If it wasn't the greatest 24 hours in University of Memphis sports history, it belongs in the conversation. Last Friday night in New York City, the Tiger men's basketball team fell four points shy of beating the top-ranked team in the nation. Then Saturday afternoon, the football team rose to the occasion for a must-win that extended the collegiate career of DeAngelo Williams, the greatest player in the program's history. Have you exhaled yet?
I can't stand labeling a defeat as "a good loss." It's like describing a blind date as having a good personality. That said, it's hard not to use the backhanded qualifier in reflecting on the U of M's narrow loss to Duke in the championship of the NIT Season Tip-off at Madison Square Garden. My favorite image of the game? Believe it or not, it wasn't Joey Dorsey's summary rejection of a Josh McRoberts dunk attempt early in the first half. (Not only did this play set the tone for how Friday's game would be played, it may well serve as the season's performance marquee.) No, my favorite image was that of freshmen Chris Douglas-Roberts and Robert Dozier on the bench late in the second half, arms linked in tension, rooting interest and hope. It's the kind of image you expect to see on the bench of, yes, Duke, in late March. But on the Memphis sideline, the day after Thanksgiving? Coach John Calipari has spoken often about this team's enthusiasm for playing together, for "buying in" as the cliche has it. Friday night, in America's most famous arena, against college basketball's most famous program of the last quarter century, Memphis fans saw a team on the launching pad of greatness.
With chatter about the previous night's basketball game filling the Liberty Bowl Saturday afternoon, the Tiger football program took the field for perhaps the most significant Senior Day in school history. As if saying goodbye to the greatest Tiger of them all weren't enough, there were 15 other seniors -- including such notables as Maurice Avery, John Doucette, O.C. Collins, Andrew Handy, and Marcus West -- who will now be remembered for being the class that took a sleepy program to three consecutive bowl games. (Among the possible December destinations for the Tigers are Fort Worth, Detroit, Honolulu, and -- and if you listen to Coach Tommy West -- Memphis' own Liberty Bowl.)
Williams would be the first to sing the praises of a class that met cynicism and adversity with stubborn flexibility (the team's top returning receiver at quarterback for the last six games?).
Appropriately enough, Williams shared the spotlight in the 26-3 win over Marshall with senior kicker Stephen Gostkowski, who drilled four field goals from distances of 42 yards to a school-record 53 yards. Gostkowski established a new Conference USA record with 67 career field goals and moved his U of M scoring record up to 357 points (a mere 13 ahead of Williams, who with two touchdowns Saturday now has 57 for his brilliant career).
The 2005 Tiger football team was not as good as the '03 or '04 squads. Their defense was second-tier in a second-tier conference. Offensively, they were carried by Williams and picked up by the midseason promotion/rescue of Avery at quarterback. But when measuring the impact of this team for posterity's sake, listen to West for a dose of perspective.
"I don't know if I've ever seen as much fight in a football team," said West after Saturday's win. "I told them today that if they could win this game, they'd be special, more special than the nine-win team or the eight-win team. To go through what they've gone through, and find a way to win six . . . it's almost incredible. This has been the most frustrating season I've ever been through, and now it's been one of the most gratifying. It meant a lot to those 16 [seniors]. For these guys to go to three straight bowls -- we'd only been to two [in history] -- that's a sizable accomplishment."
A basketball program in the top 10 and a football program making bowl preparations. Right here in Memphis. Happy holidays.