December is a month for reflection. Particularly when it comes to sports. Players of the Year. Coaches of the Year. Teams of the Year. Everywhere you turn, a top-10 list. (Be patient, loyal readers. You’ll get one next week.) If we look back at 12 months of Memphis sports, it’s been a year of considerable highs (a PCL championship for the Redbirds, the AutoZone Liberty Bowl for the Tiger football team) and considerable lows (farewell Tony Allen and Zach Randolph, thousands of empty seats for Tiger basketball games at FedExForum).
But why stop at 12 months? Why not a larger perspective, a lengthier sample size, as it were, for the state of Bluff City sports? Let’s go back to this precise month 20 years ago — December 1997 — and draw a few comparisons.
• In December 1997, the Memphis Tiger football team had just completed its third straight losing season under coach Rip Scherer. The mammoth upset of Tennessee 13 months earlier had proven to be a merely a magical moment and not a reset button on the program’s growth from regional also-ran. Scherer was (and is) a decent and honorable man, but his teams had trouble scoring 70 points in a month, something the 2017 Tigers did in a single game. Twice. Memphis hadn’t played in a bowl game in a quarter century back in ’97. This year’s AutoZone Liberty Bowl will be the biggest postseason game in the program’s history and mark the fourth consecutive year Memphis has gone bowling in December.
• In December 1997, Tic Price was leading the Tiger basketball program. But toward what? The first-year coach managed to get Memphis to the 1998 NIT but was chased out of town a year later under a cloud of scandal, having been involved romantically with a Memphis student. Don’t tell me we’ve reached the lowest point in Tiger history when no one wants to see the Tigers play Samford in an NBA arena. I was here in 1999.
• In December 1997, the Tennessee Oilers — that’s what they called themselves for two years — were wrapping up their lone season in the Liberty Bowl, unable to fill the stadium even at the epic height of NFL popularity. Bud Adams was using Memphis as a rest area for his franchise, on its way to Nashville after nearly 40 years in Houston. Having been spurned for an expansion franchise five years earlier, Memphis resented its “home” team, so much that the Oilers chose to play at Vanderbilt in 1998 instead of, as originally planned, a second season in the Liberty Bowl. Memphis had been big league for exactly four months. Sort of.
• In December 1997, Dean Jernigan had announced that the St. Louis Cardinals’ Triple-A affiliate was moving to Memphis, to play in the most palatial stadium ever built for a minor-league team. But what did we know then about AutoZone Park? Or the joys of Triple-A baseball? No brick had been placed; no Redbird hitter had entered a batter’s box. Since then? Memphis has helped feed the most successful franchise in the National League, the Cardinals winning four National League pennants and a pair of world championships since 1998. Along the way, the Redbirds have won three Pacific Coast League titles themselves, including a 91-win season here in 2017.
• In December 1997, the Grizzlies were playing their third NBA season. In Vancouver, British Columbia. Shareef Abdur-Rahim was the face of the franchise. There weren’t even rumors of an NBA franchise calling Memphis (and the Pyramid) home. Today? We complain about losing streaks and the possibility — now likelihood — that our NBA team may have its playoff streak end at seven years. Two players (Allen and Randolph) will have their numbers retired in the near future and two more (Marc Gasol and Mike Conley) are destined for the same recognition.
The last 20 years have been the best such period in Memphis sports history, a pair of decades impossible to top between now and 2037. But let’s give it a try. There are seats to fill at FedExForum and an NBA championship parade to attend.