No Romance

The Tennessee Oilers have failed to court Memphis football fans. The result will be a half-empty stadium.

by Dennis Freeland

e built it, but they didn't come.

In 1987, when city government, under the administration of Mayor Dick Hackett, spent $19.5 million to expand Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, it was the final ingredient. There was nothing else the city could do to show the owners of the National Football League that Memphis was ready to join the fraternity.

Memphis had successfully hosted a series of meaningless exhibition games. We had enlarged the municipal stadium, which now held 62,000 seats along with 44 new luxury boxes. We had steadfastly played by the rules established by the league. While Phoenix and Indianapolis raided other cities to obtain their NFL franchises, Memphis waited patiently for the league to award it an expansion team.

In 1987 Memphis was a lock for the NFL.

Who could have guessed how much things would change during the next decade. Two years after the stadium expansion, powerful commissioner Pete Rozelle retired. His replacement, Paul Tagliabue, could not maintain the centralized power of his predecessor. Rozelle had ruled the league with an iron fist for 29 years, guiding the NFL to the top of the professional sports world. It was his NFL, not Tagliabue's, that Memphis courted.

No one doubted, in 1987, that Memphis could afford the NFL. That Memphis would support the league was a no-brainer. Give the city a team and watch the citizens line up to buy tickets. Watch the media blow the NFL trumpets. Watch the corporate community back the team with sponsorships and advertising unparalleled in the city's history.

The 1987 stadium expansion was meant to accommodate the Rozelle NFL. Memphis didn't see the future; only the past. A weak commissioner, escalating salaries, and a new and powerful addiction to stadium revenue were the future in the NFL. By the time Tagliabue's NFL limped into expansion in 1993, the Liberty Bowl was a joke. Cotton merchant William Dunavant tried every architectural maneuver imaginable, including club seats and additional luxury suites, but he could not squeeze enough money out of the antiquated building to compete.

In the end, Memphis lost to Charlotte and Jacksonville, two cities that weren't serious contenders in 1987. Baltimore and St. Louis then landed teams by doing what Memphis had refused to do: build a $250 million stadium and lure a team from another market.

After a three-decade struggle to land an NFL expansion franchise, just as Memphians were beginning to accept the fact that professional football would never come here, Nashville Mayor Phil Bredesen enticed Houston Oilers owner Bud Adams to bring his team to Tennessee in 1995. Nashville? Nashville had never danced with the NFL. There was never a groundswell of support for the NFL in Nashville. There isn't still.

A Team Without A Country

SUNDAY, MEMPHIS HOSTS ITS first NFL regular-season game. The stadium will be at least half-empty.

Ten years after the stadium expansion, with Oilers ticket prices ranging from $25 to $60, many Memphians simply cannot afford the NFL. Meanwhile the Oilers organization has marched into the state as if it were still 1987. As if it were still the old Rozelle NFL. They seem to think that all they have to do is hang out a sign at the stadium and watch Memphians and Nashvillians line up to buy tickets to see the Oilers play.

The team did nothing to soothe the hurt feelings in the Memphis market. There was no campaign thanking the city for babysitting the team while Nashville builds a new stadium. At the first press conference after the deal was signed to bring the team to Memphis, the team's media and public-relations staff actually took Memphis reporters to task for asking questions about the city's unsuccessful attempts to gain an NFL expansion team. Why didn't Adams vote for Memphis in 1993? "Ancient history," argued the Oilers PR people, "all in the past."

The Oilers chose the local ad firm Walker & Associates to represent them in this market, but then gave them no budget. Walker's best-laid plans were ignored by the team, which did almost nothing to promote NFL football in Memphis. Oilers officials promised a media blitz leading up to Sunday's opener against the Oakland Raiders, but the billboard, print, and electronic ads never materialized.

Already there are rumors that the team might relocate to Nashville and play its home games at cozy Dudley Field on the campus of Vanderbilt University next season. Two problems face the Oilers there, however. One is the lack of skybox revenue at the Vandy stadium. The other is similar to the battle in Memphis: fan apathy. Two preseason games in Nashville this year averaged 23,065, hardly enough to justify playing at Vanderbilt without skybox revenue.

The Oilers have done almost nothing to ingratiate themselves to the fans of either the city where they live, practice, and hope someday to play, or the city where they are playing while Nashville completes a new $292 million stadium.

If completed by the target date of June 2, 1999, the Nashville stadium would be ready in plenty of time for the 1999 season. But land is still being purchased for the facility along the banks of the Cumberland River and construction has been delayed. The city must pay substantial fines for a late completion. Terms of the deal between Adams and Metro government in Nashville require the city to pay the Oilers $10,000 for each day that stadium completion is delayed and up to $1.25 million for each missed game. That ought to inspire some construction overtime during the next 22 months.

