As “Group of Five” football program, the University of Memphis stands little chance of playing in one of the prestigious New Year’s Six bowl games. Exactly one of 12 slots is guaranteed for a “Group” team, the best among five conferences (those not classified as “Power Five”). With that the case, it’s hard to envision the Tigers landing a better postseason ticket than the Boca Raton Bowl, where they’ll play Conference USA champion Western Kentucky on December 20th.
To begin with, there’s the destination. South Florida in December is good for the mind, body, and spirit. The Tiger players, coaching staff, administrators, and fans should relish a few days on the east coast of the Sunshine State. (Let’s go ahead and say it: This beats Birmingham, five days before Christmas.)
But the opponent and timing of the game could make this a significant event in the continued development of coach Mike Norvell’s program. The Tigers and Hilltoppers will have the football world to themselves, the game kicking off on a Tuesday night and relatively early (7 p.m. on the east coast). And while the rest of the country may not initially be revved by a Memphis-Western Kentucky showdown, football fans enjoy scoring, and the Boca Raton Bowl should have between 80 and 100 points on the board before the night is over. Western Kentucky has scored at least 44 points in 10 of its 13 games and ranks second in the country in scoring with 45.1 points per game. The Tiger offense has been potent itself, averaging 39.5 points, good for 17th in the nation. Only the Peach Bowl (a national semifinal between Alabama and Washington) will have two teams as highly ranked in scoring this season.
A “Group of Five” program has to be seen to attract recruits. And it has to put points on the board. The 2016 Boca Raton Bowl offers Memphis much more than a sun-splashed vacation.
• There are too many empty seats at FedExForum for Tiger basketball. Tubby Time is here, but the new coach has yet to see 10,000 fans in his new home arena (one that will hold more than 17,000). Memphis athletic director Tom Bowen simply has to secure regular appearances from non-conference rivals. And this Saturday’s matinee against UAB should be considered a small step in that direction.
Gene Bartow created the UAB basketball program. On the gridiron, the Tigers and Blazers once competed in “The Battle for the Bones,” the prize a massive bronze rack of ribs. For more than 20 years (1991-2013), the teams played at least twice a season on the hardwood as conference rivals. It will be good to see UAB back at FedExForum.
Let’s bring Louisville back. And Arkansas. And Tennessee. Along with UAB, Memphis should aim to host two of these four programs every season. This simply has to happen. It’s a matter of relevance in a city that’s come to be foremost a Grizzlies town. Savannah State, McNeese State, and Jackson State will not move the attendance needle, no matter the strength of the Tiger roster or the popularity of the Tiger coach.
• The Memphis Redbirds made some late-fall news with a pair of announcements last week. The franchise is welcoming back perhaps the most popular player in team history, Stubby Clapp. After 14 years away (most recently as hitting coach with Double-A New Hampshire in the Toronto Blue Jays system), Clapp will be the Redbirds new manager in 2017, succeeding Mike Shildt (who took a bench job with the St. Louis Cardinals). Clapp spent four seasons (1999-2002) as a player with Memphis and was an integral member of the 2000 Pacific Coast League champions. He endeared himself to fans with his scrappy play and backflips as he took the field to start each home game. (The backflips were in tribute to one of Clapp’s favorite players, Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith.) Modern folk heroes are hard to come by. AutoZone Park and manager Stubby Clapp should be a nice fit.
The Redbirds also announced that team president Craig Unger has joined the team’s ownership group, led by Peter Freund. The significance? A former executive with the St. Louis Cardinals, Unger and his family have been in Memphis three years now. He and his wife are raising three daughters here. The Redbirds can now be said to have local ownership. (Freund lives in New York and Montana.) Unger presided over a significant renovation to AutoZone Park and has embraced the challenge of attracting — and keeping — new fans for minor-league baseball. (Attendance last summer was 17 percent higher than the previous season.) Any concerns about a disconnect between ownership and management at AutoZone Park should be reduced significantly with Unger’s new stake in the franchise.