Another football season is in the books. Eli was great in the Super Bowl and a Manning for all seasons, and Madonna showed that the only thing flatter than her abs is her voice. Plus, the actual game was exciting.
Not the most exciting I've ever seen, however. That distinction would go to the game between Memphis State and Mississippi State at Crump Stadium, October 26, 1963, back when they still used leather helmets. The previous year, the Tigers had claimed Mississippi State as their first victory ever over an SEC team, and the Bulldogs were looking for payback. Memphis State was quarterbacked by Russell Vollmer, who was among my first boyhood heroes. I was in junior high when Vollmer starred in football and basketball for Central. Although I cheered for East, my big sister dated a benchwarmer on the Warriors basketball team, and I sometimes ventured onto enemy turf to watch Vollmer play. Consequently, I was excited when Vollmer announced he would play football at Memphis State, especially since my parents had had season tickets since the dawn of mankind.
The Tigers already had a spectacular season going. A month earlier, they had battled Ole Miss, ranked number two in the nation, to a 0-0 tie in a game that still stands as a milestone in Memphis football. When the Bulldogs and their cowbell-ringing fans came to town, Memphis had the third-ranked defense in the country. Vollmer started the game with a 79-yard punt return. Later, Memphian Justin Canale kicked a 39-yard field goal for the Bulldogs. Vollmer returned the ensuing kickoff and was running out of bounds. In Crump Stadium, the locker rooms were located under the building and the players reached the field by walking up a steep set of concrete stairs, which were protected on the surface by a steel railing. As Vollmer ran out of bounds, he received a late hit, or shove, which sent him careening toward the Bulldog bench, which he vaulted. Then, hitting the protective railing at full gallop, Vollmer flipped heels over head and plunged 10 feet onto the concrete steps below. The capacity crowd of 25,000 was stunned silent as medical personnel ran to tend to the motionless Vollmer. After an excruciating wait, Vollmer was carried up the stairs on a stretcher and placed in an ambulance waiting to race him to nearby Methodist Hospital. It appeared as if his injuries were going to be extensive.
With Vollmer gone, the Bulldogs pulled ahead to take a 10-9 lead at halftime. The fans' mood was somber as the second half began with their star quarterback in the emergency room and no word yet about his condition. In the third quarter, it was beginning to look like the Tigers' dream season might be over, when, suddenly, ascending the stairs from the dressing room came Russell Vollmer. It had been loud at Crump Stadium before but nothing like this. As Vollmer trotted around the field to the Memphis State side, section after section of Tiger fans went delirious. The air was electric when Coach Billy "Spook" Murphy said to Vollmer, "Do you hear that? Now get out there and let's win this game."
Vollmer led the team on a final drive, culminating in a touchdown run by fullback Dave Casinelli, which gave Memphis State the win, 17-10. The Tigers finished the season 9-0-1. Casinelli led the NCAA in rushing and scoring, and unheralded Memphis State, shunned by the major conferences, rose as high as number 15 in the national rankings. Vollmer ascended to that high place of esteem reserved for all-time Tiger heroes.
There's been nothing like it since that magical season, when a combination of hometown stars, like Vollmer, John Fred Robilio, and John "The Bull" Bramlett, along with some key recruits like Casinelli and Harry Schuh, went undefeated in front of a packed stadium for every game. However, there's something new in the air, and regardless of recent frustrations, I'm beginning to think that sort of passion for Tiger football is once again within our grasp.
I've been walking on a cloud ever since it was announced that Memphis would be joining the Big East Conference in all sports for the 2013 season. I'm rapturous over the return of our traditional basketball rivals, along with some of the most fabled programs in college hoops. But this is a stellar chance for Tiger football. New head coach Justin Fuente needs the football equivalent of a "Larry Finch moment," when a couple of bona-fide hometown star athletes, like Finch and Ronnie Robinson, decided to stay home to play their college ball. With admission to the Big East, Fuente can now offer a local, blue-chip recruit, who might want to stay and play in front of his friends and family, the chance to play big-time football. Suddenly, all things are possible. Sink or swim, the Tigers are in the big leagues now.
For longtime Tiger basketball fans, this is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Since 1976, Memphis has not been in a conference that wasn't of our own invention. We've had more conferences than COGIC. Joining the Big East is like finally being called up to the majors. When the news broke in the middle of the night, I woke my wife singing choruses of "Walking on Sunshine" by Katrina & the Waves. Memphis need no longer be the Rodney Dangerfield of college sports.
Jaded northeastern fans say it's not the same Big East since Syracuse, West Virginia, and Pittsburgh are leaving. To paraphrase Cee Lo Green, "Forget them." Syracuse is the powerhouse basketball program Memphis is replacing, and we don't need to play those other teams in football yet anyway. Under a bigger spotlight and with major media press, perhaps some of our players that might have jumped to the NBA will consider returning to have some fun and raise their profiles. (Hear that, Barton brothers?) The renewal of the rivalry with Louisville is overdue. Like most Tiger supporters, I hate their city, their school, their fans, and their team — but I love their coach. I never thought I'd say this, but, "Thank you, Rick Pitino." And while we're expressing gratitude, thank you, R.C. Johnson. I couldn't have imagined a better going-away present. And it's a helluva lot better than the one left us by John Calipari.
Randy Haspel writes the blog "Born-Again Hippies," where a version of this column first appeared.