The Company You Keep 

Whether it's pro football or college sports, the league can make or break a team.

We've seen this scenario before: Memphis has a successful minor-league pro football team with good attendance and community support, but the league in which it plays goes bust. Were the WFL and the USFL not successes in Memphis?

Reports of the XFL decline in TV ratings continue to pour in. What difference does it make if Memphis is the leading UPN market for the XFL? (Similarly, what difference does it make that Channel 5 pre-empted Saturday's NBC telecast of the XFL because of a thunderstorm?) What does it matter if the Maniax meet their attendance expectations? This is a television league, half-owned by a TV network. And what do network executives do when a show fails to get good ratings? They quickly go to the ax.

The Maniax have done an admirable job of hiring personnel (including head coach Kippy Brown and general manager Steve Ehrhart) and marketing the team. But unfortunately, as the Grizzlies and the Showboats discovered before them, if the league folds, your team goes right down the drain.

The same does not hold true of college sports. That's good, because the University of Memphis has been a member of three different leagues in the past 12 years. But a league can hold back a school. It is difficult for a team to be consistently better than the league it plays in.

But, unlike the Maniax, there will always be a league for the Tigers. That's because Memphis needs Louisville, just as Louisville needs Cincinnati. These schools may not be the athletic equivalent of best friends, but they are a lot like the school clique that forms out of necessity. It's either that or be a loner. And in college athletics, as in life, the solitary road definitely has a downside.

Memphis is lucky, then, to have Louisville, Cincinnati, Houston, and Southern Miss. They should call their league the Nobody Wants to Play With Us Conference. The alternative is not to have sports at all. Not to have a big raucous crowd at The Pyramid for a national telecast.

Too bad that every city that wants and can afford a professional football team can't have one. Because if Memphis has proven anything, it is that it will support traditional, outdoor football. The Maniax would be a success if every market embraced the XFL as Memphis has. But from a television perspective, there aren't enough markets turned on to the XFL. What do Pittsburgh, Boston, or Kansas City care about the XFL? Why would anyone in those cities watch?

NBC got into the professional football business with the same sort of mind-set that led the teams in C-USA to join forces. The National Football League hooked up with the other guys, leaving NBC as the only old-school network without an NFL contract. So the network formed its own league -- partnering with Vince McMahon of all people.

But the TV execs are now seeing the writing on the wall. Sex and violence may work for the WWF, but football fans want to see good football players on teams that they know and care about. As someone else said, "The XFL is not good enough football for the die-hard football fan and not good enough drama for the average wrestling fan."

Memphis supports the XFL because as a city we have been conditioned to do it. When McMahon and his cohorts held that first press conference at The Peabody it was like Pavlov ringing the bell. Memphis started to salivate. It isn't Memphis' fault that the league won't survive.

Conference USA is not as fragile. It will be around as long as Memphis, Louisville, and Cincinnati don't have anywhere else to go. But the league makes for strange bedfellows. Marquette, DePaul, and Saint Louis are urban Jesuit schools that don't play football. Charlotte is an urban public school that also doesn't play football. Tulane is a private urban school that plays football, not that anyone in New Orleans notices or cares. The ties that bind these schools are not always apparent.

The league originally got together to play basketball, but it seems that the football schools (Memphis, Louisville, East Carolina) are calling the shots now. How long will the non-football schools tolerate that? It is that dynamic which drives C-USA. Sometimes it can be a sputtering trip.

We are going to hear a lot in the next few days about what a terrible year Conference USA has had in college basketball. Many are saying that the league may only get one team in the NCAA tournament, especially if Cincinnati wins the conference tournament and the automatic bid that comes with it.

Memphis has three things going for it: its tough early-season schedule, its strong showing at the end of the season, and the personality of its coach. John Calipari has already started to lobby hard for his team. And he can be a very persuasive guy.

When the XFL is just another footnote in history, Tiger basketball will still be around. Whether the same can be said of Conference USA is another story.

The C-USA race will probably come down to the Memphis-Louisville game, and there is something that feels right about that. The Tigers head to Freedom Hall Saturday to close out the regular season against the school's number-one rival. Besides being senior day for the U of L, it will also probably be Denny Crum's final regular-season game.

The game has passed Crum by. That's the conventional wisdom. He never adapted to the era of the shot clock and the three-point line. Now the school is forced with making the difficult decision to fire a legend.

And Memphis thought it was difficult to fire Larry Finch.

In fact, Louisville will be ground zero for Tiger basketball this week and next as the conference tournament, for the second consecutive year, finds itself hosted by a school whose program is in turmoil. Last year it was in Memphis, where the fan base had turned grumpy. Wonder if the U of L will use the tournament and the hordes of reporters present as a forum to name a new coach?

Calipari started all four of his seniors Sunday night. It was the final home appearance for Marcus Moody, Shyrone Chatman, Shannon Forman, and Shamel Jones. The seniors got to start, but they were not immune from the lash of their head coach.

After Jones failed to get a rebound, Calipari sent Earl Barron into the game. When Jones made a face, Calipari was incredulous. "He's looking at me," the coach said to his assistants. "Why is he looking at me?"

As Jones made his way to the bench, Calipari turned the question to the senior from Brooklyn. "Why are you looking at me? Expect it. You're not rebounding the ball."

Twice Calipari called timeouts after Moody mistakes. "Do you want to win this game?" the coach asked the guard during one timeout, after South Florida had scored a breakaway basket when Moody didn't get back defensively.

But the coach wasn't always negative.

"Yes! Yes! Yes!" he screamed at Moody after a driving basket. "That's what I've been telling you."

After the game Calipari repeated his admiration for the group of seniors, who have had to play for three different coaches while going through the Tic Price scandal and the coaching search that ended with Calipari.

And the toughest thing they have had to go through may have been the transition to Calipari.

THIS AND THAT: It is easy to rag on Tic Price. I have done it myself. But perhaps we should mention here that not only did Price recruit the four seniors who were at the heart of the lovefest Sunday, but he also brought in Kelly Wise, Courtney Trask, Scooter McFadgon, Earl Barron, and Paris London. Hard to believe but UNO is supposedly thinking of bringing Price back as head coach. According to several published reports, Rhode Island recently made a pass at Calipari. Better get used to it, Tiger fans. It's the price a school pays for having a hot young coach. As the week began, Cincinnati ranked 36th in the RPI; Southern Miss was 64th, Charlotte 76th, Marquette 80th, and Memphis 81st. Not much to crow about is it? This from The Sporting News Website (sportingnews.com): Bubble teams (listed in order of probability of making the field): Temple (47), Penn State (35), Mississippi State (28), Richmond (48), Utah State (63), Memphis (81), BYU (53), St. John's (51), New Mexico (46), South Carolina (45), Southern Miss (64), Pepperdine (72), UTEP (62).

You can e-mail Dennis Freeland at freeland@memphisflyer.com.

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