Two years ago, Dennis Freeland, editor of this newspaper from 1992 to 2000, passed away after a long, courageous battle against cancer. In addition to running the Flyer, Dennis also covered Memphis sports for the paper. His favorite "beat," unquestionably, was Tiger football. So I hope readers will understand my catching him up with recent developments:
I hope you're sitting down, because you won't believe what happened while you've been gone: The U of M actually had a winning football season. Not just a winning season: 9-4, if you can believe it, ending with a bowl game we actually won.
Remember how you always used to say that Memphis was at heart a football town, and that if the gridiron Tigers ever got their act together, the town would go wild? Well, they did, and it has. Tommy West is now a household name in these parts. I know that'll bring a smile to your face, since from the first, you were always Tommy's biggest fan. "This new defensive coordinator, Ken," I remember you telling me back in 1999, "he's the real deal. A winner."
The next year, right after Rip Scherer was fired, you wrote a column titled "The Case for Tommy West," in which you pointed out that the University of Memphis had a rare opportunity to hire "a proven commodity" who "wants to stay at Memphis and see if he can succeed where the past six head coaches have failed."
The university, of course, paid no heed to your advice and offered the job to then-Auburn assistant Noel Mazzone. Fortunately, Mazzone turned it down; the rest is history. When it came to Tiger football, you always knew what you were talking about, my friend. Better than most.
I remember an afternoon earlier that fall, when you came back to the office from practice and you were hopping mad. The 2000 season, like so many before it, had started to disintegrate, and Scherer's coaching job was clearly on the line. "All season long, I've been trying to understand why he won't play this freshman quarterback from New Orleans," you fumed. "Danny Wimprine's the best they've got, I'm telling you, and not playing him is gonna cost Rip his job. Wait and see."
We didn't have to wait long, Dennis. I only wish you could have seen Wimprine holding up the MVP trophy at the New Orleans Bowl last week. Good things come to those who wait.
We all wish you could have waited with us and been around to bring some common sense to this somewhat hysterical new Golden Era we've suddenly found ourselves in. You would not have let success go to your -- or our -- heads. "Near-perfect season?" you would have written when another local columnist used those words to describe 2003. "How can you be 'near-perfect' when you lose four games?"
I wish you could still go out for coffee with Coach West and marvel together at the fact that he's gotten his mug on page one of the CA half a dozen times this past month. "Not like the bad old days, is it, Coach?" You'd both have a good laugh.
I also wish you could have been here to write this damn column for me this season and brought a little more wit and a lot more savvy to bear upon this space. You would have written a detailed article about irony, about how the 1999 and 2000 teams -- squads as good as this one, I suspect you would have insisted -- lost eight games by a total of 20 points. "It's better to be lucky than good," you would have written about these 2003 Tigers, "and it's especially nice if you can be lucky and good."
I know you would have waxed eloquent about the victory at Papa John's Stadium last month, when we beat the living "daylights" out of a highly regarded Louisville team, 37-7. You would have called it -- ahead of the famous 1996 UT game -- the greatest victory in Tiger football history, I feel certain. It was that special a day.
And you would have loved to watch DeAngelo Williams weave his magic week in and week out, and, yes, of course, watching Wimprine come of age. "The next Bret Favre, I'm telling you ."
And yes, we would have loved watching you write about it all. We miss you, Dennis. We always will. Go Tigers!