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The Measuring Stick

The Tigers lose an uphill battle to one of C-USA's premier programs.

By Frank Murtaugh

For too long now, University of Memphis football players, coaches, staff, and fans have measured the program's development by the SEC-inflated standards of Ole Miss, Mississippi State, even Tennessee. It's about time the U of M turns its collective eyes toward Hattiesburg, Mississippi. If last Saturday's Black-and-Blue Game between Memphis and Southern Miss proved anything, it's that Jeff Bower -- now in his 12th year as head coach of the Golden Eagles -- has put together the gold standard for his Conference USA rivals. Coming off an upset of defending Big 10 champ Illinois, USM ran the ball down the throat of the Memphis defense. They mixed in the passing game to the tune of 168 yards. And they played solid defense and special teams. End result? A 33-14 final score, bad guys. The Miami Hurricanes need not worry (yet). But Bower's boys play a right solid brand of football.

The Tigers knew they were in for an uphill battle when USM drove the ball 96 yards to paydirt on its second possession. The drive took five and a half minutes, and the Golden Eagles picked up no fewer than seven first downs, including on four successive snaps. (Memphis managed only four first downs the entire first half.) Bower's offense mixed in four passes -- all complete -- with nine rushing attempts, capped off by Derrick Nix's two-yard touchdown chug. Anyone familiar with this series -- Memphis entered the contest 1-16 in Hattiesburg -- began making plans for the rest of their Saturday night.

As is so often the case in gridiron mismatches, this one boiled down to line play. Southern Miss continually won the push on offense, as their 356 rushing yards attest. Whether it was senior star Nix (196 yards), freshman Anthony Harris (121 yards), or quarterback Micky D'Angelo (23 yards on 6 carries), the Golden Eagles ran the ball at will. It was the inverse for Memphis. Holes -- if opened briefly for tailback Dante Brown and company -- collapsed into a black-clad restraining wall. Give Memphis quarterback Danny Wimprine credit for improvising enough to keep a drive or two alive. When he was able to settle in the pocket, he drilled a bullet to Antoine Harden, in stride, for a 72-yard touchdown romp. Makes it hurt all the more that the sophomore signal-caller can't get this protection more regularly.

With all due respect to Louisville and their Heisman-candidate quarterback Dave Ragone, Southern Miss appears to be the class of C-USA this season. Which could actually bode well for the Memphis coaching staff. First of all, the talent gap between the Tigers and their opponent is unlikely to be as pronounced the rest of the schedule. Secondly, the coaching staff now has 60 minutes of film to examine what a team should do and where the Tigers need to improve to harbor any thoughts of a winning season. The next two contests will be integral for Memphis, as Tulane and UAB are both beatable opponents, presuming Wimprine recovers fully from his bell-ringing in Hattiesburg. (Remarkably, Wimprine's scoring pass to Harden moved the kid into fifth place on the U of M all-time list. Says as much about his predecessors as it does number 18.)

Painted on the turf at M.M. Roberts Stadium, as part of the USM logo, are the words "Anyone. Anywhere. Anytime." Big 10 champ or C-USA also-ran, it doesn't matter to the program that gave us Ray Guy and Brett Favre. A balanced offense. Speed on both sides of the ball. And linemen who win battle after battle in the trenches. Quite a blueprint for Tommy West to take home from the Black-and-Blue Game.


Into the Sunset

Drag-racing champ Kenny Bernstein bids farewell.

By Ron Martin

Many athletes become businessmen because of connections gained in their sports career. Kenny Bernstein was a businessman first, athlete second. Which is why, as he makes his final appearance in Memphis this week as a driver in the NHRA Powerade Drag Racing Series, Bernstein is carrying the colors of Budweiser for the 23rd consecutive year. It is the longest sponsor/driver relationship in the history of motorsports, and there is a reason. He was the first to realize the importance of creating a well-prepared business plan as well as a championship race team.

Before becoming a drag-racing champion, he was a business champion. He opened a restaurant called the Chelsea Street Pub in Dallas. Five years later, he had 2,700 employees operating 16 restaurants. It was then that Bernstein climbed into a race car dubbed the Chelsea King, named after one of his sandwiches. A legend and a nickname were born.

I first met Bernstein 20 years ago. I knew little about drag racing but had to cover it for the first time. Bernstein must have sensed the need to educate me. He did so in a noncondescending way, letting me think I really understood his sport. Looking back, I know different. I also remember the personal letter I received thanking me for taking the time to talk with him. I still have the letter, though I have received hundreds more from Bernstein over the years. They are vintage Bernstein, who always takes the extra step so many of today's stars fail to take.

Bernstein began preparing for his farewell tour, "Forever Red," two years ago, naming his son Brandon as his replacement driver. Though he's never admitted it, Kenny wanted to make sure Brandon was prepared for NHRA top-fuel racing and that he wouldn't have to answer the thousands of questions sure to be asked of someone replacing a legend. It's as though Bernstein is taking a business-franchise approach to Brandon's turn behind the wheel.

The farewell tour has taken a spectacular turn as Bernstein has made an incredible comeback to challenge Larry Dixon for the championship. "I want to spoil his party," said Dixon as Bernstein began to whittle into his seemingly insurmountable points lead. Bernstein's response was to cut the 259-point deficit to just 103 as they entered last weekend's Maple Grove, Pennsylvania, event.

There will be four events after the one in Memphis. Four more chances for Kenny Bernstein to climb out of his dragster with a wide-eyed look on his face. "I always get a kick out of the ride," he says. "You can't describe what it feels like to cover a quarter-mile in less than five seconds."

Most will remember Bernstein as the first driver to break the 300-mile-per-hour barrier in the quarter mile or the first to win a funny-car championship and a top-fuel championship.

I'll remember him as an athlete who did things right the first time and the last time.

Flyers ... Shane Battier is now more than an NBA star; he's a restaurateur. His Prime Ministers Steak House will open next month, just a trolley ride from The Pyramid on South Main. Battier has spent the past month taste-testing the food.

While the Memphis RiverKings decide whether to change colors and the name of the team, the new ownership has already changed their Web site. RiverKings.com is under reconstruction but is already showing signs of being very creative.

Ramblings ... I'm not surprised to hear South Carolina coach Lou Holtz blame the media for the current alleged misdeeds at the school. It must have also been the media's fault his teams at Notre Dame and Minnesota were caught cheating ... Don't be surprised to hear possible C-USA prospective-commissioner names mentioned in the next couple of weeks ... If the University of Memphis decides to move to the new NBA arena, it won't be because it's good for the community ... If football passed Joe Paterno by during the past two years, does it mean he's caught up with the game after beating Nebraska 40-7 last Saturday?

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