By Kenneth Neill
For the past few years, I've lived a mile east of the Liberty Bowl and thus have made my way down Midland Avenue on foot or by car five or six times a season, en route to a Tigers football game. As those of you familiar with the neighborhood know, there are railroad tracks running right along the south side of the football stadium, going across Hollywood, right as you turn off Midland.
Amazingly, in Murphy's Law fashion, I've found myself stalled in front of those tracks while a train goes by half the time or more as I've approached the Liberty Bowl. It hasn't mattered if that kickoff has been at noon, 3 p.m., 7 p.m., or whenever: A train comes rumbling by, and we, the loyal Tigers football faithful, sit silently in our cars, waiting.
Last Saturday night was no exception. Like clockwork, at 6:45 p.m., a BNSF engine blew its horn and came rumbling across our path, forcing our little group and a couple of thousand other folks to stop in their, um, tracks for five minutes or so.
"You know," observed one of my regular companions, equally familiar with this peculiar pregame ritual, "you'd think R.C. [Johnson] or the president [of U of M] or somebody over there might just have enough influence with the train folks to call them up, explain what's happening, and get them to keep the tracks clear for an hour before game time. How hard is that?"
Evidently very hard. But then again, the inconvenience we all experienced at 6:45 Saturday evening was small potatoes compared to the train wreck of a football game that followed. The Tigers football program crashed and burned ignominiously, losing to Mississippi State 29-17 in a game every bit as disheartening as any I've ever seen in that stadium.
I was in Birmingham three weeks earlier, where I saw this Tigers football team shoot itself in the foot against UAB. But then, I saw this same bunch play with grit and determination against a clearly superior Louisville squad last week and almost stage a historic comeback. So, train delays notwithstanding, I showed up at the Liberty Bowl cautiously optimistic.
Silly me. We watched the Tigers "play" Mississippi State, the 11th-best team (maybe) in the SEC. We watched the U of M gift-wrap a victory for a Bulldogs program desperate for any kind of good news. I left, yet again disappointed in and for the Tigers. But my dominant emotion was anger -- anger at a coaching staff who apparently hasn't a clue about how to keep such train wrecks from happening.
Don't take my word for this. Just listen to Jackie Sherrill. "The kicking game has been a downfall for them," the MSU coach said, speaking of the Tigers. "They've had some problems protecting the punter. The punter has been very erratic."
So these were Coach Sherrill's post-game observations? Not exactly. Believe it or not, this is what he had to say about the Tigers before the game, not after, as printed in The Commercial Appeal Saturday morning.
So Saturday night was, as Yogi Berra might say, déjà vu all over again. James Gaither's first punt was a low line drive with less hang time than an iron butterfly. It led to a 57-yard return that destroyed the Tigers' early-game momentum after they'd scored a quick touchdown. A second shanked 27-yarder helped give the Bulldogs a chance to equalize in the second quarter, which is also when the U of M drove to the Mississippi State two-yard line, before deciding to settle on fourth down for the "automatic" field goal. Just one problem: Stephen Gostkowski missed from the 18-yard line. When he did, the Tigers faithful exhaled en masse, almost audibly. That was the sound of the last air left in the 2002 Tigers football balloon rushing out into the cool night.
To be blunt: Tigers' special-teams performance this even-more-painful-than-usual season has been a disgrace. Tigers radio commentator Bob Rush, in his post-game remarks, jokingly suggested that the team might need to conduct campuswide auditions next week for possible upgrades in the punting and field-goal kicking positions. Rush was being facetious. I'm not.
Change is urgently needed. Do something now, Coach West. Give those of us who have witnessed and winced ("Where have you gone, Jeff-y Buffaloe? A program turns its lonely heart to you ...") some reason to think you understand that the kicking game is the reason you're 2-5, not 5-2. Give those of us who call ourselves fans some reason -- any reason -- to come back to the Liberty Bowl two more times this season.
In recent times, excellent kicking has been a Tigers football trademark. Not anymore. The school that gave the world all-American kickers such as Ryan White, Joe Allison, and Jeff Fite (not to mention Jeff Buffaloe, who averaged a school record 43.5 yards per punt over his Tigers career in the early 1990s) has guys in these positions today who would be an embarrassment to a halfway decent high school program. I have watched Tigers football for the better part of three decades and can't remember a single season so dominated by inept kicking.
