BOWL BOUND (?), FINGERS CROSSED
Were not going to go out and blow anybody away. Nothings going to be easy. So muttered a forlorn Tommy West shortly after his Memphis Tiger football team lost a deflating contest to UAB October 4th in the Liberty Bowl. Considering his squad has beaten its last three opponents by a combined score of 127-47, West had better stick to coaching and leave the office pools to Rick Neuheisel.
If you happen to be a long suffering member of Tiger Nation (Gridiron Division), youll want to read the following sentence slowly, allowing the smile across your face to build momentum like a DeAngelo Williams off-tackle dash. The University of Memphis football team is bowl eligible. If the Tigers -- now 6-3 -- can win one of their remaining three games (at Louisville, home against Cincinnati and South Florida), its all but certain the U of M will play the programs third bowl game, and first in 32 years.
There was a glow of relief about West as he greeted the media following the Tigers 41-24 win over East Carolina last Saturday. After all, Memphis hadnt won so many as six games since the final year of the Chuck Stobart era (can that be called an era?) in 1994. Led by stars Williams (137 yards rushing and a new single-season U of M record) and quarterback Danny Wimprine (268 yards passing and four touchdowns), these Tigers followed up a pair of overwhelming performances on the road with the kind of statement rarely seen in the Liberty Bowl over the last three decades.
Work remains to be done. Memphis has lost its last four meetings with Louisville (having given up an average of 36 points) and its last three to Cincinnati (the Bearcats embarrassed the Tigers last season, 48-10). There are program s out there (Notre Dame, Nebraska, yes, Tennessee) that might sneak a bowl bid even with a 6-6 record. Such is not the case for Wests squad. The U of M simply has to find seven, in the coachs numerological speak.
As this beleaguered program nears the kind of status unkown in these parts since before Nixon and crook became one, my thoughts turned to three interested parties who, quite simply, deserve their expanded grins.
First you have the fans. Tiger football fans have taken their share of grief over the years, some of it deserved (even with as many as 40,000 in attendance, the Liberty Bowl can be a quiet, almost solemn place to spend a Saturday afternoon). But the fact is, there is a tight, loyal legion of followers who have been in their aluminum seats game after game, year after year, rain or shine, and often with a sorry excuse of a football team to root for (remember Rex Dockerys first two teams and their two wins?). Ive seen these fans squeezed between the Big Orange masses during visits by UT, and Ive seen the same fans with room to recline as the Tigers face the likes of Southwestern Louisiana or Tulsa. Theres something to be said for blind loyalty in the world of sports. No one deserves to see a U of M bowl game more than the fans who have stuck around these 32 years.
Williams and Wimprine will get much of the credit for the sucess of the 2003 Tigers, but theres a quartet of senior linebackers who would appreciate a postseason game more than any other group in blue and gray. Will Hyden (one of the stars in the destruction of Houston), Greg Harper, Coot Terry, and Derrick Ballard (okay, a linebacker in safetys clothing) are the soul of this teams defense, a group thats disappointed on occasion (17 points given up in one quarter against UAB) but overall has held its ground, allowing the stars on offense to make the difference they can.
And the third group Im happy to see witness this U of M football renaissance? The Memphis media. Dont laugh. You know their names, youve seen them on television, read their reports and analysis in print (and on the Internet). Theyve had to do their share of criticism, an element of reporting that the right kind of sportswriter never enjoys. The Memphis community of football media is a hard-working contingent, and Ive seen their faces every bit as long as the season-ticket holders after yet another heart-breaking loss, another gut-wrenching season as also rans. You might be surprised that stars like Williams and Wimprine can energize a crusty journalist just as much as they can the coaches and fans who scream their names every Saturday. No cheering in the pressbox, sure. But count the sweaty palms.
Not quite a month after that somber UAB postgame address, Tommy West had to fight a grin as he summarized the win over the Pirates. We can talk about bowls, he proclaimed. We are eligible . . . cant hide from it now.