City Sports 

City Sports

Same Old Song?

The Tigers went to Oxford with high hopes. They brought home yet another crushing defeat and more questions than answers.

By Kenneth Neill

Last week, I pointed out that the score of the University of Memphis’ 52-6 victory over Murray State flattered the losers. So too, sadly for Tigers fans, did the 22-point final margin of victory Ole Miss posted in Oxford last Saturday.
True, the Tigers scored first, thanks to Danny Wimprine’s 50-yard bomb to Antoine Hardin. But as the game progressed, it became abundantly clear to Memphis and Ole Miss fans alike -- all 55,000 masochists who chose to fry in the afternoon sun rather than sensibly watch the game on television -- that the U of M could only win this game by hanging on by its collective fingernails.
Remarkably, the Tigers did just that, well into the second half, thanks largely to an uncharacteristically ordinary performance by Eli Manning (14 for 30, 174 yards passing -- hardly the stuff of Heisman legend) and three botched early field goals by Ole Miss. But, eventually, superior depth on the Rebel side told the tale, particularly in the gruesome heat that left spectators gasping for mercy all around me in the north stands at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
I guess we’re going to have to have somebody up and die on camera before the TV networks finally stop scheduling midday college-football games in the Deep South in late summer. No players perished, happily, in Oxford last Saturday; thus, it was only metaphorically that the Tigers rolled over and played dead.
For me, the turning point came early, when Wimprine threw his first interception of the season, one of those classic “what in the world was I thinking?” flat passes quarterbacks should never throw when backed up against their own goal line. The interception gave the Rebels the ball inside the 15, set up their first field goal, and, more importantly, stifled the Tigers’ early momentum.
Forget that the ball was tipped by a defender. Ask instead: Why were the Tigers running such dangerous patterns deep in their own territory while holding that early 7-0 lead? Why not try a little ball control? The final game stats reveal that the U of M had no ground game whatsoever (18 yards on 20 carries), but that grim result seemed at least partly deliberate. For whatever reason, the U of M coaching staff made no attempt to establish a running game early.
Instead, they went three-and-out -- three incomplete passes, that is -- time and again. I never thought I’d live long enough to criticize a Tigers coaching staff for throwing the ball too much, but I found their disinterest in the ground game peculiar. Perhaps the coaches saw something I didn’t. The Tigers seemed determined to throw the ball, come what may. Time after time, the team would line up with five wide-outs and no tailback, not exactly camouflaging its intentions.
On the other hand, Herschel Walker carrying the ball every down could not have saved the day for these Tigers, given what was perhaps the most pathetic special-teams display seen in these parts in some time. The Murray State victory was so one-sided that the Tigers didn’t even punt until the fourth quarter. Good thing. In Oxford, they punted early and often and about as ineffectively as a Tigers team has ever punted. And while Ole Miss blasted kickoff after kickoff into and through the end zone, the Tigers’ kicking game gave the defense little margin for error. Coach Tommy West put it succinctly, in the tones of a Zen master: “We played a long field and they played a short field.”
Although we’ll have to wait another two years for another crack at disrupting postgame festivities in the Grove, all is not lost. For one thing, teams as depth-challenged as Memphis are truly behind the eight ball when playing in miserable heat conditions like last Saturday’s. The good news is this: Winter is coming.
And, play selection notwithstanding, the fact remains that the Tigers do have a quarterback worth watching and talking about. On a day on which he was clearly a marked man, Wimprine threw for 271 yards in a valiant effort to keep the Tigers’ ship afloat. Indeed, if there were any Heisman judges in attendance, I dare say they paid more attention to the embattled Tigers quarterback than that other guy. (“Got Mannings?” read my favorite red T-shirt in the Grove game-day morning.)
Here’s hoping that next week in Hattiesburg the Tigers show up with a punting game and give Wimprine some breathing room by running the ball more consistently. And that a merciful deity brings along a nice autumn breeze.


Intolerance Lives

Look at the Masters brouhaha or listen to sports-talk radio.

By Ron Martin

It's impossible TO write this column this week without thoughts of the tragedy our nation suffered one year ago. We mourn the thousands who died on September 11th and the many souls lost since that day in Afghanistan -- all dead due to intolerance. Sadly, many Americans express the same intolerance in their everyday lives-- and in sports.

The ongoing sports story and resulting rhetoric regarding the Masters Golf Tournament is a classic example. Hootie Johnson, the director of Augusta National Golf Club, states it is his club's right as a private organization to limit its membership to men. Intolerant as his club's stand may be, Johnson is on firm constitutional ground. Those in the media and those who issue threats are just as intolerant as Johnson. In my opinion, the members of Augusta National shouldn't deny access to their club based solely on race, creed, or gender. But they have the right to do it.

Just as intolerant, in my opinion, is Martha Burke, chairperson of the National Council of Women's Organizations, who has brought the wrath of protest to the club's door. She has a right to her opinion regarding the need for an open-door policy to any organzation, private or public. But intolerance of those who don't share your opinion is wrong.

Intolerance is also alive and well in some overly rabid sports fans. There is nothing wrong with cheering for your favorite team, but when it becomes personal, it becomes intolerance. Listening to radio talk shows can be scary. Interesting and informative conversation can quickly turn vindictive. A fan who supports an opposing school, whether it's the University of Memphis or Ole Miss or any other university, suddenly becomes the devil incarnate.

Some talk-show hosts have common sense and quickly put such callers in their place. Unfortunately, sports-talk radio has become filled with "buy the time" hosts who use intolerance to provoke calls.

This weekend, the Southern Heritage Classic returns to the Liberty Bowl. There was a certain irony in having the game postponed last year due to the intolerance-driven attacks on our nation. When Fred Jones brought the game to Memphis in 1990, intolerance almost killed it. No one will admit it today, but it didn't take an investigative reporter to find Memphians who were then opposed to this matchup of predominantly African-American schools.

City and county leaders weren't quick to embrace the idea, but Jones stood his ground, and now, the SHC draws more fans to the area than any other local sporting event.

As we remember the emotions we felt on September 11th last year, let's also remember to be tolerant, even when those around us aren't.

Flyers The American Motorcycle Association will make its first flat-track appearance in Tunica's Battle Arena this weekend. For those who have never witnessed this type of racing, it's exciting but very loud indoors. It's also worth it ... The best moment of last weekend's collegiate gridiron action came after Vanderbilt beat Furman. Both teams lined up at midfield to shake hands and even exchange a few hugs. Yes, you can hug in football, even when you get beat 49-18.

Ramblings With the NCAA cops investigating South Carolina, the number of SEC schools under the spotlight has grown to five. It's easy to lose count ... The city and county should be ashamed of themselves for the $30,000 bill they handed the Bridges Football Classic ... Best example of what's good about college football: Rhodes College ... First NFL coach to be fired: Dave Campo of Dallas.

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