Well, Coach West, at least you know what your recruiting needs are for next year. And, yes, perhaps I'm being a little obsessive. After all, our rushing defense gave new meaning to the word "porous" Saturday, and if the NCAA had a statistical category for dropped passes, I feel confident we'd be leading the nation. And, yes, Danny Wimprine, the best quarterback we've ever had, had a stinker game of the first order as well, particularly in the fourth quarter.
But none of this would have mattered -- certainly not against a team as mediocre as Mississippi State -- had we had any semblance of a special-teams game. How many times do our kickoff receivers need to catch the ball in the end zone and run it out to the 11?
It may not be quite time to write off this season, but that time is getting close. For now, the coaching staff needs to focus upon the things that might bring much-needed progress in 2003. Insist upon playing a punter who can regularly kick the ball at least 30 yards. Make a rule that if a guy drops a pass when he's wide open, he sits for a quarter. Hell, sit Danny Wimprine after he throws his third interception. Despite his talent, the young man could sure use some thinking time. Meanwhile, get rid of this absurd no-huddle offense that continues, clearly, to confuse us more than it confuses our opponents.
The mood was decidedly ugly among the blue-clad masses filing silently and despondently into the parking lots after the game. I wouldn't be surprised if many of them don't return, at least during the 2002 season. I can't say I'd blame them at this stage. There's nothing pretty about watching a train wreck.
By Ron Martin
I tried with all the power within me to stay away from writing about the pre-meditated autograph session conducted by a San Francisco wide receiver during last week's Monday-night football game. Since I couldn't resist (it's a media thing), there is one adjustment I'll make: I refuse to mention the player's name. For the sake of this column, we will dub him "Whatshisname."
Although I don't see how anyone could've missed the story, I'll take a moment to rehash the ugly incident. Whatshisname caught a touchdown pass late in the game against Seattle. Then he reached into his sock, pulled out a famous brand-name pen, performed a cocky walk, signed the ball, and gave it to his financial adviser, who was sitting in the stands. The sports world hasn't been the same since.
Wearing a shirt displaying his sponsor's logo, Whatshisname later appeared on ESPN for a three-and-a-half-minute interview, which was replayed on MSNBC between its "Tracking the Sniper" update and the "Countdown to the Strike on Iraq" segment. After screaming at my television set, I muttered something to myself regarding my embarrassment over my chosen field of endeavor.
Whatshisname's selfish act doesn't really concern me. It's the fact that he has garnered so much fame for merely signing his autograph. It's a nothing story, but it was treated as a possible story of the year. Why? It made great video and easy talk-show fodder. And believe it or not, the move made good business sense.
The best way for athletes to land publicity is to perform video-friendly acts while on the field. Their scoring or tackling or home-run celebration just needs to be more outrageous than the next guy's. Before you know it, high school athletic departments will hold special classes to teach ways to lure the camera.
The NFL has tried to contain such antics, but it was blasted by the media for becoming the No Fun League. The NCAA tried, but their officials can't decide the difference between the normal excitement of the moment and an "in your face" celebratory display.
Until we -- fans and media -- turn our eyes away from athletes like Whatshisname and focus instead on stories such as the one about the Chicago Bears football player who recently pulled a motorist from a burning car, nothing will change. His name? I can't remember. I spent too much time watching Whatshisname sign a football.
Flyers It was a storybook finish at the NASCAR Busch Series race at Memphis Motorsports Park last Sunday when Scott Wimmer won the Sam's Town 250 benefiting St. Jude. Wimmer won driving a car owned by Batesville, Arkansas, native Bill Davis. Winless, the team lost sponsorship following the July Daytona race, but Davis decided to personally fund the team. The also-ran quickly became a frontrunner, winning his first race at Dover in August. Memphis is his second win.
A note to the Memphis RiverKings: The ex-communications director for the Redbirds would be a perfect addition to your staff. Excuse my biased opinion, but Bob Brame is well respected by both the sports media and the Memphis corporate community. Baseball fans are losers in the Redbirds' decision to dismiss Brame in a cost-cutting move. One has to wonder how these recent cost-cutting decisions will affect the team.
Ramblings Who will be the first to call the FedEx Forum "the house Jerry built"? Tuberville and Cutcliffe: Other than coaching at Ole Miss, what do they have in common? Most interesting college football game this week: Notre Dame vs. Florida State.