A Corner Turned?

America's longest-suffering fans may just have a happy New Year.



"The Toilet Bowl, that's all it is." That's how my good friend Gordo McAlister, in his usual graphic fashion, characterized last Saturday's contest between the University of Memphis and Army -- each ranked in the bottom 10 of Division I in many of the polls -- while explaining his reasons for declining my kind offer of a free ticket to the game. "I'd rather watch grass grow," he growled before hanging up on me.

Well, not a whole lot of grass was growing on the Liberty Bowl playing field on that brisk, picture-perfect autumn afternoon. But maybe, just maybe a football team was, as the University of Memphis comprehensively whipped the Cadets by a 38-10 margin that did not do justice to the Tigers' complete domination of the proceedings. And now that they're growing up, maybe, just maybe I'll be able to talk Gordo into going to a game next season.

He may have stayed home Saturday to watch Michigan/Ohio State on the tube, but, amazingly, an incredible number of Memphians chose instead to come out for the show at the Liberty Bowl. Officially 20,906 were in attendance; even deducting a few thousand no-shows, that number is remarkable, given the fact that this was a battle between two bad teams going nowhere.

I have long argued that Memphis is first and foremost a football town and that if the Tigers ever again have a winning season, they'll easily average 40,000 a game. And if they ever were to become a perennial powerhouse, U of M football tickets would end up being scarcer than hen's teeth. Give Memphis football fans a winner, and the Liberty Bowl would come to resemble Neyland Stadium, only decked out in blue not orange.

Even with the sorry excuse for a football season Tiger devotees have "enjoyed" this year, the U of M is a C-USA attendance behemoth. Take a look around the league last Saturday, and you'll see what I mean. A mediocre Houston team could only draw 12,856 for its game against South Florida, but even bowl-battling outfits like East Carolina and Tulane could only draw 23,189 and 21, 832, respectively, despite first-rate (TCU and Southern Miss) opponents. And I recall our own game in Birmingham against UAB earlier this season, where the entire crowd could have easily squeezed into the stands at the Mike Rose Soccer Complex.

Let's face it: This year's Tiger MVPs are the fans, the folks in blue who never play a down but are there by the thousands, in blazing sunshine, pouring rain, and in constantly trying circumstances. U of M football fans, having taken the concept of "delayed gratification" to never-before-imagined levels, take a licking and keep on ticking.

But maybe the payoff is just around the corner. Assuming that Coach Tommy West can find someone who can play offensive line (four of the five starters are seniors), 2003 just might bring an end to all this existential agony. The defense, young and inexperienced when the season began but significantly better in November than August, will return nine starters. And the team's two big offensive guns -- sophomore quarterback Danny Wimprine (who broke the U of M single-season passing record Saturday) and freshman running back D'Angelo Williams -- are just hitting their prime.

Of course, nothing will change if the Tigers don't find a cure for their desperate case of turnover-itis. The defense may well have pitched a shutout Saturday were it not for two first-half fumbles, and turnovers this season have already cost the Tigers 99 points. Regardless of talent, you can't give away a touchdown and a field goal a game and hope to enjoy a winning season.

Saturday's game in Fort Worth should be interesting. Having blown their national ranking by losing at East Carolina last week, the TCU Horned Frogs ought to be well-focused on the matter at hand. But if the Tigers can execute the way they did in the second half Saturday, and hold onto the football in the process, Christmas might just come a few weeks early. And if ever a football team deserved a favor from Santa, this one is it.

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