Here's a great mind-bender to play the next time you attend a University of Memphis football game at the Liberty Bowl. Ask those in your party -- or perhaps the entire seating section -- to name the former Tiger players who have had their numbers retired. And a dish of nachos to the fan who can actually identify the numbers as well.
U of M football may not be as tradition-rich as the BCS big boys, but the program has actually honored four players, three for their exploits on the field and a fourth as a memorial. But even if you're a Highland Hundred lifer, in your seat from kickoff to the final tick of the clock for every Memphis home game, you may be unaware of these players' names, much less the numbers they wore as Tigers. Because, you see, there is no sign, no banner, no plaque, not so much as a temporary flag displaying the honored names. Has to make you wonder how "honored" the surviving stars really feel.
Associate athletic director Bob Winn clarifies that the players have had their jerseys -- but not the actual numbers on their jerseys -- retired. And the explanation is perfectly reasonable: with more than 100 players on a college football roster, a team would simply run out of digits. (This, of course, makes those nachos so terribly difficult to earn. You may see the "retired number" of a former star prancing across the goal line for a touchdown.)
When I asked Winn about the absence of a display -- of any sort -- at the Liberty Bowl, he told me I was the first person he can remember even mentioning the perceived void. "We've talked about [putting the numbers up]," said Winn. "We've just never really progressed, and I don't know why. We've discussed a ring of honor, but just haven't come up with the appropriate way to do it. It seems like colleges these days will often honor a [current] player by giving him the number of a former great, or a special locker, maybe."
As far as which players are honored, Winn says the U of M leaves the decision in the hands of its coaches. Which begs the question: How does a coach in 2007 legitimately consider the impact of a player in, say, 1977? A panel of boosters, it would seem, might be better equipped -- and with longer memories -- to define and recognize a past player's greatness.
The city-owned Liberty Bowl has layers of protocol when it comes to decor that the university wouldn't have to accommodate if it had complete control of the facility. (Another arrow in the quiver of the on-campus stadium movement.) But even with approval needed for any permanent paint display, Winn feels like city authorities would be receptive if a movement for the display was strong enough and it didn't defame the stadium in any way.
"When it was named Rex Dockery Field," explains Winn, "there was so much emotion about Rex being killed in that plane crash, that some of his friends just went straight to the City Council, and it was done. There was not much of a process."
Here's a cheat sheet for your Tiger Football Legends game:
Charles Greenhill, #8 (played for Memphis in 1983) -- A defensive back and former star at Frayser High School, Greenhill was killed in the plane crash that also killed Tiger coach Rex Dockery on December 12, 1983. He was the first Tiger to have his jersey retired.
Dave Casinelli, #30 (1960-63) -- Casinelli was the first Tiger player to rush for 1,000 yards in a season (1,016 in 1963). He was the program's career rushing leader for 41 years and was honored posthumously after being killed in a 1987 car accident.
Isaac Bruce, #83 (1992-93) -- In 1993, Bruce caught 74 passes for 1,054 yards, records that stand to this day (and really haven't been challenged). With more than 900 receptions and over 13,000 yards for the NFL's St. Louis Rams, Bruce could become the first former Tiger to reach the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His jersey was retired in 2003.
DeAngelo Williams, #20 (2002-05) -- A member of three bowl teams with Memphis, Williams became only the fourth player in NCAA history to rush for 6,000 yards in his career. He established NCAA records for all-purpose yards (7,573) and 100-yard rushing games (34). His number was retired in 2006, his first season as a Carolina Panther.