Occupy Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium

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Larry Porter
  • Larry Porter
It can't get much worse than this for University of Memphis football. The Tigers lost 23-22 to Marshall Thursday night, falling to 2-9 on the season in front of about 2,000 fans. The margin of defeat was two missed extra points, and for the second week in a row the Tigers couldn't hold a fourth-quarter lead.

Worst Tiger football team ever? Sadly, the answer may be "yes." Doubly sad because Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium inside and outside and its surroundings, including Tiger Lane, have never looked better and attendance has never been lower. On a 46-degree night, only a handful of the premium hook-ups in Tiger Lane were in use. Occupy Memphis has more tents downtown across from City Hall and is about as festive.

The university has run out of fixes, unless you count possibly firing head coach Larry Porter after his second season. Oh, there are some sponsorship opportunities too. You can, for instance, name the media room for $25,000. Somebody call The Commercial Appeal! Imagine Porter and R. C. Johnson being fired in the Geoff Calkins Media Room.

Except that Porter might not be the problem some detractors think he is. He didn't blow those two extra points. The Tigers played hard all night and didn't surrender a point after the first minute and a half until the middle of the fourth quarter. And even after they fell behind, there were three near pass completions in the last two minutes that could have led to the winning touchdown or field goal. They each missed by a yard or so.

Rick Hechinger (left)
  • Rick Hechinger (left)
I considered the "worst ever" label after attending the game with former Tiger lineman Rick Hechinger, my Midtown neighbor and owner of Blue Sky courier service. Rick played in the early 1980s when the team lost 17 straight. But he said the team wasn't as bad as you might think.

Memphis State, as it was known then, played Florida State, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Georgia, and Tennessee, he noted. "I played against Herschel Walker."

You can look it up. The losses in the streak were respectable — 20-3 to Mississippi State, 10-5 to Florida State, 7-3 to Ole Miss, 17-13 to Virginia Tech, 14-7 to Louisville, 28-9 to Tennessee. The worst loss was 41-17 to Mississippi State. Compare that to this season's losses of 47-3 to Arkansas State, 42-0 to SMU, and 59-14 to Mississippi State. The 1982 Tigers broke the streak with a 12-0 win over ASU and opened the 1983 season with a 37-17 win over Ole Miss to start a 6-4-1 season.

Tragically, head coach Rex Dockery and star player Charles Greenhill were killed in a plane crash after that season. Hechinger said the Tigers had a remarkable number of good players, including future pros Tim Harris, Eric Fairs, and Derrick Crawford.

"Twelve players signed pro contracts one year and 13 the next year," said Hechinger, who had a tryout with the Minnesota Vikings as a lineman and long snapper.

There doesn't appear to be that kind of talent on the current edition of the Tigers. The fan base has deserted the team. In the suite where we were sitting, the hardcores were stoic after the first Marshall score, cautiously optimistic when the Tigers rallied to take the lead, and grumpy in the fourth quarter when they squandered it. They all left, along with most of the "crowd," before the final Marshall fumble and those desperate incomplete passes by the Tigers' backup quarterback.

If only they had been caught. If only the refs had called pass interference on the final play. If only the kicker had a chance for redemption with a miraculous field goal from 50 yards in the last seconds.

Then the Tigers would be 3-8 instead of 2-9, and maybe the worst ever. The last game on the schedule is highly regarded Southern Mississippi. Then we'll see if Porter gets to work for the third year of his contract or gets a buyout. Given that Rex Dockery went 2-20 in his first two seasons, Porter could hang on. As for Liberty Bowl Stadium, Memphis is stuck with it for better or worse. An on-campus stadium will always be the dream for some fans, but with all the money that has been poured into it recently, the big sombrero is too big to fail even though it's failing.

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