City Sports 

City Sports

Brave New World

Memo to long-suffering Tiger fans: The jinx is dead. Maybe.

SPORTS by KENNETH NEILL

It's an ill wind that blows hot, I thought to myself while standing in the parking lot just south of the Liberty Bowl at high noon Saturday -- a parking lot that the blue-clad U of M faithful had turned into a mini-Grove for the occasion. The football Tigers were about to attempt winning an eighth game for the first season in 30, and the mood was decidedly upbeat. But the wind was spooky, not the cold, biting kind you'd expect in November but something different -- twisting, turning, swirling in all directions.

"Wait'll you see how crazy it gets in the stadium," said Drew Pairamore, standing beside me inside a particularly festive tent. Pairamore should know; he spent three seasons in the early 1990s as the Tiger punter, and he learned to be wary of days like this.

Sure enough, the tempest spiraled and gusted inside the Liberty Bowl like an invisible wooden spoon stirring the contents -- which included two highly regarded junior quarterbacks, neither of whom would count this among their better days. The U of M's Danny Wimprine fared far worse against the fickle winds than his Cincinnati counterpart, having perhaps the worst game of his Tiger career. But at a fateful moment midway through the fourth quarter, with the Bearcats nursing a 16-14 lead, Gino Guidugli launched his own aerial misfire, a pass that veered a good 10 yards off course and into the waiting arms of ecstatic Tiger safety Wesley Smith, who scampered down the sideline and inside the Cincinnati 10-yard line. The U of M punched it in three plays later, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Eight victories. Whodathunkit, especially after the disheartening loss to UAB back in early October? Certainly not those fans who have spent two decades in the football wilderness, fans who have known more heartbreak than a hundred cardiologists. The Tigers won ugly, to be sure, but the U of M has all too much experience with losing well, with style and grace, and with being the best bad football team in America.

Ah, but back to the ill wind. Such was the havoc it wreaked upon Wimprine's passing that the Tigers came out after halftime with a revised game plan, one built around a simple premise: Give the ball to the Franchise. And give it to him they did, play after play. DeAngelo Williams racked up his usual mega-yardage (and his 10th consecutive 100-yard game) before fate intervened. Going to the well perhaps once too often, the Tiger coaching staff grimaced along with Williams when the running back's knee popped at the one-yard line and his storybook 2003 season came to an abrupt conclusion.

The Franchise's injury was eerily similar to the one that befell another franchise player in 1993, when, also in the next-to-last game of the season, Steve Matthews (to my mind still the best quarterback in U of M history -- sorry, Danny, after Saturday, you still have some work to do) also dove into the middle of the line and ended his season instantly, breaking his leg in two places. Matthews was never the same and never had the NFL career he seemed destined for. Happily, Williams' injury looks less severe, and it's likely he'll be back next year to build on his already certain reputation as the greatest running back in Tiger history.

Williams is truly a joy to watch. I can never make up my mind if he reminds me more of Gale Sayers or Tony Dorsett, but let's just say he moves in pretty elite company. His misdirection skills are the best I've ever seen. If you haven't been out to see him yet, make sure you do next year, for that may be the last chance you'll get. Williams is the Penny Hardaway of Memphis football.

But that'll be next year, more than likely, and this year still has two games to go now that a bowl bid is certain. Those contests promise to be a bit of a struggle offensively (although Derron Parquet acquitted himself well in Williams' absence), but with Joe Lee Dunn's defense hitting on all cylinders, South Florida and whomever the Tigers go bowling with will have their hands full. After five victories in a row, this team really does seem to have a rendezvous with destiny. And now that they're mastering the concept of winning ugly, I wouldn't bet against them.


Glory Days

For college hoops' best talent, look no further than the Memphis bench and the guys dressed in suits.

SPORTS by CHRIS GADD

John Calipari is once again out of his seat, fist pumping under The Pyramid lights, leg stomping under a rehabbed hip. There is a stop in the action. Calipari does a sprint-hobble over to the scorer's table.

The game resumes and the Memphis Tigers head coach limps off a pick and spots up in the right corner, where he takes a crisp, perfectly placed kick-out pass from Tiger assistant Ed Schilling. Calipari shoots. Swish.

Such a scenario is how Schilling envisions using Calipari for the early-season, unofficial number-one college coaching staff team.

"If Coach Cal could get his hip rehabbed, I think he would be able to chip in off the bench," Schilling says.

"At one time, he was really good," Schilling adds. "He could pass and he could really shoot. But I don't know if he could crack the starting lineup with this squad."

This squad of Tiger assistant coaches would easily run the table in Conference USA and likely roll through any field of 65 teams for the "Sideline Championship." Schilling, who still holds single-game, season, and career records for assists at Miami of Ohio, would play point guard. Sharpshooter Ryan Miller, a former Division II All-American, and Derek Kellogg, a two-year starter under Calipari at U-Mass, would share time at shooting guard. At small forward, Louisville Dream Team member Milt Wagner, who also owns an NCAA and NBA championship, would be the leading scorer. Mike Babul, a three-time Atlantic 10 all-defensive player, and 6'6" Tony Barbee, a two-time all Atlantic 10 pick and fourth all-time leading scorer at U-Mass, would play power forward and center, respectively.

"Our weakness would certainly be our inside game," Schilling says. "Tony can play the post. He's added a few pounds, but we still would be a little undersized."

"I think that you could make a good argument for us being the best staff," Wagner says.

And Schilling truly thinks Cal would willingly stay seated?

"Cal only thinks he can still play," Schilling says. "His hip might be career-ending. He had the surgery, but he still limps around like a gunslinger in a western."

• So you thought it was tough pulling an eight-hour shift of Tiger athletics Saturday?

Exciting, yes, attending a 21-16 Tiger football win over Cincinnati and a 94-64 Tiger hoops win over Fordham. But would there be time to go home between games? Should you wear shorts or jeans? What about a jacket? Long sleeves or short? What about the kids? And the babysitter?

And for Memphis students Chris Spencer and Brian Thompson, there was this: Tiger head or no Tiger head?

"I just wanted to support the team," says Spencer, who wore one of the now-legendary "Obnoxious Tiger Fan" T-shirts over his Winnie-the-Pooh Tigger costume to both the football and basketball contests. "I liked having two games in one day."

"It was an adrenaline rush," says Thompson, who adds that the plan is to wear the costumes to every game. "We went from game to game, and it's just go, go, go."

I guess that's what Tigers do best.

Spencer and Thompson were not alone in student turnout. Whether the result of a new trend or from spillover following the football Tigers' win number eight, the student section at The Pyramid was filled to near-capacity and remained standing the entire game.

• Speaking of standing, you better not be if you are a coach, player, manager, or water boy for the Tiger opposition this basketball season. The Memphis Pep Band is showing early signs of much-needed nastiness (and cleverness) in verbally attacking sometimes at excruciatingly loud decibels the opposition: "Sit down, coach. Yeah, you heard me. Why do you need water? You haven't done nothing on the court or the sidelines."

Isaiah Rowser Jr., a drummer in the band, is among those who pulled double duty Saturday except his day, like the rest of the band, started at 9 a.m.

"It feels great when the football and the basketball teams win in the same day," Rowser says. "It's been a lot of hard work. We're tired, but we still had fun."

Tiger basketball and football again play a double-header Saturday, with football kickoff at 1 p.m. and hoops tip-off at 7 p.m.

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