It’s impossible to say which victory — each the sixth for a team with “Memphis” across its jersey — felt better. Within a few minutes last Friday night, the Memphis Tigers (football team!) beat Temple on the final play of the game and the Memphis Grizzlies beat Oklahoma City to improve their record to 6-0. The Twitterverse was bursting with relieved exultation, the modern-day equivalent of a bar crowd collectively screaming in joy as the big win is secured for posterity. (Sorry, two big wins.)
First, the Tigers. Six wins in nine games? This is a program that recently won but five games in three years (2009-11). Third-year coach Justin Fuente has taken a team hopelessly overmatched by every measurable in college football — talent, strength, recruiting, facilities, you name it — and led it to the top of the American Athletic Conference, where the Tigers are currently tied with Cincinnati, East Carolina, and UCF. They battled into the fourth quarter earlier this season with two Top-20 teams, and have now won a pair of road wins in NFL stadiums. They’ve beaten the Bearcats. ECU and UCF still have to play each other. Remaining on the Memphis schedule: Tulane (3-6), USF (3-6), and Connecticut (2-7). The Tigers (6-3) have a very real chance at just their fifth eight-win season in 50 years and a conference championship. The next time a college athletic director mentions a “three-year plan” for rebuilding a program, the model will be Justin Fuente.
And the Grizzlies. This is a franchise that had never been so much as 3-0, even during its six-year gestation period in Vancouver. This season’s home opener was the first such game the Grizzlies have won since moving to Memphis in 2001. Built around a core four (sorry Yankees) of Mike Conley, Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, and Tony Allen, the Grizzlies have reached the playoffs four straight years and have chalked up 50-win seasons the last two. They are, by every definition, among the NBA elite, a club that doesn’t currently include the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, or New York Knicks. Nonetheless, the Grizzlies are peripheral figures on the national-media stage. Last Friday’s win is the team’s only scheduled national-television appearance of the season. All they can do, really, is grind. Win games. Start a season with six straight victories and build upon the ride.
How will Memphis (the city) handle all this success, and the growing expectations spawned by winning streaks? This is a town known around the world for singing the blues. What kind of music will be heard on Beale Street when the Tigers take the field for a bowl game this winter? There won’t be anything dark or gloomy if the Grizzlies approach 60 wins next April. So long an underdog, how will Memphis (the city) wear a favorite’s hat? (The Tigers will be favored in each of their final three regular-season games.)
In describing his attraction to a certain kind of music, B.B. King said, “The blues was bleeding the same blood as me.” You get the sense Memphis sports fans are bleeding the same blood as their Tigers (football team!) and Grizzlies these days. When Temple tied the Tigers with just under three minutes to play last Friday night, it felt like just enough time remained for a game-winning drive. When Courtney Lee let fly a long jumper at the buzzer Saturday night — a seventh Grizzly win following its arc — every Memphis fan watching thought the ball would fall cleanly through the net. When it fell awry, the disappointment had nothing to do with the slump-shouldered “same old.” We expect the Grizzlies to win, dammit. Every game.
Memphis will always have its problems, its bruises, its grit. But a glowing era — golden? — is upon us with the teams we cheer. Let it bleed.