Meanwhile, there is no guarantee that Nashville will support an NFL team. Private seat licenses are still being sold (at the same time as an expansion National Hockey League team sells tickets and sponsorships for its inaugural Nashville season in 1998).

Some believe the NFL is pricing itself out of marginal markets such as Memphis and Nashville. Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts, openly questioned whether his city was large enough to support an NFL team in an interview this summer with USA Today. Irsay may have one eye on the larger Midwestern market of Cleveland, which was abandoned last year when the Browns moved to Baltimore. Based on rankings of metropolitan statistical areas, Indianapolis is the 28th market in the U.S. Nashville is 41st and Memphis is 42nd.

In the new NFL, is the 41st market large enough?

Winning Is Everything

THE OILERS LOST ALL FOUR 1997 preseason games. The Saints, Redskins, and Chargers are hardly Super Bowl contenders, but they all beat the Oilers in preseason, as did the always-tough Cowboys.

Not only did the Oilers lose, but they didn't get better as the preseason progressed. The first team offense scored only one touchdown in four games and the highly hyped new quarterback, Steve "Air" McNair, looked like anything but an NFL starter as he consistently missed open receivers and failed to stay in the pocket when his pass protection started to break.

Pepper Rodgers, Oilers vice president for Memphis operations, says he expects a crowd "in the thirties" for Sunday's game. When the schedule was first announced, it looked like a perfect opening game: Al Davis and the bad boy Oakland Raiders, a team with as much tradition and history as any in the NFL. But whether it is inflated prices or just widespread apathy, there has been little buzz about Memphis' first-ever NFL regular-season game.

"If there had been a win or two during the preseason, I think it would be a little higher," Rodgers says just days before kickoff. "In a market like this, where you are a new team anyway, that would have helped."

Officials with the Memphis Sports Authority, which receives a tax rebate for Oilers games played at the Liberty Bowl, have projected as many as 15,000 fans per game will make regular trips from Nashville down to Memphis, but that seems unlikely.

"We haven't had a lot of success over there," Rodgers says. "I think it will be mostly a Memphis and West Tennessee crowd. That's one of the things that has surprised the people in the Oilers organization. I think once the season gets started, if there is some success, that will help with the crowd at least from the fans here. I don't know if the Nashville fans will come or not come."

To succeed in business, you have to know your market. The Oilers should have studied the history of Memphis and its long- term NFL frustrations. They should have known that Memphians don't like Nashville and that Nashvillians think of themselves as New York City to our Newark (to quote Tennessean columnist David Climer).

The Oilers are lost in Memphis. Unwilling to spend money promoting their team and probably not listening to Rodgers, their Memphis expert, the nomadic NFL team appears willing to let the chips fall as they may this year.

After all, the private-seat license money kicks in as soon as the stadium is completed in Nashville. The Oilers may not have many friends in 1999, but at least they'll have plenty of money.

Tired of Losing

The Oilers are not on the mind of Memphis football coach Rip Scherer.

Rip Scherer was prepared. He knew all of the hazards Memphis presented as he considered taking the job in 1995. Joe Paterno, the head coach at Penn State who has served as a sort of mentor in Scherer's career, gave it to him straight. No one had ever used the Memphis job as a springboard to success in Division-I coaching. In the past 20 years the program had never won more than seven games, and that happened only once. In fact, Memphis had had only seven winning seasons in the previous 20. Six of those were 6-5 or 6-4-1. Only Billy "Spook" Murphy had ever won consistently at Memphis and no one had ever been able to build on what he accomplished in the Sixties.

One thing Scherer didn't have to worry about was battling an NFL team for fan support in Memphis, but that changed when Nashville Mayor Phil Bredesen lured the Oilers to Tennessee. The Tennessee Oilers are sharing Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium with the Tigers this year for sure. They might be back in 1998. 1999 is an outside possibility.

Who will win the battle for the hearts and (more importantly) the pocketbooks of Memphis football fans?

"There's a whole segment of Memphis people out there who are going to wait and see," Scherer says. "They have X-amount of money to spend for sports entertainment. To me, that's the only area where we are in competition with the Oilers."

What hurts Scherer is the timing of the Oilers' stay in Memphis. Just as he is trying to build fan support for his program, just as he enters the crucial third year of his rebuilding efforts, he has to compete with the NFL. The presence of the Oilers in Memphis means his program will receive less space in the local daily and less airtime on TV and radio. It means it will be even harder to sell tickets to his games.

"People ask, `What's going to fill the Liberty Bowl?' I say, `Winning.' It's that simple," Scherer argues. "You can talk about divided loyalties and the competition from the Oilers all you want, but I believe it is the Field Of Dreams mentality -- build it and they will come. Our ability to generate enthusiasm will be determined by how we do on Saturdays this year."

