Monday, August 25, 2008

From My Seat: Memphis Football ‘08 -- A Higher Standard

Posted By on Mon, Aug 25, 2008 at 4:00 AM

As Year Eight of the Tommy West era at the University of Memphis kicks off this Saturday, the words "Tommy West era" seem more appropriate than they once did. Now the dean of Conference USA coaches, West has three more seasons under his belt at Memphis than any of his 11 C-USA counterparts can claim at their current institutions. (And how about this for U of M stability: no school in C-USA or the SEC has had the same football and men's basketball coach as long as the eight years Memphis has had West and John Calipari in charge.)

The catch, though, in evaluating West's growing legacy for the Tiger program is that he has yet to win a conference title or to even reach the C-USA championship game. Of course, with all the turnover in this "mid-major" league, UCF's George O’Leary -- coach of last year's champs -- is the only current coach who has had his hands on the trophy.

West -- and anyone associated with the Tiger team -- would like to see matters change in 2008. Having taken the program to four bowl games in five years (twice the number Memphis had seen in its history prior to his arrival), West recognizes a league championship as the necessary next step in closing the gap between a perennial C-USA contender and the big boys that compete for national championships.

Says West, "I want to have this program positioned so if we get in a BCS conference, we don't struggle for five or six years; we're ready to compete."

A victory in Oxford this Saturday would be a stride or two in that direction. Sure to be energized by the arrival of former Arkansas coach Houston Nutt, Ole Miss will treat the Tigers like SEC teams always have: as the snot-nosed cousin begging for a backyard brawl, but hopelessly underweight. The Rebels, though, are not expected to contend in the SEC's top-heavy western division, so the underweight cousins will consider Vaught-Hemingway Stadium a staging ground for their own launch party.

Tiger fans will get their first glimpse of Arkelon Hall, the junior-college transfer West insists is a pass-first quarterback, one blessed with a receiving corps that could be the envy of C-USA. Mobile for a big guy (6'3", 220), Hall will supplement a green backfield led by transfers Curtis Steele and Charlie Jones. But his primary responsibility will be finding an open receiver among the pack led by juniors Duke Calhoun and Carlos Singleton and seniors Earnest Williams, Steven Black, and Maurice Jones.

An experienced offensive line -- led by preseason All-C-USA pick Brandon Pearce at tackle -- should keep Hall's adjustment to Division I-A football relatively free of grass stains. (Memphis allowed but 14 sacks a year ago, and hasn’t allowed as many as 15 sacks since 2003.)

West says his chief concern is his defensive backfield. Memphis was ninth in pass defense among C-USA teams last season and will face an early test when Rice comes to the Liberty Bowl -- with all-conference quarterback Chase Clement and wideout Jarett Dillard -- on September 6th. With four seniors in the secondary mix (Brandon Patterson, Tony Bell, Michael Grandberry, and LeRico Mathis), experience may reduce the big-play susceptibility that kept West's teeth grinding last year.

West considers UCF the team to beat in C-USA's East division. (The Knights were picked to play Tulsa for the league championship in the preseason coaches' poll.) So circle November 22nd on your calendar, Tiger fans. Any visit to Oxford is a big game for the Memphis Tigers. UAB, Louisville (prime time, Friday night!), and Southern Miss are always grinders. But if a league championship has become the top priority for the dean of Conference USA coaches, beating the champs is the top challenge for 2008.

"I want to coach until I can't compete anymore," says West. "And I want to win a championship here. That was my goal when we started. I want to see that through."

Monday, August 18, 2008

FROM MY SEAT: From Phelps to Phelps

Posted By on Mon, Aug 18, 2008 at 4:00 AM

• Michael Phelps's record-setting haul of gold medals at the Beijing Olympics -- eight last week and now 14 for his Olympic career -- is enough to make the most casual sports fan pause. But the quantity -- that new magic number of 14 -- is overrated. Considering the number of events, strokes, and relays, an Olympic swimmer has more chances at earning a medal than any other athlete in the world. A wrestler or decathlete would have to remain active for more than half a century(!) merely to get the opportunity for 14 Olympic gold medals.

But here's what I'll take with me having watched the greatest swimmer in history in his sport's brightest hour: the two golds Phelps earned in less than an hour on August 13th (Tuesday night, the 12th, here in Memphis). Less than 60 minutes after Phelps set yet another world record in the 200-meter butterfly, he dove in the water to lead off his American team in the 800-meter freestyle relay. And after another four laps of the 50-meter pool, Phelps had a larger lead than he did at the end of his first race of the evening. (That relay took on an air of silliness at the end, as American swimmers were swimming the opposite direction of their seven followers at the turns.)

Swimming is taxing, folks. An exhausting symphony of leg and arm activity, all the while measuring one's breath so as not to, well, drown. Michael Phelps blowing away two fields of Olympic swimmers in less time than it takes to play a half of American football will be the Herculean achievement of the 2008 Olympics.

