There were just over two minutes left on the clock at the Liberty Bowl last Saturday. It was a magnificent autumn afternoon and Tommy West's scrambling Tigers had just taken a 34-30 lead over the Cincinnati Bearcats. The old stadium was fairly pulsating with enthusiasm, as 26,395 screaming, long-suffering U of M football fans were celebrating what appeared to be a historic victory, one that would cap the team's first winning season since 1994.
Not those of us, however, who have long been regulars in section eight on the stadium's east side. No, we knew better than to wax euphoric. As loyal fans of a team whose official theme song ought to be "Cry Me A River," we understood only too well that you don't count your chickens before they hatch. We stood rather quietly with the cheering multitudes, smiling, yes, but, well, suspicious. I pointed out to my companions that the afternoon sun was at that very moment perfectly framed by one of the section entryways on the opposite side of the stadium, creating from our perspective an eerie glow, much like the solar effects at Stonehenge at the exact moment of the summer solstice.
"It's an omen," I said, and my friends nodded sagely, all but the 11-year-old son of one, who was screaming at the top of his lungs. "Calm down. Trust us," we said wearily, in much the same way that grizzled battle veterans greet newcomers to the trenches. "It ain't over 'til it's over."
And it wasn't, of course. After taking over at the Wildcat 20-yard line, Gino Guidugli marched his charges down the field, quickly and efficiently. Oh, he was blessed by a questionable pass-interference call, but mostly he was the lucky beneficiary of a Qurse every bit as real as the one that Bostonians say was placed on their team when they traded Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1920 and has kept them from winning a championship ever since. It's a Qurse whose impact is, simply, that whenever Memphis is in a close game near the end, the Tigers will always, invariably snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Just like they did last Saturday.
Guidugli completed a Hail Mary on fourth-and-27 and put the final nail in our coffin with just four ticks left on the clock, hitting John Olinger with a 13-yard pass in the north corner of the end zone.
Were we dejected? Of course we were; practically suicidal, in fact. Were we surprised? Of course not. True-blue U of M football fans know that when the chips are on the line, ours will always turn into those of the bovine variety. "That was the same play that Louisville beat us with in 1999, right?" said one of our group dejectedly, as the crowd stood in place, in stunned silence. He was correct, of course. The Tigers had lost 32-31 at home that year when Chris Redman threw almost the exact same pass to Lavell Boyd. Oh, there were differences, to be sure. Redman's pass went 18 yards, not 13. And, hey, we were left with six seconds on the clock, not four. See what I mean?
Over the past three seasons, the Tigers have been perhaps the best losing team in Division I football. Unquestionably, ours is the most snake-bitten football program in America. A few bounces here and there, and we would have gone bowling long ago. Hell, we lost eight games in 1999 and 2000 by the combined margin of -- are you ready for this? -- 20 points! Less than three touchdowns altogether. Win those games and we go 9-2 and 8-3 those two seasons, respectively. And by the way, those weren't losses to chumps. Besides Louisville, the Qurse made us victims of Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and the Great Orange Evil One, Tennessee, not once but twice.
True Tiger fans remember every excruciating detail of these games -- All- American Ryan White's first career missed field goal against Ole Miss (we lost 3-0, naturally); UT quarterback Tee Martin's 53-yard desperation pass in the waning minutes at Neyland Stadium in 1999 (we lost 17-16); and poor Scott Scherer's "here, take this" interception in overtime last year against these same Bearcats (we lost 13-10). I could go on, but nausea prevents me.
So what about the Qurse, anyway? And why, sir, do you insist upon spelling it with a "Q"?
Ah, that's because I've finally figured it all out. It came to me clearly, blindingly, in a flash, during that Stonehenge moment at the Liberty Bowl last Saturday: It's all Qadry Anderson's fault. That's why we're laboring under this curse, this malediction, this hex. Call it the Qurse of Qadry.
Let me explain: Qadry Anderson was the starting quarterback for the Tigers for most of the 1996 season. A junior-college transfer from Oakland, California, he had played sparingly the previous year. And even in his one full season at the helm, Anderson was hardly a world beater. That year he would throw nearly twice as many interceptions (11) as touchdown passes (6).
Ah, but one of those six was, indisputably, the greatest touchdown pass ever thrown by a Memphis Tiger. It came with just 34 seconds left in the fourth quarter before 65,885 at the Liberty Bowl on November 9th, 1996. The recipient of Anderson's three-yard toss was tight end Chris Powers. And the opponent, of course, was the sixth-ranked Tennessee Volunteers, who fell 21-17 in an upset of such grand proportions that Sports Illustrated would later rank it as one of the top 10 of the entire decade.
