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TIGER FOOTBALL

TIGER FOOTBALL

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'SEASON TO SAVOR,' DAY TO FORGET Sorry, call me a party-pooper. But I just don't get it. After decades spent following this star-crossed program, I've had it with the all-at-once hype surrounding these 2003 football Tigers. It's beginning to give whole new meaning to the word "overkill." After recording one of the luckier wins in their not-so-storied history last week against Cincinnati, the U of M reverted to traditional form Saturday, shooting itself in the foot with a seven-turnover performance against South Florida that sent true-blue Tiger fans among the record-setting crowd in attendance home muttering to themselves about the usual snatching of defeat from the jaws of victory. But what's one little loss in the face of relentless hype? Was there gloom in Tiger media circles after the embarrassment of a 21-16 defeat at the hands of a mediocre South Florida team? Not on your life. In the aftermath, the success-starved local media was more than happy to help Coach Tommy West put his best foot forward. Almost in chorus, the tv reporters, the radio commentators, the newspaper columnists chanted: "Yeah, coach, it was a tough loss, but hey, what a fantastic season, eh? We're 8-4, and we're going to a bowl!" I can't blame West for agreeing--who doesn’t prefer compliment to criticism? Ð but excuse me while I barf. You lose a game you should have won by three touchdowns, gift-wrapping it for your opponent and handing it to him on a silver platter, and you get and/or deserve congratulations? I bet even Coach West, a straight-shooter if ever there were one, found it all a tad odd. Pride of place in the hype-sweepstakes must go to our friends at The Commercial Appeal. Never one these days to let facts get in the way of good news, the CA actually made the football Tigers’ LOSS their lead story on Page One, running Geoff Calkins’ column and a monster photo under the banner headline "Season to Savor," in type-size usually reserved for moon landings and declared victories in faraway wars. How confusing is/was this? Just ask my 85-year-old father from Boston, visiting us for the Thanksgiving holidays. When he picked up the paper Sunday morning and glanced at the headlines, he looked at me in puzzled fashion: "Son, I thought you told me they lost the game?" They did, Dad, they did, but you wouldn't know it unless you were paying very close attention. I tried explaining to him how many years it had been since Memphis has been to a bowl, and how after so many years in the desert, a glass of water looks like Lake Erie to football fans in these parts. But I still don't get it. Are we still that desperate in Memphis that we continue to celebrate defeat as moral victory? Frankly, I was surprised to hear Coach West sounding so mellow after the loss to South Florida. Maybe he kept his disappointment under wraps, but I would have thought he was ready to chew the heads off of several individuals on his special-teams units, and to take an extra large bite out of his enigmatic quarterback. Ah, Danny Wimprine. What can you say about a quarterback who, in his last two horrible games, threw more interceptions (seven) than he did in his previous ten (six)? And scarily enough, his numbers Saturday could have been worse, had USF defenders been a tad more nimble. I don’t want to rain on the relentless victory parade, but in my section of the Liberty Bowl Saturday there were quite a few of us who couldn't understand why West didn't give backup quarterback Bobby Robison a chance to run the team at the beginning of the fourth quarter. Robison looked exceptional in spring practice, but has been given little playing time in clutch situations this season. We've seen how even the greatest of stars can go down with injury (and Darron Parquet performed manfully in DeAngelo Williams' absence, all things considered); the end-of-game situation against USF seemed an ideal opportunity for Robison to get some quality reps. And an equally ideal opportunity to send Wimprine the message that he's getting way too close to a potential pro career to keep making bone-headed passing decisions. Wimprine, for one, needs to stop reading all these glowing press clips. The same cannot be said of the Tiger defense, whose starters, clearly, must all be illiterate. Ignoring the stuttering offense, overcoming turnover after turnover, the U of M defensive unit hung together Saturday as it has every week since the Mississippi State game. The group deserved a far better fate than another embarrassing loss, particularly the six senior starters playing their final games in the Liberty Bowl. Here's to having had the chance to watch Derrick Ballard, Coot Terry, Greg Harper, Will Hyden, EricTaylor, and Traveco Lewis play D for the Tigers. Their like will not be seen again in these parts for some time. The Tigers will be returning virtually all their offensive starters next season, a dubious prospect after Saturday, perhaps, but making 2004 an exciting season for fans to contemplate, as long as DeAngelo Williams fully recovers from injury and Danny Wimprine figures out how to stop throwing interceptions. The future looks bright, but let's keep things in perspective. This year has indeed been a success -- by U of M football standards. But that's a bit like saying John Willingham was a more credible mayoral candidate than Prince Mongo. Decades of football mediocrity do not a measuring stick make. Eight victories are a substantial achievement, but there are places (like Lincoln, Nebraska, this very week) where coaches get fired for going 9-3. Let's celebrate when we play good football, not because any single number is more magical than another. Let's celebrate when we go an entire season without beating ourselves. By any reasonable standard, the 2003 Tigers played two “bad” games this season, both at home: Saturday's stinker against South Florida, and October's debacle against UAB. They lost each game in time-honored U of M football fashion, giving the ball away unnecessarily, and making peewee-football-level mental errors. Win those two games we gave away, and we're 10-2. Now that would be cause for celebration. This may be a brave new world for Tiger football, but we aren't out of the woods yet, not by a long stretch. That day will come when the losses we have at season's end are all the result of a U of M football team being soundly beaten by its opponents. When we stop beating ourselves, that's when we’ll deserve the banner newspaper headlines.

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