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Shootout At the SEC

Task force to oversee Southeastern Conference.

By Ron Martin

When Mike Slive was introduced as the commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, the theme song from the old television show Gunsmoke should've been playing in the background.

"The perception of justice is as important as justice itself," said Slive after announcing he will create a task force to oversee the rogue schools of the toughest conference east of the Pecos.

The biggest non-secret in college sports is why Mike Slive was named as the replacement for Roy Kramer: The SEC needs a Judge Roy Bean. The cattle rustlers have taken over the town; the lawless outnumber the lawful. The schoolmarm (Vanderbilt) is afraid to venture into town. Slive's first order of business should be to nail a sign outside his Birmingham jail (SEC office) stating, "Check your guns at the door."

Because Alabama and Kentucky are already on the convicted list and not eligible for post-season play and Tennessee, Arkansas, and LSU are in the investigation mode, the presidents are trying to take control of the conference from the athletic directors. The upcoming battle will make the gunfight at the O.K. Corral look like a church social.

The SEC presidents are trying to prove with their actions their intent to become a law-abiding conference. Slive is perfect for the task. He has lived on both sides of the fence -- as a conference commissioner-policing member school and as a lawyer who's defended those who tried to play on easy street.

Remember this: A wink is as good as a nod to a blind horse.

Now that Slive has moved on to greener pastures, who will the presidents of C-USA pick to lead the conference that counts the University of Memphis as a member? Their needs are totally different from those of the SEC. C-USA is at a crossroads. It is too big yet too small. The tail is wagging the dog. A "yes man" is not the answer. The presidents should remain in control of the conference, but the new commissioner will need a strong will and comprehensive new ideas.

Slive's legacy of assuring five bowl trips for conference members looks great on paper, but in reality, three of the bowls are in their infancy and need partners as bad as the conference needs them. A 12th football school is needed, and the four basketball-only schools should be given notice. A championship football game is also a must, but that can't happen until the conference decides it wants to be more than just a basketball conference. C-USA is supposed to be an all-sport conference. Until that philosophy is acted upon, it will remain what it is today: a wanna-be.

This is a great opportunity to start fresh. The right commissioner can do that for C-USA. The place to start looking is the Mountain West Conference. Under Craig Thompson's leadership, that conference has marched into areas that many said were off-limits. If he can do it there, he can do it for C-USA. Oops, did I just endorse him? It wasn't my intent. Or was it?

Flyers The last-minute maneuvering by interested parties during the state's budget crisis included some by UT football coach Phil Fulmer. A few lawmakers said they were reminded of their season-ticket status and how important it was for football players to attend summer-school sessions to maintain their eligibility.

When the state furloughs occurred, UT women's basketball coach Pat Summit reminded lawmakers she was losing her recruiting advantage because she couldn't travel during the three-week "touch the athlete" season. One day later, the budget was passed and Summit was on the road.

Ramblings During this wheeling-and-dealing period of the Grizzlies' off-season, one name is never mentioned: Lorenzen Wright. Could there be a reason? ... Verties Sails should receive a lifetime-achievement award for his contribution to Memphis basketball and the lives he's touched in a positive way ... Albert Means, a name we'll soon see in the headlines again.


Dig It!

New Grizzlies arena on schedule so far.

By James P. Hill

Point guard Eddie Gill races down court and throws the ball inside to a slashing Drew Gooden, who grabs it out of the sky and jams it down for two points. Slam dunk! You dig it?

As the new-look Memphis Grizzlies continue trying to build a team that can compete against the NBA's elite, the site of their new Grizzlies Den is being invaded by construction workers, bulldozers, and dump trucks. As the trucks haul away tons of dirt and gravel, Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley is very upbeat about the project. "I feel it's going to be great, not just for the city of Memphis but for the whole surrounding area," he says. Smiling as he looks at the fenced-off section downtown between Third and Fourth streets, he adds, "I think it's going to bring the community together, and it's also going to be a landmark for the city."

Some of the amenities planned for the multipurpose sports-and-entertainment venue include 2,500 club seats, four party suites, 80 luxury boxes, a sports bar with a patio, two restaurants, and a team store. The arena will seat 18,400 people for basketball games; concert seating will range from 3,500 to 19,000. For ice events, the arena should seat at least 12,500. Authorities maintain the arena project is on schedule to finish on time. The groundbreaking began in late June; construction should begin in September, after excavation is completed. Officials are now targeting September 2004 for the opening.

Grizzlies president of operations Jerry West is also enthusiastic about the positive effect the new arena can have on the Memphis economy and the team. West reflected on when the Los Angeles Lakers moved from Inglewood to the Staples Center, located in an older section of downtown Los Angeles, much like the site of the new arena here. "It worked out to be a success not only for the Lakers but for the city of Los Angeles," says West. "There is going to be an enormous retail/commercial area around this arena. And I think Mr. Heisley is going to allow us to do some things financially that will help us bring a better team to Memphis."

Memphis mayor Willie Herenton looks at the new arena as one way to market Memphis worldwide. "This arena represents the largest public-building project in the history of this city -- a $250 million state-of-the-art arena," he says. "The Tyson-Lewis fight helped to give Memphis national visibility, and the Grizzlies are helping to give Memphis national visibility."

Playing in a new arena might also offer on-court benefits for the Grizzlies. In the NBA, a strong home-court advantage adds up to more wins. Scott Roth, Grizzlies assistant coach and former NBA player with the Jazz, Spurs, and Timberwolves, reflects on the excitement and success he was a part of in Minneapolis. "We set an attendance record there for an expansion team, and it was wonderful," says Roth. "It's exciting coming up here and seeing this piece of property. I've never seen it this way, and it's gonna sit beautifully in the city."

Meanwhile, as Drew Gooden and Robert Archibald work their way through summer-league games and Jerry West continues to rebuild the Grizzlies, bulldozers are making room for future fast breaks south of Beale Street. And owner Heisley says he's growing fonder of his young team and its future in Memphis. "I think we're going to enjoy the two years leading up to this arena," he says. "And then, when the arena comes, it's gonna be like 2000 all over again."

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