The University of Memphis is a big source of news in this town. Want to start a conversation with a stranger at a bar? Bring up Tiger basketball. Everybody in town's a coach. Everybody's got an opinion on Josh Pastner's motivational skills or Joe Jackson's jump shot. Everybody knows what "really" happened with Charles Carmouche.
Similarly, there are at least 200,000 experts on Tiger football in these parts. They can tell you why R.C. Johnson needs to go, or why Larry Porter didn't succeed, or why the university made the right (or wrong) decision in hiring new coach Justin Fuente last week.
The truth is, when you mention the University of Memphis around here, people think of sports — basketball, football, baseball, and even women's soccer, which had a good enough run this season to draw attention from casual fans.
This isn't a bad thing. Public interest in the university's athletic programs is better than apathy, and concern over won/loss records and coaching hires is certainly better than the kind of attention being given to Penn State and Syracuse athletics these days.
But there's a huge story at the University of Memphis that's going unnoticed. I bet you didn't know that 42 percent of the incoming 2011 freshmen at the U of M are the first in their family to attend college. Nationwide, the percentage of first-generation freshmen at four-year institutions is 18 percent. The University of Memphis is a quiet but powerful change-agent for this area, creating unprecedented opportunities for thousands of the city's next generation through education.
It's a tough job. Nationally, only 36 percent of first-generation students complete a four-year degree. That's compared to 60 percent of students whose parents are college graduates. But the U of M is getting some help via an $860,000 grant from the Suder Foundation's First Scholars program. Memphis is one of only two schools in the country (the other being Washington State) to win this grant. The money will be used to provide academic and social support, personal development, and financial assistance to students whose parents have no higher education.
It would be hard to strike up a conversation at a bar about this quietly transformative process at the University of Memphis, but in the long run, it's a much more important story for this city than who should start at point guard. (I'd go with Antonio Barton, by the way.)