How well his Tigers do on Saturday depends to a large degree on how fast his young team matures. Of the 101 players who participated in preseason football camp this summer, only 28 are upperclassmen.

"We have 12 guys in the senior class and 16 juniors," Scherer explains. "And the senior number counts Anthony Reddick who, unfortunately, is out for the year with a knee injury."

This is a transitional season for the Tiger program. The changing of the guard from former coach Chuck Stobart to Scherer is almost complete.

"After this year all the players in the program will have been under us more than they were the previous regime," Scherer says.

The head coach is not afraid to admit that year number three is important. Last year he said: "I think realistically the third year of your program's development is really critical in terms of how people see you, both people on the outside and the people who really count, too."

He isn't backing off. "People tell me I need to keep my mouth shut, but this is our third year and people expect us to be better," Scherer says. "In the third year you should be better. I fully expect to be better."

And while it is possible that the program could improve without a major increase in wins, Scherer knows what counts. "The average fan goes by the bottom line. They look at the scoreboard and at the end of the year they look at the record. I don't have any problem with that," he says. "We're trying to do it the right way, by recruiting the right kind of kids and the right kind of athletes."

Despite interest last season from Boston College and Pitt, Scherer says he and his family are happy here. And for all those who think that the Memphis coach is just waiting for his son, Scott, the senior quarterback at Collierville, to graduate, Scherer says no, he also has a commitment to his sophomore daughter, Melanie.

"Of all the places we have lived -- Michelle and I -- Collierville, this community, Memphis has been the neatest place we've lived," Scherer says. "When I took this job I made a commitment to my daughter that I would stay here until she graduated from high school."

That and a newly signed contract extension should settle the issue of Scherer's sticking around. He will even try to convince you that it makes sense.

"If we can do enough to generate the financial support to do the things we need to do facility-wise and budget-wise for our program, there are a lot of positives about the University of Memphis for the Scherer family and for me professionally," he says.

To make his case, he points to improvements the program has seen in the past couple of years -- Conference USA, the opportunity to play for a bowl bid, a conference TV package. "Those are things the predecessors didn't have to sell," he says.

Talk to Scherer for a few minutes and he'll convince you that he is going to do what Williamson, Dockery, Dempsey, Bailey, and Stobart couldn't.

"I know it's going to happen," he says. "I want it to happen this year. I don't want to wait two more years. People around here are tired of not being a winner and I'm tired of not being a winner."

The Main Man (at last)

Bernard Oden defied the odds on his way to the starting quarterback job.

Bernard Oden has traveled a long way. From Spring Hill, Tennessee, where he was Tennessee Class-AA Mr. Football his senior season, to the University of Memphis, where he had to sit out a year as a Prop-48, then saw the school fire the coach who recruited him.

Oden struggled as a sophomore under new coach Rip Scherer. He appeared in six games at quarterback and was the starter in one of the team's three wins, a 33-19 victory over USL. But he ended the season in the coach's doghouse. Last year he was moved to H-back and shuttled between there and backup quarterback. He almost quit. The coach almost let him.

"There was a point last year, early in the season, when Bernard was going to leave," Scherer recalls. "He wanted to leave the program. I told him, `Bernard you have to make a decision. I'm not going to beg you to stay, but I think if you hang in there and compete it will work out for you.'"

Oden always had the physical talent and the competitive fires. He just wasn't a Scherer-type quarterback. When the Memphis staff recruited local star quarterback Kenton Evans, Oden thought his quarterback days might be over. But, instead of quitting, he worked harder. He learned to read defenses. He showed the coaching staff he could be a leader.

"He's really competitive, but that's always been there. I don't think up until now he's ever really made the commitment to be a total quarterback," Scherer says. "I think he's been successful relying on his athletic ability all his life. At this level it takes more than that. You have to study the game. You have to know what defenses are doing. Now that he has made the commitment to do that, he's a much better quarterback."

New co-offensive coordinator and quarterback coach Rusty Burns has worked with Oden on the fundamentals of being a quarterback. Oden definitely looks better throwing the football, although the coaches didn't completely change his motion. "He's like a guy who has a glitch in his golf swing but hits it straight down the fairway because he's learned to compensate," Scherer says. "He is fundamentally a lot sounder, though."

Many observers expected Oden to lose the quarterback job in the spring. It didn't happen. After a strong preseason, the job is Oden's at last.

"It feels good," Oden says. "It is more of a burden. You have to work hard and set a standard for everybody else.

"Bernard has a calm, a confidence now," Scherer says, "that is helping the entire football team."

"My only goal is to go to a bowl," the quarterback said before the start of preseason practice. "If we don't go to a bowl game, then I think the season is a failure."

Now Bernard Oden has two goals. A new NCAA rule will allow him to play a fifth season if he can graduate by the end of the summer term of 1998. Considering how far Oden has already come, that just might be possible.

This Week's Issue | Home