Qadry Anderson was no Peyton Manning, his illustrious opponent that fabled afternoon. Peyton threw for nearly 300 yards; Qadry had thrown for less than 30 before that last, heroic drive when time stood still and our Paper Tigers became, at least for a moment, jungle beasts of the first order.
This, my friends, is what I think really happened: The offense -- such as it was -- took over at the UT 31 with just six minutes left in the game, trailing 17-14. They had gained a mere 84 total yards all afternoon; all the Tiger points had come off interceptions, fumbles, and kickoff returns. But in the huddle, something strange happened. Qadry told his teammates to relax. "Let's just be calm, guys. We've got this game won." They stared at him in disbelief. "What, is Peyton coming in for our side?" said one exhausted lineman in jest.
Qadry smiled whimsically. "Very funny. No, let's just say I've made a deal."
"You've made a deal? With whom?"
"Sorry, can't tell you. But, hey, time's wasting. Let's go get 'em. Woods, right tackle, on five. Break!"
Well, we all know what happened next. The Tigers sliced and diced their way upfield. Anderson, limping around on one leg, made a critical fourth-and-one sneak that kept the drive alive, then followed that with a 41-yard bomb (those of us watching couldn't believe Qadry could throw the ball that far) to Chancy Carr. A couple of plays later, Anderson hit Powers and the Tigers had an implausible four-point lead. In the last 30 seconds Manning threw a few desperation passes, but he looked more like Qadry Anderson than Peyton Manning. A final interception and the goalposts came tumbling down.
It was all too perfect. That's why I think something fishy happened in that huddle. I'm still not sure of the exact nature of the Faustian bargain Qadry cut with you-know-who on that memorable November afternoon five years ago, but I swear we've been paying the price ever since. Think this team isn't cursed? Hey, the facts speak for themselves. The Qurse cost Rip Scherer his job and if it continues it'll cost Tommy West his sanity.
That's why the football Tigers need to blow off spring practice next year and do something far more constructive. Coach West and his impressive quarterback prodigy Danny Wimprine need to spend two or three weeks in New Orleans searching out Marie Laveau's successors. Nothing but black magic is gonna get rid of the Qurse of Qadry.
Kenneth Neill is a long-suffering Tiger football fan and the CEO of Contemporary Media, Inc., the Flyer's parent company.
The road was a little bumpy when the basketball Tigers met their first real competition.
by Jake Lawhead
With two losses to nationally ranked teams in the Guardians Classic tournament in Kansas City last week, the basketball Tigers (4-2) fell from 14th to 19th in the USA Today/ESPN Top 25 poll. The losses (to Iowa, now ranked 13th, and Alabama, 22nd) were followed by an ugly 65-46 home win over Southeastern Louisiana. But even in victory, it was apparent the Tigers have wrinkles to iron out. In a city known for its basketball fever, almost everyone considers himself a basketball expert. And if you start to listen closely enough you can hear the grumbles. Let's look at some of the concerns and offer some solutions.
Prove to Cal you want to play. Coach John Calipari has been vocal about the amount of effort he expects from his players. "I hate it when we are not working,'' Calipari has said. "When you see me going crazy on the sidelines, that's what it's about. I think we are getting outworked.'' Every player is not exhibiting full effort their entire time on the court, which is something not only backups must do, but also starters who hope to keep their jobs.
Get in better shape -- soon. Practice started at high intensity this year, but some players came into camp out of shape and it's showing. "Southeastern Louisiana was almost the perfect opponent," said Calipari after the lackluster win over a team ranked 291st in the RPI rankings. "It allowed me to look out there and see who is not playing, who is stopping. You stop playing, you come out." Iowa and Alabama players showed that they were able to go harder and longer than the Tigers.
More patience on offense. Alabama used a 2-3 zone defense in the second half to help build a 10-2 lead that would decide the game. Despite his 24-point per game average, Dajuan Wagner often forces shots and drives to the basket against players who are taller and stronger. Errant drives don't work against a zone and that's why 'Bama used it.
Better shooting from the arc. Against Iowa the Tigers shot only 5-of-19 from three-point range and against 'Bama they were an atrocious 0-for-13. Memphis' two starting shooters, Wagner and Scooter McFadgon, were a combined 3-for-20 in those games.
Show authority in the paint and on offensive glass. Last time anyone checked, Kelly Wise was a force in the paint. So what's happened this year? At every home game, Calipari has yelled, "Get it to him!" Wise needs to assert himself to make sure teammates know when he's open. And when they pass him the ball he needs to finish the play. Wise was just 2-10 from the field against Iowa, despite Chris Massie drawing much of the defense from Iowa's All-American Reggie Evans.