Monday, July 23, 2012

Two Takes on the Ole Miss/Memphis Rivalry

Posted By on Mon, Jul 23, 2012 at 9:21 AM

New University of Memphis athletic director Tom Bowen thinks the Tigers should play Ole Miss in football. Memphis basketball coach Josh Pastner thinks playing Ole Miss on the hardwood is a bad idea.

I disagree with both of them.

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The longtime Tiger-Rebel football series will be renewed (after four dormant years) in 2014. As part of its second season in the Big East Conference — and presumably the third under coach Justin Fuente — Memphis will travel to Oxford in search of its 11th win in 60 games against Ole Miss. The following year, of course, the Tigers should draw a crowd of at least 40,000 to the Liberty Bowl to see a rematch — as many of them pulling for the visitors as for the home team.

Why this madness? Why this decades-long pursuit of some degree of validity for the Memphis football program, with a less than 20 percent chance of beating one of the SEC’s weak sisters? (Think it’s ugly when Ole Miss is on the schedule? Memphis is 2-25 against all SEC competition since beating Peyton Manning and Tennessee in 1996, a game that was supposed to change everything for the Tiger program.) All for a boost in ticket sales? For a nod to “regional rivalry?” The Tigers have lost nine of their last 11 games against the Rebels. This is to rivalry as a hammer is to a nail.

There’s one person I know grateful to have an SEC-free schedule for Memphis (a first since 1948): Justin Fuente. When I recently asked him about the conspicuous absence, he said the following: “This program isn’t ready to play [the SEC] yet. I don’t mind playing them, but right now ... we’re building this program.” If you’re looking for reasons to support the rookie coach, cut and paste that line on your desktop. Some perspective is required, especially for fans (and U of M officials) that have known Memphis-Ole Miss so long they’ve grown numb to the damage serial losing does to a program. To recruiting. To morale. Perhaps by 2014, Memphis will be “ready” to face SEC opposition. But I think I’ve seen this movie before.

Then there’s basketball, and Pastner’s aversion to playing Tennessee or Ole Miss. (Bowen announced last week the Tigers and Rebels will renew their hoops series as well.) The Tiger coach — approaching his fourth season — apparently feels these SEC programs gain a recruiting advantage by playing Memphis. Not when they lose to Memphis, Coach. (Memphis is 27-12 against Ole Miss.) The Tiger basketball program is as different from the football program as a poached egg is from barbecue ribs. The Tiger basketball brand is as powerful and as wide reaching as any in the SEC, save mighty Kentucky. (And please, please, Mr. Bowen: Schedule the Wildcats for a visit to FedExForum.) To reject games against the likes of Ole Miss (or Tennessee) is to make a concession the Memphis program need not make. Only one of these teams will suit up three McDonald’s All-Americans this winter.

The basketball schedule will get more complicated, of course, when Memphis enters the Big East (for the 2013-14 campaign). Nonconference foes won’t require the same pedigree (for RPI purposes) as they did when the Tigers were running roughshod over Conference USA. And the argument could be made that facing a Big Ten team or ACC team would be as good for the U of M as inviting an SEC foe to town. But I would urge the Tigers’ rising star of a coach not to publicly shun such battles. If the goal is truly a national championship, are we to consider the recruiting efforts of Ole Miss and Tennessee a major barrier? If they want to play, beat them. Easy math.

Meanwhile, I’ll toss a prayer to the basketball gods for that Kentucky invitation. John Calipari isn’t getting any younger.

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