought into the Tommy West philosophy. He also feels the U of M is a better football team this season. "We will accomplish more than what we did last year," says Brown. "We're a better team, more experienced, with more leadership, more character, and better work ethics."
When asked what kind of team the Tigers would field this season, West responds with confidence: "We're going to be capable of going 80 yards in one play, because we've got a quality quarterback [Danny Wimprine] and we have some skill-level players who can do things with the ball after they get it. We're going to be a team that throws the ball first and runs the ball second."
And hopefully makes it to the Liberty Bowl. After the regular season.
by Ron Martin
Collegiate recruiting peaked over the past week as teenagers verbally committed their allegiance to schools hoping to increase their stock in the business known as NCAA basketball. The University of Memphis 2002 Initial Public Offerings appear to be better than most, led by Kendrick Perkins of Texas, who some predict could lead the Tigers into a profit margin his freshman year. The balance sheets of collegiate basketball are affected by the decisions of teenagers whose verbal commitment is worthless until November 13th, the first day recruits can sign a binding agreement.
During a four-day period, Memphis landed commitments from three players, each of whom had summer-league coaches proclaiming their on-court brilliance. Meanwhile, arm chair coaches discussed the positive and negative attributes of their game. Of course, analysts have their own agenda. The summer-league coaches are well aware that the more stars they produce, the more money and respect they will be able to demand from the shoe companies supporting their programs. The armchair analysts base their opinions on whether or not the athlete has committed to their favorite school.
Players who show promise early in their high school career are flown coast-to-coast during summer school breaks to participate in cattle-calls also known as summer leagues to showcase their talents. Shoe companies such as Nike and Adidas sponsor these events, supposedly with the purpose of enhancing the high school players' abilities. The majority of the butts in the seats belong to college coaches and NBA agents looking for the next Kobe Bryant. It's a dangerous mix and sends a bad message to the players who quite reasonably begin to think basketball is the only route their life should travel.
Attendance at these camps is a necessary evil for college coaching staffs. If they don't participate, they won't keep their jobs very long. Players vie for the attention of coaches such as the U of M's John Calipari. Individuals and companies profit off the backs of these teenagers. It is as close to a modern-day plantation as you will ever see. Shoe companies and recruiting gurus create Web sites and offer their voices for talk shows to promote their "I'm the only one who really knows" opinions.
All of this leads to incredible pressure on the athlete. As recruiting services tout the players and declare with "inside" knowledge where a kid is going to play, boosters of schools not mentioned start applying the screws. A great example is U of M football freshman DeAngelo Williams of Wynne, Arkansas, whose family was besieged by University of Arkansas fans. When he began leaning toward the Tigers, one would have thought Williams had renounced his American citizenship. As Williams declared his intentions to attend Memphis, he noted the pressure, saying it was hard to study because of everything said about him and his family. It's a sad statement from a youngster who just wants to play football. Unfortunately, it's a statement which is repeated on a daily basis throughout the country.
Unless controls are placed upon the summer leagues and the companies supporting them, NCAA sports could soon face charges of corruption rivaling Enron and WorldCom.
Flyers Six-time Olympic medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee is in Memphis to speak at Mitchell High School regarding her fight with asthma while becoming one of the world's greatest athletes. Joined by former U of M great Andre Turner, she will hold her awareness seminar Thursday, August 15th ... Casey Wittenberg won the Tennessee State Amateur Golf Championship last week at Ridgeway Country Club. The 17-year-old is one of the youngest to capture the title in the tourney's 87-year history ... As the Elvis celebration winds down, look for U of M athletic director R.C. Johnson in a prime seat at the concert Friday night at The Pyramid. If there were a top-10 list of Elvis fans, Johnson would hold the three top spots.
Ramblings I'm still wondering why we seldom hear Lorenzen Wright's name when the Grizzlies talk about their future ... Do you enjoy going to AutoZone Park as much this year as you did last year? ... It's strange hearing U of M football coach Tommy West say he's concerned about defense ... Considering the legal rap sheets belonging to Arkansas football players, shouldn't they change their fight song to "Jailhouse Rock"? ... Congrats to former U of M basketballer Shyrone Chapman. He accepted his diploma last Saturday, proving you can be a student and an athlete at the same time.