It is amazing to see how one man is able to create such joy. He attracted thousands upon thousands of people of all races and religious backgrounds to galvanize around a common ideal. His followers clapped and cheered with the ecstasy that comes with the release of long-held, pent-up emotion, and everyone seemed so happy. A record number of people watched him this week on national TV. Even longtime doubters who had previously lost faith are returning to the fold in record numbers. No, I'm not talking about Pope Francis. I'm talking about Justin Fuente.
Did you see that game? I haven't seen a shoot-out like that since Waco. Of course, I'm talking about the Memphis Tigers' 53-46 win over Cincinnati last week. It was all you could ask for in a football game: 45,000 screaming fans, lots of scoring and suspense, thrilling long runs and acrobatic catches, and a key interception to end the game. What a way for the Tigers to make their national television debut.
The Liberty Bowl wasn't packed out, but I'll bet it will be soon. The Fuente-coached Tigers were 7-17 after the first two seasons. Now they've won 11 in a row and are averaging almost 50 points a game. I'll leave the stats to Geoff Calkins, but most impressive for me is that the Tigers are 4-0. The last time the Tigers went 4-0 was in 1961, and risking the revelation of my decrepitude, I was there.
My father took me to the games of the then-Memphis State University in Crump Stadium when I was a child. That's where I first learned to hate the Confederate flag. Ole Miss fans would come to town with lots of swagger and would take over the Peabody Hotel. They were drunk and obnoxious and treated Memphis like a home game. In the stadium, they would wave a sea of Stars and Bars flags and sing "Dixie" after every touchdown, with Colonel Reb smiling from the sidelines. The roar of that "Hotty Toddy" cheer still rings in my ears. It was among the first uses of public profanity heard in the South, and parents covered their children's ears before the revolting Rebel fans yelled, "by damn!"
The Memphis side of the stands responded with thundering chants of "Go to hell, Ole Miss, go to hell!" Dad didn't object, so I guessed it was alright in this context. What amazed me most was my father's reaction to a Memphis State touchdown. Not ordinarily a demonstrative man, he would leap to his feet, look at me, and holler, "whoo hoo hoo," several times in a row. I always found it interesting that he had such enthusiasm when it wasn't even his school. He just adopted the Tigers and passed the custody on to me.
Billy "Spook" Murphy was coach in 1961, and the quarterback was the "golden boy," James Earl Wright. I always smiled when I thought of what his monogrammed shirts spelled. Wright was injured, and the torch was passed to Central High graduate Russell Vollmer. Both men have since been inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame. With Vollmer as quarterback, the Tigers went 26-3-1 in three seasons.
Any old-timer can see the comparisons to Paxton Lynch. There's a problem, unfortunately, with Coach Fuente. How you gonna keep him down on the farm after he's seen the national spotlight? There's no question that he's already in demand at major colleges with huge football budgets, but since this is Fuente's team, wouldn't it be nice if he stayed in Memphis and built a powerhouse?
Of course anything can happen, and like most fans, I'm not looking past the University of South Florida. But with an electrified fan base in Memphis, Ole Miss better watch their ass next time they come to town. And, oh yeah, the Pope was a winner too.
Randy Haspel writes the "Recycled Hippies" blog, where a version of this column first appeared.