Say this for University of Memphis football coach Tommy West: he knows how to close a regular season. His Tigers beat Tulane Saturday afternoon at the Liberty Bowl, 45-6, to finish West's eighth season with a record of 6-6. The victory marked the fifth consecutive year Memphis has won its regular-season finale, a streak unmatched since 1966-70. Better yet, the win clinched a bowl berth for Memphis, the program's fifth trip to college football's postseason in the last six years (and three more than the program had seen before West's arrival in 2001).
The ghosts of Woody Hayes and Bear Bryant are grinding their teeth over a 6-6 team heading to a bowl game (and searching for a celestial punching bag at the notion that 68 teams deserve such a trip). Nonetheless, the 2008 Tigers are a pretty decent story. A team that loses its first three games, then sees its top three quarterbacks fall to injury should not be scheduling practices in December. But with a group of seniors who have experienced late-season rallies before, and a coach who recognizes every Conference USA game as a potential win, these Tigers took advantage of mismatches when they could -- which included the likes of Nicholls State and a depleted Tulane squad -- to earn a 13th game. No apologies necessary to critics, living or dead.
The Tiger program will never again see the likes of DeAngelo Williams, the tailback who rushed for more than 6,000 yards before jaunting off to the NFL's Carolina Panthers (for whom he scored four touchdowns Sunday in a win over Green Bay). But if we're lucky enough to be here, we should resolve to check in on Brandon Patterson in the year 2028. Last week, the Tigers' senior safety was named an Academic All-America by ESPN. A year ago, Patterson became the first Memphis player in 15 years to earn such a prestigious national honor. He now is the only Tiger player ever to earn the honor twice. Patterson is holding down a 3.7 GPA as a graduate student and will earn his master's degree in finance later this month. He's been an outstanding football player, too, a three-year starter with almost 200 career tackles. Best of all, he -- like Mr. Williams -- embodies the class and decency Tommy West sells as the foundation of his program. Something tells me that in 2028, Brandon Patterson will be recognized for achievements that dwarf his gridiron exploits.
I took in Saturday's game from the stands with my family, which led me to a few thoughts on the ongoing stadium debate. For those who gripe about the comfort of sitting on aluminum bleachers, I'd point them to Oxford, Fayetteville, or Knoxville, where thousands upon thousands sit on the same hard benches, one Saturday after the next, and a good deal further away from the action than were the 15,012 in attendance at the Liberty Bowl last weekend. The stadium's concourse may be a bit narrow for the all-too-rare sellout crowd. But there was plenty of elbow room at concession stands for the Tigers' home finale. (Consider: The combined attendance of the Tigers' last two games would barely fill half the stadium, which has a capacity of 62,000.)
Bottom line: Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium is too large for the Memphis Tiger program. From the lowest days of the Rip Scherer era to the heights of Williams' prime, attendance at Tiger football games maxes out around 45,000 and tends to drop no lower than 15,000. But even with 45,000 in the stands, the stadium is left with considerable empty space, which gives a poor impression, particularly as the stadium sits in the middle of a metropolitan regional destination. And when only 15,000 show up? It gives the impression a minor-league outfit is borrowing the home of a larger enterprise.
I continue to vacillate between the virtues of an on-campus facility for the Tigers, or a new stadium at the Fairgrounds. But I've come to firmly believe that the best move for the football program -- and its many loyal boosters and fans -- is a dramatically smaller stadium. If nothing else, place some value on a Memphis Tiger football ticket. Make them harder to come by in a market where the program's niche is smaller than many would like to believe. I'll leave it to the big-time developers to decide where the stadium belongs. But the day must come when the most striking feature of a U of M football game isn't entire sections of empty seats (or benches).