The elderly, white-haired gentleman decked out in bright white and blue tightly grips the armrests of his seat. With a strong push, using arms and legs, he stands. It is a move 84-year-old Franklin Pierce has performed thousands of times, but it's what he does next that many Memphians have come to know him for. Pierce reaches over to his wife Shelly and grabs two navy-blue pompons. And before the University of Memphis fight song starts, just as the Tigers dance-squad members make their way out to center court, Pierce begins waving them as fast as he can.
"A lot of the time, I'm the only one who stands up when the [cheerleaders and pompon girls] come out to cheer," says Pierce. Seated or standing, a smile never leaves his face.
The Pyramid crowd may have still been digesting its Thanksgiving feasts. That's one possibility for why the arena seemed truly tomblike throughout the University of Memphis' 104-63 win over Team Georgia Saturday.
Other reasons for a mostly uninspired effort from the crowd (charitably estimated at 5,000) and the team abounded: The game began at a later-than-usual 8 p.m. It was held on a holiday weekend. And, win or lose, it didn't count.
So, while most in the arena remained seated -- at least until the cheerleaders began throwing giveaway Memphis T-shirts into the stands, eliciting the loudest and most animated cheers of the evening -- Frank Pierce waved his pompons.
Pierce doesn't care much for those constraining Pyramid seats, but his steady seated/standing waving has less to do with a lack of comfort than with his abundant enthusiasm for the Tigers and basketball in general.
"We were going to all the games when they had those old pro teams here," says Shelly. "He used to drag me to all those games, and the teams kept disappearing. Finally, I said, 'Why don't you just start following the Tigers, because you know they will be here.'" The couple purchased their first University of Memphis season tickets during the Wayne Yates coaching era. Thirty years later, Frank (a Memphis resident for eight decades) and the Tigers are still here.
The often-heard knock on Tigers fans is that they generally don't provide the rah-rah atmosphere of most other major college programs. Part of the reason for this, the theory goes, is that many Tigers fans are older diehards who lack youthful energy. The Pyramid's downtown location is too long a drive for students -- and apparently too long a jaunt for anyone, sometimes -- so Memphis often misses out on student enthusiasm. John Calipari has even said as much.
But Pierce, seated six rows up in section 125, doesn't pay much attention to the theory, and during the Team Georgia contest he didn't pay much attention to the fact that he was the only one standing and cheering. No shortage of enthusiasm for him. Students could take lessons.
Pierce uses official pompons provided by the Tigers dance team. "One year, he forgot his pompons and a student came out of the student section and brought him some to cheer with," says Shelly.
"He's been cheering with pompons forever," Shelly adds. "People stop him all over the city. He was cheering with pompons when were in Lexington [Kentucky] for the Final Four [then-Memphis State was a participant in 1985]."
Settling back into his spot near the half-court line, with the Tigers holding a 22-point lead as the second half begins, Pierce reaches again for his pompons. And then Frank and Shelly provide another verbal assist for each other, explaining how the cheering tradition started.
"Somebody ought to cheer, is what I figured," Pierce says. "And he just went all out," Shelly adds. "He's done it every game."