• Wondering about the greatest career achievement in Olympics history? It's Carl Lewis winning gold in the long jump over four consecutive Olympiads. In an event that thrives on young, fast-twitch muscles, Lewis was champion for the first time at age 23 in 1984, and won his last gold medal at Atlanta in 1996 . . . at the relatively ancient age of 35.

• Call me jaded, but I simply couldn't get worked up over the age controversy surrounding the gold-medal-winning Chinese women's gymnastics team. And here's why: we live in an age where mass and strength seem to get in the way of clarity and decency when it comes to athletic training. The Steroid Era has been entirely about getting larger, stronger, faster. Along comes the Chinese gymnastics team and they're too small to possibly qualify as Olympians? No 75-pound 16-year-old that you know? If you have a problem with the athletic schools that whisk away Chinese children as part of the country's Olympic factory, that's a fair stance. (But be careful. Check out some of the gymnastics or tennis academies here stateside.) But if a 13-year-old Chinese girl can outperform an 18-year-old American on the balance beam, it seems to me we should acknowledge greatness when we see it.

• Beyond Phelps's all-too-brief trips through the Water Cube's pool, my favorite glimpses from Beijing have come on MSNBC, CNBC, and Oxygen, where "lesser" sports have been given some airtime. Water polo has to be the most brutal human endeavor involving a ball and goal. The intensity on the faces of Olympic wrestlers is much closer to agony than what you'll see on a gymnast in full flight. I even enjoyed the half-hour of badminton I watched. To see a pair of athletes take such a game so seriously is to witness the Olympic ideal . . . with a shuttlecock.

• On the subject of Phelps, the Memphis Redbirds' Josh (29 home runs and 93 RBIs through Sunday) has enjoyed one of the finest seasons in the franchise's 11-year history. Local baseball fans owe it to themselves to visit AutoZone park next week, when the Iowa Cubs come to town (August 25-28). With Memphis clinging to the possibility of catching Iowa for a division championship, those four games will be the most meaningful played at Third and Union in eight years. With St. Louis falling further and further behind the big-league Cubs, Cardinal Nation -- Memphis region -- should mobilize in this effort to establish rightful order.

Monday, August 11, 2008

FROM MY SEAT: Putting Elvis' Stamp on the Sports Scene

Posted By on Mon, Aug 11, 2008 at 4:00 AM

With Elvis Week upon us, I found myself considering suitable theme songs for certain sports figures (and a local event). All made famous by the King, of course. Next time you see these jocks, may their tune be ringing in your ears.

"Big Boss Man" -- John Calipari. Derrick Rose may be history. Same with Chris Douglas-Roberts and Joey Dorsey. But with Calipari still on the bench, the University of Memphis remains on the radar of Final Four contenders.

"All Shook Up" -- The 2008 Memphis Redbirds. With Joe Mather, Chris Perez, Jaime Garcia, Nick Stavinoha, Kelvin Jimenez, Mike Parisi, and Mitchell Boggs all shuttling between Memphis and St. Louis, the local outfit's roster has changed much more than the weather at AutoZone Park this summer. Remarkably, these players could play significant roles for two winning teams.

"Return to Sender" -- Kwame Brown. The "cap space" is one thing. I can be talked into liking Javaris Crittenton. But Pau Gasol for Kwame Brown? Brown is the poster boy for why the NBA concocted its age/class requirement for entering the draft. Next best thing to seeing him in Laker purple again is seeing him sign a free-agent deal with Detroit.

"Trouble" -- The Regions Morgan Keegan Tennis Championships. If you're lookin' for trouble, The Racquet Club of Memphis would seem to be the place. With the club itself sitting behind a "for sale" sign, and the sport's two biggest names -- Federer and Nadal -- absent one year after the next, tennis fans have to wonder about the future of what was once the city's signature winter sporting event.

"The Wonder of You" -- Tyreke Evans. All of Tiger Nation is wondering just how much weight the incoming freshman can bear for a program with standards that now anticipate 30 wins and a deep NCAA tournament run. Evans will likely lead Memphis in scoring but, like a certain other freshman phenom, can he make his veteran teammates better, too?

"Burning Love" -- Alex Rodriguez. Lord almighty, ARod. It would seem lighting an extramarital flame with Madonna while playing the hot corner for the Bronx Bombers would be living on a prayer. But when your brain is flamin' . . . .

"If I Can Dream" -- O.J. Mayo. Certainly the most mellow (however inspiring) song to accompany the highly acclaimed rookie to Memphis for his inaugural NBA season. But considering the needs the Grizzlies have, and the urgency the front office feels for winning, Mayo will get the kind of playing time that is the foundation for a Rookie of the Year campaign. As he teams up with Rudy Gay, Mayo offers possibilities Memphis fans have all but forgotten. "Where hope keeps shining on everyone."

"Stuck on You" -- Tommy West. Stability and Memphis Tiger football have not often been mentioned in the same sentence. But with every winning season, bowl appearance, and aw-shucks interview, the current face of the program seems more a part of this city's cultural framework. And with his son suiting up at the Liberty Bowl? It's a family affair.

