LITTLE BOYS LOST 

LITTLE BOYS LOST

Everything seems so hard, You don't know where your wishes are, In dreams they're really not so far away So when sadness rains and your hopes get tossed to the wind Remember, winds blow many ways, We're bound to see better days, When smiles leave tears in the haze, Little Boy Lost...

PIC: UAB's Watson Brown gets a victory shower. When I was a wee lad, I remember how Mother would recite to me a charming if chilling piece of doggerel entitled "Little Boy Lost," which poem would (a) scare the daylights out of me, and (b) ensure that I would never loosen my six-year-old selfÕs grip on my father's hand coming and going from Fenway Park, or the old Boston Garden... Sitting in the faux-empty stands at Legion Field in Birmingham last Saturday, watching our beloved Tigers get the ever-loving cow manure kicked out of them, 31-17, by a University of Alabama-Birmingham "team" which had little more to recommend itself than, say, Memphis Central, I somehow was reminded of this little ditty. For the footballing Tigers, with but one or two exceptions, were clearly, utterly "little boys lost" -- lost in the cavernous emptiness of a once-famous football stadium, lost in their complete inability to execute, well, anything whatsoever. (Full disclosure: the lines quoted above were not from my mother's poem, which is lost in time, but from a 1998 model I found in WebLand, authored by one Janet Lee Hickey that seems to have been built around the same premise. You get the idea, though). The Little Boys Lost. Those of you who have been paying attention may have noticed my absence from the pages of the print Flyer for two weeks, during which time I was awol in the Canadian Woods, where cell phones and internet connections are still considered the stuff of legend. Imagine, therefore, my enthusiasm, as I reentered these United States, and descended upon hilly Birmingham, eager to pick up the script of the 2002 Tiger Morality Play I had put down after a painful yet noble defeat in Oxford three Saturdays before. Yes, we had lost to a manly Southern Mississippi aggregation in the meantime, but we had recovered to wax Tulane comprehensively back home in the Liberty Bowl, right? So we were on course, of course, for our rendezvous with destiny. Smite UAB, return home covered with glory, ready for an epochal encounter Tuesday next with Louisville, and.... Speaking of smiting, and blacksmiths: while driving me to Legion Field, over the mountain from Homewood, my host for the evening's postgame activities (thank god for those, at least), pointed out that "Vulcan," the massive statue of the God of Fire who usually towers over Birmingham from high atop Red Mountain, was absent his pedestal these days, off being "repaired" after a hundred-odd 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 "team" that was coming off a 34-0 loss at Louisiana-Lafayette, that football powerhouse that, yes, may well play in the same league as Memphis Central? How else do you explain the myriad successes of a 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, and precious few went Memphis'? 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. And here's the scary part, witnessed by yours truly sitting just twenty rows up from the Tigers bench. With the notable exception of Danny Wimprine -- as the game wore on, he looked more and more like a Polish cavalry commander facing Nazi tanks in 1939 --- not many folks on the Tigers' sideline seemed to even care. And I'm talking coaches, not just players. Maybe looks are deceiving, but I was oh-so-reminded of a second-division baseball club playing out the string, yes, in late September. Just before halftime, UAB's Watson Brown (one of my favorite coaches and the collegiate equivalent of St. Jude, given that he always seems to work for "lost causes," first Rice, then Vanderbilt, now UAB, whose football program's future, locals tell me, is on ultra-thin ice) milked the clock and gigged the Tigers with a brain-bashing last-minute TD, putting the Blazers ahead 28-17. Along with many road-weary Tiger fans, I retreated under the gray-concrete stands on the U of M side, to sample a hot dog "loaded" (purportedly they are the best dogs in C-USA; they are). There I was, in the bowels of an archaic stadium eerily reminiscent, yes, dare I say it? of our own Crump Stadium: decrepit, degenerate, and, today the home field for Memphis Central High School. I think the same thought was crossing all our minds simultaneously: if the Tigers keep this up, they should retreat back to the place from whence they came into the Liberty Bowl, back in 1966. God knows they won't be needing the 30,000 extra seats. And maybe Dave Casinelli's ghost might kick some butt in the locker room at half time. Because clearly, little if any butt was kicked at halftime Saturday at Legion Field. Along with the Boys and Girls in Blue who comprised