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Trial By Fire

Thirty years in the football wilderness, and this is all U of M football fans have to show for their troubles?

By Kenneth Neill

While driving to Legion Field last Saturday night in Birmingham, my local host for the evening pointed out that Vulcan, the massive statue of the god of fire that usually towers over Birmingham from high atop Red Mountain, was absent from his pedestal these days, off being "repaired" after a hundred or so years of reminding Central Alabamans from whence their meal tickets had come. Alas, I suspect this mythological man of steel was not resting comfortably in some ironmonger's workshop last Saturday but inhabiting at least one if not several green-and-gold jerseys down on the gloomy turf at Legion Field.

How else do you explain the Tigers getting their brains beaten in by a football team coming off a 34-0 loss at Louisiana-Lafayette? How else do you explain the 31 points scored by an anemic UAB offense ranked 116th in the country? How else do you explain the miraculous way that virtually every bounce of the football -- fumbles, interceptions, near-miss sacks -- went UAB's way?

Bad bounces notwithstanding, I have watched Tigers football for over two decades and never, ever seen a more dispirited effort or, for the fans, a more disheartening performance. Just before halftime, after UAB's coach, Watson Brown, milked the clock and gigged the Tigers with a dispiriting last-minute TD, putting the Blazers ahead 28-17, I retreated, along with many road-weary Tigers fans under the decrepit gray-concrete stands on the U of M side, to sample a "loaded" hot dog, rumored to be the best dog in C-USA. It was.

We were in shock, no doubt. But we were calm. Along with my blue-clad peers who made up the majority of the crowd (forget that 14,179 attendance figure quoted in the CA; there weren't half that many warm bodies in the stands), I returned to my seat, assuming -- and hoping -- that this was all nothing more than a bad dream.

If the first half was a bad dream, the second was a nightmare. UAB kept running the ball straight up the middle, and the Tigers defense, obliging fellows all, kept getting out of the ballcarrier's way as expeditiously as possible. It got so bad that our sorry little gaggle of blue-clad masochists started cheering whenever we held the mighty Blazers to less than seven yards a carry. Even then, we didn't cheer too often.

I was a little nervous before the season, when so much was being said about the team's prospects and so little was being said about the defense. Now, five games in, I can see why; this Tigers defense looks utterly rudderless. Watching these guys go through the motions Saturday night, I asked myself, What would Danton Barto think of this crap? Barto, Tigers linebacker extraordinaire of the early 1990s, was a consummate team leader. I remember one sad but entertaining game in the old Orange Bowl in 1993, when the team was getting its proverbial clock cleaned by Miami. I can still see Barto in the third quarter, exhorting the troops as if the score were tied. It wasn't, of course (the Tigers lost 41-17), but, trust me, that defense delivered a light-years better performance than the one this sorry bunch gave last Saturday.

On offense, the team at least has a leader in Danny Wimprine and a talented one at that. But I must ask what offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner has been doing to mess with his squad's heads lately.

Time after time, the whole team leaned expectantly toward the sidelines as the clock relentlessly clicked down, waiting for Fichtner to re-call the play. No telling how many of the team's 11 players actually knew what was going on when the ball was snapped. My guess would be an average of eight, at best. Why continue bothering with a no-huddle offense -- designed to "unnerve" the opposition -- if one of its primary products, clearly, is team confusion?

Furthermore, if I live to be 100, I will never understand why Fichtner's troops line up at least a third of the time in a no-tailback formation, clearly telegraphing Wimprine's intention to pass. Why do this when you have two of C-USA's best running backs on your roster? Maybe I'm just a little slow.

And, yes, the Tigers still have special-teams problems. In the game's turning point, early in the second quarter, punter James Gaither chased into the end zone a snap that had sailed over his head then inelegantly whiffed as he tried to kick the ball over the end-line, thereby neatly converting a sure safety into a UAB touchdown. No offense to Gaither, who kicked impressively in the second half, but these are the kinds of mistakes that are getting downright monotonous. They say you can't coach stupidity, but how come our team's brain trust seems to be working so hard at it?

Coach West, if and when you read this, try to avoid the temptation to come after me with a gun. I think I speak for all U of M fans when I say we think the world of you and of the job you're doing with the program.

But enough is enough, Coach. Losing to a bunch of pissants from Birmingham is not something we were expecting -- and neither were you, I suspect. But if lose we must, when we least expect it, let's lose with some class. We can deal with losing. We longtime Tigers fans are certainly used to it. But only if it's the Danton Barto way. Not just going through the motions.

What I Like

Some things to be glad about when it comes to sports.

By Ron Martin

Despite the fact that it appears the sports world has become filled with lowbrow, self-absorbed types who think they live under different rules than the rest of us, there are plenty of reasons for me to be glad to be associated with the games people play.

I'm glad Rip Scherer brought Tommy West to Memphis, despite the UAB debacle. I'm glad there is a plaque hanging on the wall of the Tigers basketball practice facility dedicating it to Larry Finch. I'm glad to see the U of M's Murphy Complex get its needed facelift.

I'm glad the latest NCAA report on athlete-graduation percentages showed Vanderbilt with 100 percent over the last six years. I'm glad Jerry West moved to Memphis and Bud Adams didn't. I'm glad high school football and basketball are so popular in Memphis and that we don't live in a city trying to do away with both because a wayward school board can't see the positives in teenage athletics. I'm glad Wayne Weedon is the city schools' athletic director.

I'm glad the following don't call Memphis home: Alan Iverson, Randy Moss, Bobby Knight, and Lou Holtz. I'm glad the following do call Memphis home: R.C. Johnson, Shane Battier, Lorenzen Wright, Tiffany Brown, and John Calipari.

I'm glad we have the Liberty Bowl Memorial Classic and the Southern Heritage Classic. I'm glad we have the Redbirds and Grizzlies. I'm glad DeSoto County has the RiverKings. I'm glad we have the Spring Fling and that the rest of Tennessee is mad about it.

I'm glad the St. Louis Cardinals won their division. I'm glad Sammy Sosa finally spoke out, asking for teammates worthy of his talent. I'm glad there was no baseball strike. I'm glad Bud Selig has no direct effect on life in Memphis. I'm glad the New Orleans Saints look like a football team. I'm glad the Minnesota Vikings don't. I'm glad Brian Griese's okay after tripping over his dog for the second time. I'm glad I'm not his dog.

Flyers The Memphis-Shelby County Library has a new reading room called the Grizzlies Den. The library and a number of other charitable organizations received $200,000 from the NBA team last week. Combined with the $5 million pledge to build the Memphis Grizzlies House at St. Jude, the team is acting like it wants to make a difference here, not just a buck.

It's one thing for the U of M to get beat by Ole Miss and Southern Miss, but at UAB, the team played as though they didn't want to win, which is unacceptable. I spend a lot of time with the team, so to say I was shocked is an understatement, because I know how hard they work.

Ramblings Nashville talk-show host Phil Valentine after the Titans' loss to Cleveland: "Now, Nashville and Memphis have something in common: We don't want the Titans either."


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