"It's Now or Never" -- Marc Iavaroni. It's a shame "good guy" isn't among the considerations when contract extensions are drawn up for NBA coaches. The Grizzlies' second-year coach would be on his way toward a decade-plus in Memphis were it his professional conduct or code of ethics that steered the ship. But it's win, baby, and win now. The guess here is that 35 wins -- in a rigid Western Conference -- will be needed for Iavaroni to be on the Memphis bench in 2009-10.

"(You're the) Devil in Disguise" -- Phil Jackson. I don't care how many championships Dr. Zen has won. Comparing Memphis to "Dresden after the war" went way too far. Easiest guy to root against in the NBA.

"Rubberneckin' " -- Derrick Rose was the key to the Memphis Tigers' march to 38 wins and the 2008 Final Four during his one season in the Bluff City. And he'll be the focal point (so to speak) as the Chicago Bulls aim to narrow the gap with the champion Celtics in a suddenly stronger Eastern Conference of the NBA. Stop, look, and listen, indeed.

"Jailhouse Rock" -- Why, Michael Vick of course; the NFL's baddest of bad boys. I considered "Hound Dog" only long enough to recognize how insensitive it would be to the world's canine population.

Monday, August 4, 2008

FROM MY SEAT: A Cheer for China

Posted By on Mon, Aug 4, 2008 at 4:00 AM

I spent ten days in China in October 1994. The closest thing to a "red October" I'll likely see, that journey -- I was part of a press junket previewing the Wonders exhibition, "Imperial Tombs of China" -- was as distant from western perceptions of communism as my memory can recall. Needless to say, the government officials who hosted our wide-eyed party of journalists were on their A game, just as all of China should be when the Olympic Games open in Beijing Friday. But whatever lengths may have been pursued 14 years ago to close the gap between east and west -- between perception and reality, one might argue -- are among the components of the continued efforts to bridge opposite sides of the world, and balance the relationship between the last two "super powers" our planet is likely to host.

Whether from Hong Kong (then still a British territory), Xi'an (where jaw met floor as my party walked among the long-buried terra cotta army of Emperor Qin Shi-huang-di), or Beijing (we took a short bus ride to the Great Wall), my memories of China start with the crowds. Walking around the Forbidden City one afternoon, I made the comment that on every block we'd seen, whatever day of the week, it always seemed like a ball game had just finished, with the departing fans filling sidewalks and streets, cars and cabs bumper-to-bumper, pedestrians young and old eager to get to their next destination.

But the crowds were invariably friendly. My group stood out in China, even with a contingent of guides and translators. Adding a significant language barrier -- a barely rudimentary knowledge of the romance languages will get you nowhere in the Far East -- those of us from the Mid-South were curiosities, but only until the first smile was exchanged.

I call on these happy reflections because I'd like to believe that the controversy that follows any western discussion of China -- be it over Tibet, Darfur, or human rights in general -- can become part of the international hug that every Olympic gathering aims to be, and not the central distraction (violent or otherwise) we remember from Beijing '08. China has room for improvement as it gains ground on the developed world -- and it's gaining fast, folks -- but so does every nation with interests that stretch global harmony. An open mind on the part of Olympic athletes should be enough to inspire open minds on the part of traveling sports fans, journalists, dare I say even diplomats and heads of state. Yes, China must improve its treatment of all its people. That improvement will come quicker through dialogue -- which starts with a visit to Beijing -- than it will through finger-pointing or threats of international action.

A significant bonus during my visit to Beijing was a college friend joining me from his home in Tokyo. A Japanese native, Tamio moved to America in elementary school, graduated with a degree in economics from Tufts, and returned to Japan not long before my press junket. He emphasized during our travels -- probably during our stroll on the Great Wall -- that wherever I go, wherever I live, when I read about China now, it will feel closer to home. And he was absolutely right.

There was a free night we had in Beijing, in which Tamio and I bravely took to the streets without our formal supervisors or translators. We happened upon a small restaurant (maybe five tables) not too far from the Forbidden City. If there were other diners in that restaurant, I don't remember them. What I do recall is the most energetic and friendly wait staff I've seen before or since (and, alas, a bathroom upstairs that was outdoors and alongside a fire escape). Tamio and I enjoyed a full meal -- rice, dumplings, some chicken and vegetables -- and a tasty bottle of red wine. All for five American dollars. I've tried to do the economics on this for 14 years now, and still can't grasp how fundamentally different two societies are when a meal in one would cost ten times what it does in another.

Suffice it to say, that same meal in central Beijing would cost more than five dollars today, and it'll cost much more 14 years from now. It's but a tiny sample of a gap being closed, a bridge being slowly built between east and west. And over the next two weeks, as, couch-bound, I watch runners, swimmers, and gymnasts compete for the world's attention, China will, indeed, feel quite close to home.

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