the majority, believe it or not, of the crowd (forget that 14,179 attendance figure quoted in the paper, folks; if there were eight thousand warm bodies in Legion Field Saturday night, I'm a frog), I returned to my seat hoping/thinking/assuming that this was all nothing more than a bad dream. But presto: the lethargy the Tigers had unleashed in the first half seemed to have been bottled by the case in the locker room, and returned to the sideline for quick and easy distribution to the players on the field. Hard as it is to imagine, the Tigers came back out onto Legion Field even flatter than ever. Watson Brown's troops kept running the ball straight up the middle, and the Tiger defense, obliging fellows all, kept getting out of the ballcarriers' way. Missed tackles were, well, legion. It got so bad that our little sorry 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. So perhaps you think I'm being a little too bitter, and painting misery with too broad a brush? Okay, here's a few specific observations, for what they're worth. You asked for it... 1) The Tiger defense looks utterly rudderless. Watching these guys go through the motions, I asked myself, "What would Danton Barto think of this crap?" Barto, Tiger linebacker extraordinaire of the early Nineties, was a consummate team leader; I remember one sad but entertaining game in the old Orange Bowl, back in 1993, when the team was getting its proverbial clock cleaned by Miami, and yet watching Barto exhort the troops as if the score were tied. It wasn't, at least not for long; the Tigers lost 41-17, but, trust me, it was a light-years' better performance than what this sorry bunch delivered last Saturday... 2) In Danny Wimprine, the team at least has a leader, and a talented one at that, on the offensive side of the ball. But I must ask: what has offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner been doing to mess with these guys' heads since the Ole Miss game? They had twice, maybe five times as much talent as their UAB counterparts, but it took them twice, maybe five times longer to execute most of their offensive plays. I can still see the whole team leaning towards the sidelines as the playclock clicked relentlessly down, waiting for Fichtner to re-call the play. No telling how many of the team's eleven players actually knew what was going on when the ball was snapped; my guess would be an average of eight, at best. Why bother with a no-huddle offense -- designed to "unnerve" the opposition -- if one of its primary products, clearly, is team confusion? 3) If I live to be 400, I will never understand why Fichtner's troops line up 35% of the time in a no-tailback formation, telegraphing Wimprine's passing intentions as clearly as can be imagined. Nothing like keeping your opponent guessing, right? Why do this, when you have two (on paper, at least) of C-USA's best running backs on your roster? Maybe I'm just a little slow... 4) And then there's the old special-teams problems. Special-teams killed us in Oxford, and they nailed us again in Birmingham. In the game's turning point early in the second quarter, punter James Gaither, after a bad snap sailed over his head, chased it back into the endzone, but, in trying to kick the ball over the end-line, whiffed as inelegantly as Queen Elizabeth might have, single-handedly converting a safety into a UAB touchdown. No personal offense to Gaither, who kicked quite impressively in the second half, but these are the kind of mistakes that get automatic benching, yes, at Memphis Central. They say you can't coach stupidity, but how come our team's braintrust seems to be working so hard at it? I could go on with the specifics all night, but you get the picture. And Coach West, if and when you read this, try not 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, even still, of the job you're doing with the program. One horrific, MurphyÕs Law date does not a romance kill, if the romance is worth anything in the first place. But enough is enough, Coach; enough is enough. Losing to a bunch of piss-ants from Birmingham is not something we were expecting; neither were you, we suspect. But if lose we must, when we least expect it, let's lose with some class. We can deal with losing, coach -- hey, we're certainly used to it -- but only if it's the Danton Barto way. Not the Queen Elizabeth way. We've got ten days before the Cardinals come to town, Coach, ten days. That's plenty of time to retool the offense, dump the laggards on the defense and replace them with folks who at least care, and maybe round up a fresh bunch of walk-ons for special-teams. Hey, maybe Dave Ragone and company will be as overconfident coming into Memphis as we were, clearly, going into Birmingham. And now that he's come down from Red Mountain, maybe Vulcan the Blacksmith is free on Tuesday nights, as well.

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