From Disappointing to Praiseworthy
Memphis sports has transitioned into success like never before.
October 30, 2017
In 1877, the first professional sports team came to Memphis. Since then, no professional or collegiate team in baseball, basketball, or football, has won a national championship. The Grizzlies moved from Vancouver to Memphis in 2001, and from that year to 2010 they owned a winning percentage of 45% with only 3 playoff appearances and no time spent past the first round. Memphis football enjoyed some success under Tommy West in the mid 2000’s behind Heisman finalist running back DeAngelo Williams. However, in West’s last year and the two years following, the Tigers had a pitiful combined record of 5-31. Memphis Tiger Basketball has not found it’s way past the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA tournament since John Calipari’s controversial move to Kentucky in 2009. Most of these Memphis sports programs and franchises have been relatively disappointing up until recent years. From shattered records, broken milestones, and a change of perception, the sports scene in Memphis has gone from incredibly dismal to one of the best in the nation.
On the football front, beginning in 2009, the Memphis Tiger football team finished last or second to last in the weak Conference USA for three straight seasons. Unsurprisingly, they were near the bottom of the FBS rankings in both stats and record. When Justin Fuente accepted the head coaching position in 2011, he knew he had taken the job of one of the worst football teams in all of College Football. The roster was filled with walk-ons, one stars, and on the surface it simply looked like they didn’t have a lot of talent. In his first game, the Tigers lost to the UT-Martin Skyhawks, a FCS team that shouldn’t even be able to compete with a FBS program. Nevertheless, the mighty Tigers finished 4-8; doubling their record from the year past. The following year, Fuente made a controversial decision to start Paxton Lynch, a 6-7 Freshman from Deltona, Florida, over the popular senior, Jacob Karam, at quarterback, and the Tigers would finish 3-9. Many people were highly critical of the choice to start Lynch, but all would be forgiven in the 2014 season.
Using Lynch’s throwing prowess, the Tigers finished 10-3 and won their first conference championship since 1971. Not only that, they made it to their first bowl game since 2008, and won a thrilling Miami Beach Bowl over BYU, for their first bowl win since 2005. In the following season, the Memphis Tigers beat #13 Ole Miss 37-24 for their first win over a ranked opponent in 18 years. They finished 9-3, and at one point in the season they were ranked #15 in the nation. At the end of the year, Justin Fuente left for the head coaching job at Virginia Tech, and Paxton Lynch was picked in the first round of the NFL draft. The Tigers had accomplished a task that most people did not think would ever happen. The culture had been changed and Memphis was now back on the map.
With Fuente’s departure, Memphis needed to find a coach that could be just as successful. Mike Norvell took the position in 2016 and lead the young Tigers to a 8-5 record with yet another bowl appearance. This year the Tigers are 7-1 and just throttled Tulane 56-26 on Friday night. With American Athletic Conference Passing leader Riley Ferguson, and the conference’s leading receiver Anthony Miller, Memphis has the opportunity to do some really special things this year. They have already beaten two top 25 teams in UCLA and Navy, and with their miraculous 17 point comeback two weeks ago at Houston, the Tigers are in the driver’s seat for the AAC’s West Division. They are currently ranked 21st in the nation and have a favorable schedule to end the season. If they win out, they will likely face either South Florida or Central Florida in the conference title game. With a conference championship, the Tigers will have an admirable resume that could place them in a New Year’s six bowl. A lot of football is left to be played, but the fact that just 6 years ago, Memphis finished a football season with one lonely win, anything is possible for this team and program.
When head coach Lionel Hollins was hired near the end of the 2009 NBA season, the Grizzlies had been through 5 coaches in 3 years. In his second year, head coach Lionel Hollis lead the Grizzlies to the playoffs for the first time since 2006. Incredibly in 2011, that same Memphis team upset the number 1 seed San Antonio Spurs in one of the all-time great playoff series in NBA history. They made it past the first round for the first time in franchise history, and since that year the Grizzlies have made it to the playoffs 7 straight seasons. In 2013, ESPN ranked the Memphis Grizzlies as the number 1 professional sports franchise out of 122 teams in North America, and in just this young NBA season, the Grizzlies have experienced unprecedented success. After defeating Houston for the second time on Saturday, the Grizzlies are 5-1 with wins over the highly ranked Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets. With a roster infused with unimaginable potential, the Grizzlies have a chance to be a title contender, a far cry from the struggles of the 2000’s.
Most of the judgements passed on the Memphis Tiger men’s basketball program are relative to the era of excellence presented by John Calipari. In his 9 years as head coach, he won 79% of his games and went to 6 NCAA tournaments. The peak of the Calipari era was in 2008, when the Tigers won 38 contests and made it to the National Championship game. It came down to missed free throws, a game tying shot, and an overtime, but the Tigers fell to Kansas. This kind of performance was not peculiar to the overall high standard of achievement for the program in past years. Calipari suspiciously left Memphis in 2009 for a job at the University of Kentucky, and Josh Pastner, who at the time was one of the youngest basketball coaches in the country, took over the head coaching position. He did a mediocre job of repeating the successes of Calipari, but struggled to achieve in the NCAA tournament. The ultimate decider in whether or not a college basketball season is successful, is if you can win in March. Unfortunately, in his first season as head coach, Memphis did not make the tournament. The following two seasons, Pastner could not get the Tigers past the round of 64, and after they finally won a second round matchup in 2013, they then could not surpass the third round for two years. In 2015 and 2016, the Tigers missed the NCAA tournament, and won a combined 37 games. Without much opposition, Pastner was fired and the Tiger’s were once again looking for a coach that could return Memphis basketball to the promise land.
National Championship winning Tubby Smith was hired in 2016 to revive the Memphis Basketball program. Game attendance was way down, and the overall talent, perception, and optimism of the program had seen a drastic turn. With a largely depleted roster handed down, Smith found little triumph during the 2016-2017 season. Even with the Tigers being predicted to finish ninth in the AAC, fans are hopeful of a turnaround from the “dark ages.”
Luckily for Memphis Sports fans, one team has been consistent since 1998. The Memphis Redbirds have never won less than 57 games in a season, and they have only been under 40% in winning percentage once. In their 20th season, this past summer, the Redbirds won a franchise record 91 times, and beat the El Paso Chihuahuas for the Pacific Coast League title. They made it to the Triple-A national championship but lost a close game 5 to 3. As the Triple-A minor league affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals, Memphis Redbirds baseball has made the city proud.
Over the last century and 40 years of Memphis sports, the past several have been arguably the best. With greater funding, there has been a historic resurgence in Memphis football. For the Memphis Grizzlies, going to seven straight playoffs is nothing to sneeze at. Many other NBA teams would just be happy to participate in something as honorable as being one of the 16 best teams in the league. Memphis Tiger basketball has seen struggles in recent seasons, but with solid recruiting classes and the building of a good foundation, Tubby Smith can restore the enthusiasm that sells out an arena. The St. Louis Cardinals farm system has been one of the best in the MLB, and the Memphis Redbirds look to continue that. So, with all this being said, what game are you going to tonight?