A "Football School" No More


Remember when the University of Memphis became a football school? It happened on December 22, 2014, when the Tigers beat BYU in a scintillating Miami Beach Bowl. The overtime victory gave Memphis a final record of 10-3 and vaulted a program that had finished 2-10 merely three years earlier into the year-end AP Top 25. When the Tigers won their first eight games in 2015 — one of them a beat-down of Ole Miss at the Liberty Bowl — we began hearing talk of Memphis playing in a major bowl game, of a Memphis quarterback (Paxton Lynch) getting Heisman Trophy consideration. This was University of Memphis football. The basketball program, meanwhile, slogged through four years without an NCAA tournament appearance.

That "football school" died at Yulman Stadium in New Orleans last Friday night. Favored by two touchdowns against Tulane, the Tigers scored on their first play from scrimmage — a 47-yard run by Darrell Henderson (ho-hum) — then played like they forgot they were members of the American Athletic Conference. After compiling three wins over stepchildren in shoulder pads last month, Memphis got manhandled on both sides of the ball by the Green Wave. The Tigers, particularly on defense, looked slower than Tulane. Worse, they looked tired. An 11-game winning streak against the Green Wave ended with a damp thud. Perspective on the new depths? Coach Larry Porter's Tigers were undefeated against Tulane.

As though recovery from such a loss won't be test enough for coach Mike Norvell, defensive coordinator Chris Ball, and a team no longer in contention for its league title, the Tiger basketball team will host Memphis Madness Thursday night at FedExForum. You've heard the hoops squad has a new coach: Penny Hardaway. Among the celebs rumored to have circled Thursday night on their schedules: Drake and Justin Timberlake. An NBA arena will be filled by paying fans on October 4th for what amounts to a college basketball fashion show. James Wiseman and other Tiger recruiting targets will be impressed. Hardaway's first appearance as Tiger coach in front of a crowd numbered in the thousands will reverberate at least to the pointy arena he played in as a Tiger, making all of downtown Memphis once again a hub for college basketball. Yes, it's madness.

Two days after the lights dim at FedExForum, the Tiger football team will take the field at the Liberty Bowl to play Connecticut. The game will surely draw more fans than we see at Memphis Madness. Surely?

Perhaps this is right and proper. Memphis has never been a sports town with an abundance of riches. To have a Top-25 football team and Penny Hardaway in charge of basketball? That would be like having Paisley Park two blocks south of Graceland. How much love and happiness can one athletic department take?

The football team is better than it looked at Tulane. And the basketball team will not enter next March's AAC tournament with a 31-0 record. (We'll go with 28-3 for now.) But we can again recognize the U of M as very much a basketball school. The throng of reporters and camera crew at the Tiger basketball team's opening practice last week was larger than the group that gathered for the football team's postgame press conference the previous Saturday at the Liberty Bowl. While Mike Norvell is asked about the development of his rookie quarterback, Penny Hardaway is asked if any of his players remind him of himself. (Anyone? Please, Penny?) Breathless anticipation is a rare commodity in sports of any kind. On the college basketball level, in a city the size of Memphis, such excitement forms a community's emotional baseline.

There will again be football victories to cheer. If they're drowned out by a Tiger basketball win come November, consider it the natural order of things. Good football is always welcome in this Hoop City.

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