I must admit: I was sorely tempted not to write anything at all here about Saturday's debacle at the Liberty Bowl, where the U of M Tigers ruined a beautiful early-fall afternoon for an expectant crowd of thirty-thousand-plus, rendering most of us both speechless and borderline nauseous.
No, I thought maybe instead I'd do something on the similarities between politics and football, sort of a get-out-the vote piece on the eve of Thursday's municipal elections. Maybe point out how in every kind of contest, you can't have a happy winner without a disheartened loser. And point out the public service the football Tigers have provided for their neighbors across the Mid-South over the years, by making lots of other people happy...
But my editor insists I say something about last Saturday's stinker. Ok, boss, here goes:
Proving that they learned nothing from opening with a singularly miserable first half against Arkansas State -- a weakling against whom such a misstep could be overcome -- the Tigers came out against UAB Saturday even more discombobulated, digging themselves into a steep 17-0 hole by halftime. And while the second half showed clearly why ours was the better team on paper, that hole proved way too deep to crawl out of, given that we were up against an opponent as well-coached and as disciplined as Watson Brown's Blazers invariably are.
And so for the fourth consecutive season, UAB went away with the spoils of victory, and we went home in the depths of depression. This year's loss was particularly hard to figure; even the bookmakers had us as 9 1/2-point favorites. Somebody in Vegas must be making boatloads of money betting on Tiger football. By simply studying recent Conference USA history, and understanding one of that conference's guiding principles -- the U of M will invariably lose the games it seems most likely to win -- you could accumulate a tidy fortune.
And so Tiger fans face another blue and gray autumn. After raising our hopes with that impressive victory over Ole Miss, the Tigers have now stumbled back into their usual rut, on course for yet another losing season, unless Tommy West can pull a rabbit or two out of his hat on this upcoming three-game road trip against Mississippi State, Houston, and Tulane.
Let's see, I'm beginning to see an emerging pattern for this year. Against Southern Miss, the U of M had six turnovers; it's almost impossible to win when you do that. And while losing to UAB, the team took six personal-foul penalties, probably a school record. And yes, it's extremely difficult to do that as well and win, even if a couple of the calls were questionable.
So what's in store next week against Mississippi State? Six interceptions from Danny Wimprine? Six missed field goals? Six broken ankles to go along with the one sustained Saturday by cornerback Lee Hayes (a critical loss, it seemed, one that threw the Memphis secondary completely out of rhythm)?
With this cursed team, you must admit, just about anything -- bad -- seems possible. Last year, remember, our fatal flaw was punting; we had to resort to Danny Wimprine kicking on the run. This year we can kick, we've got a 100-yard-per-game running back (D'Angelo Williams) and a veteran quarterback who, in his junior year, has already broken every school record for passing. So you put up a goose-egg in the first half, after just three points before halftime against Arkansas State? What gives here?
How inured are we Tiger fans to these kinds of painful, frustrating defeats? Well, consider this: I'm gonna cheat and go home early, by simply finishing this column by plagiarizing myself, citing certain post-game comments I made in this paper after last September's UAB debacle down in Birmingham. Hey, they still seem appropriate. And what's the editor gonna do; fire me? I wish...
Last year like this one, remember, the UAB game was crucial for us. We went in cocky as all get up, having smashed Tulane to bits the week before, and knowing that a win in Birmingham would put us on course for a winning season. You all know what happened next, of course: we got our clock cleaned, 31-17, before what was virtually a home crowd in near-empty Legion Field. And now that I reread that column from last October, I can see that this year's clock-cleaning was clearly, as Yogi Berra likes to say, "deja vu all over again."
Here's just a sample from last year's report: "Bad bounces not withstanding: I have watched Tiger football for over two decades, and never, ever, seen a more dispirited effort or, for the fans, a more disheartening performance." (Gee, how much longer can I keep using that line?) This year like last, Watson Brown and his staff clearly out-thought and out-maneuvered their Tiger counterparts. So how about this for a reusable line: "What has offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner been doing to mess with these guys' heads since the Ole Miss game?"
This year, inspired perhaps by the anouncement that assistant coach Pat Sullivan was seriously ill with cancer and was leaving the team, the entire UAB squad seemed to be moving as one with and without the ball. The Tigers seemed confused and disoriented, especially in the first half. There seems little point, therefore, in changing last year's column title, "Little Boys Lost."
Coach West and his staff have a mountain of work ahead of them in the weeks ahead. More than anything, he has to rejuvenate a talented squad's confidence before this season slides down the same slippery slope into despair as so many have in the past. I hope he and they can learn from Saturday's huge mistake.
We all make 'em, though, and I'm trying to learn from mine. One I won't repeat from last year was my reference to "losing to a bunch of piss-ants from Birmingham." The next week, a not-so-pleased UAB fan correctly pointed out that piss-ants don't beat you three times in a row. I can only imagine how much he's chuckling today, knowing his Blazers have done us in yet again.
Me, I only wish they could make humble pie a little bit more tasty.