Memphis is the worst sports city in the South right now, and it’s not even a close game. It has not always been so. Once, Memphis was Tennessee’s best hope for major league sports. Now, in a region bustling with sports activity, Memphis lags behind.
Atlanta, once deservedly titled “Losersville, U.S.A.,” now has one World Series pennant (though it should have three) and a little event called the Olympics, bombings notwithstanding. Charlotte is seeing its still new franchises in three of the four big leagues misfire like a Barney Fife bullet, but at least it has them. Even Birmingham, a city teeming with laughable self-inflation, had the Iron Bowl until Auburn and Alabama found a way to screw it up.
In our state, Knoxville has the most successful collegiate athletic program of its kind in the history of the sport, and the football team isn’t too shabby either. Even Chattanooga has the Lookouts, a minor-league baseball team for a minor-league city.
Until maybe five years ago, Nashville was the state’s sports backwater, with only Vanderbilt basketball having any stature at all. Even at that, the team never threatened the Final Four; the Vandy football team, meanwhile, has been the city’s second softest export after the Goo Goo Cluster.
Then Nashville got the NHL and the NFL, immediately launching into the ranks of major-league cities and shoving a big sibling “Up Yours” right down I-40.
For years, Memphis had been courting the NFL like a pimple-faced geek courting the prom queen. The city was so desperate for professional football that beginning in 1984, it hosted the Memphis Showboats of the doomed-from-day-one USFL. The combined record of the team’s two years was a perfectly mediocre 18-18, meaning the city wasn’t even good enough to have a good team in a bad league.
Then, in 1987, Memphis grew so certain of its ability to land an NFL expansion franchise that it decided to spend $20 million to fix up the Liberty Bowl. At the time, city fathers thought it money well spent, but in 1993, the NFL bypassed Memphis and awarded franchises to Charlotte and Jacksonville. Memphis seethed. The cry came: “How dare they give our team to cities just because they offered a better deal.” The zip of it is: Memphis could have had an NFL team if it had been willing to spend the hundreds of millions it would have taken to get one.
All this pent-up resentment was laying in wait when Bud Adams, apparently dizzy from the Houston humidity, thought it wise to parallel park his Oilers in Memphis on the way to Nashville, a decision about as well conceived as, “Hey, hold my beer while I have sex with your wife.”
Memphis could have used the opportunity to show the NFL owners what they had missed, but instead decided to permanently reassure Irsay, Cook, DeBartolo, and all the other league powerbrokers that they had made the right decision after all in 1993. The city’s sports nabobs complained that the team was not doing enough to ingratiate itself to the city, as if the NFL owed them something. If they had unstuck their heads from the Mississippi Mud long enough, maybe they would have realized that this was the same NFL that watched as teams left Los Angeles and Cleveland without so much as a chorus of “Thanks for the Memories.”
If the pro football experience was a sour one, collegiate athletics in Memphis haven’t fared much better. They just seem to have bypassed Memphis and kept on going. For the record, it’s worth mentioning the highlights.
Memphis State University/University of Memphis has had its great moments: Gene Bartow’s basketball team made the Final Four in 1973, Dana Kirk took them back in 1985, and the football team upset Tennessee in 1996.
Then there are other moments, like when Kirk was convicted in 1986 of seven counts of an 11-count federal indictment on tax charges. Among the allegations was that Kirk, while enjoying the perks of head coachdom, had taken soft drinks donated to his basketball camps and sold them to the dehydrated kids. There were allegations that money from his camps went to pay gambling debts.
Kirk’s coaching shoes were filled by Memphis-born Larry Finch, who held a handful of records from his days as a Tiger player. Finch managed to get talents like David Vaughn and Anfernee Hardaway on the court, but won nothing substantial while he had them, and wasn’t able to recruit players of their caliber after they left. The school didn’t even wait for the 1997 season to end to fire him.
There have been historic sports moments in Memphis: Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant played his last game in the Liberty Bowl, beating Illinois 21-15. Since then, the bowl game has been a regular stop for the Air Forces and East Carolinas of the game. On the rare occasion when the Liberty Bowl does land a team with a manly record, such as last year’s 11-0 Tulane Green Wave, organizers are treated to backhands by fans that their team deserved to go someplace, anyplace, better.
As for baseball, no city that names its baseball stadium after Tim McCarver, and then loses its team to nearby Jackson, Tenn., can ever recover from the shame.
If Memphis has one fleeting chance at sports redemption, it might be at golfthe city is the home of the late Cary Middlecoff, 1949 and 1956 U.S. Open champion. Memphis has hosted a fine PGA tour event since the 1950s, albeit under six different names. But it got real hard for the FedEx St. Jude Classic to be taken seriously as one of the tour’s premier events in 1996 when John Cook shredded the course to post a winning score of 26 under par.
Are things getting any better in the city whose cheers sound more like “Gimme a W. Gimme an H. Gimme an I-N-E?” At the U of M, the basketball and football teams went 13-15 and 2-9, respectively, last season. There is legitimate enthusiasm surrounding the Redbirds, the new triple-A affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals, and a stunning new downtown stadium is planned.
But having the Titans in Nashville dooms Memphis’ chance of ever dating the NFL again. Of course, there is always the chance that some sports iconoclast will start another fledgling league in some sport. And such a new league would no doubt find Ted Turner wannabes in the Bluff City eager to buy in, tag a ridiculous name like Pharoahs on it, and fold in two years.
The irony about Memphis sports is that it is the base of so many great athletes, from Marv Throneberry to Tony Harris, Claude Humphrey to John Daly.
It’s not that Memphis hasn’t tried. There just seems to be an unlucky sports pall hanging over the city like a sticky river fog. Maybe some day the Red Sox will win the Series over the Cubs. Maybe Memphis will become a sports hotbed again. That’s the great thing about sportsmiracles can happen.
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