The 2003 University of Memphis football team just wrapped up its finest regular season in 30 years. The campaign was highlighted by a quarterback who will be among the favorites for the 2004 Davey OBrien Award and a tailback who should -- must! -- be on the short list for next years Heisman Trophy. Best of all, the Tigers will play in their first postseason contest since 1971. But guess what: Now the hard part begins. And it has nothing to do with a bowl game.
The next year or two will be the most critical transition period in the history of Memphis football. No exaggeration, no hyperbole. There is a seismic leap in college football between the definitions for great team and great program. Head coach Tommy West and his staff will be facing a challenge no Memphis football coach has confronted in years: building upon a winner. Just as importantly, Bob Winn and his crew in the U of M athletic media relations department will be exploring new territory themselves: selling a winner. And the selling starts now.
Everyone remotely connected to Tiger football -- with leadership from the Highland Hundred booster club -- has to become a recruiter of sorts. Not necessarily a recruiter of talented players . . . leave that to West. But a recruiter of interest, of passion, of promotion, and yes, of fund-raisers. Throw out the Ole Miss game (where the crowd of 51,000 was padded by a migration from Oxford) and Memphis averaged 38,740 in attendance for 2003. This is an impressive figure when compared with years past (over the previous 10 seasons, Memphis averaged 26,713). But for a city the size of Memphis, and in a stadium that seats more than 60,000 . . . its simply not acceptable. Tiger football has to achieve the same buzz during the fall our Redbirds enjoy over the summer and the Grizzlies (and basketball Tigers) during the winter. The Tigers will have achieved this when 50,000 fans show up to see the Arkansas State game. Buzz is easy when youre winning . . . the challenge is making it automatic, and annual.
How to achieve Annual Buzz? You start by selling your assets. In the case of modern Tiger football, that asset is DeAngelo Williams. (All due respect to Danny Wimprine, the greatest quarterback in school history, and certain to be a magnet for NFL scouts himself next fall. This is DeAngelos team.) If I were in the shoes of the U of M powers that be, there is NO WAY Williams suits up for the Tiger bowl game later this month. Unless Im told (by three doctors) this star of stars left knee is completely healed from his injury in the Cincinnati game, Mr. Williams is a scratch for the bowl game. A simple equation of risk and reward.
This program has never had a talent like Williams. His 1,430 rushing yards broke the programs single-season mark . . . by 35 percent! And hes a sophomore, for Petes sake. College football relies on hype (read: rankings and polls) more than any other sport known to man. DeAngelo Williams is bursting with hype potential. Winn and his staff must harken back to the All-America campaign they put together for Penny Hardaway a decade ago. Why shouldnt Williams get the same kind of push for the Heisman? He should be on billboards, posters, TV promos (no need to use his name, Mr. NCAA Violations Hound, we know number 20). For (hopefully) the next two years, DeAngelo Williams should be the bright, smiling face of Memphis football. Recruits will recognize it. National sportswriters will recognize it. And most importantly, ticket-buyers will recognize it. Fans like familiarity. Take DeAngelo, hold him as tightly as he does that pigskin, and run with him.
Its Us Against the World when it comes to this transition period for the U of M. Conference USA is dissolving around Memphis. The SEC recruiting behemoths are still trying to shove Tiger football to the Mid-South sideline. Its a time, simply put, for Tiger football to get angry. And aggressive. The 2003 squad will be remembered for generations. And the Legend of Danny and DeAngelo will be central to the future of this program. The only question is whether this will be a story of epic heroes, beyond reach by their successors . . . or a story of pioneers.