The mood was almost euphoric for what was being called the biggest game in decades in the City of Memphis. The early 11 a.m. local start time, didn’t seem to put a damper on the pre-game tailgating outside the Liberty bowl. The
SEC powerhouse Mississippi Rebels were coming to town, looking to cage a 5-0 Memphis Tigers squad. Memphis fans knew they had a good team, but were uncertain if they could hang with the high-powered Rebel offense. As I strolled from tailgate to tailgate, I heard over and over again about how a win here, could be the biggest win since the Tigers beat sixth-ranked SEC power Tennessee, quarterbacked by Peyton Manning 21-17 at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. That was the back in 1996, and it was the first time Memphis had defeated the Vols in 15 tries. That’s how big this game was to Memphis fans.
Many of the fans I talked to said they hadn’t been to a football game in years. Memphis has long been known as a premier basketball school, with relatively little football history. For the first time ever, Memphis students had lined up the night before to get tickets to a football game. This did not go unnoticed. Memphis Head Coach Justin Fuente personally bought hundreds of donuts and passed them out to the students, who were waiting in line.
“You have to realize, Memphis is a basketball town,” said Memphis fan Marcus Williams. He echoed a sentiment that many other Tigers fans shared me about a change in direction for the school and even the city. “Coach Fuente, has given us hope in a football team that has been dismal for years”.
A sellout crowd was arriving early, and Rebel fans were very confident that they would get the win. Mississippi fans had assured a sellout, as the two campuses are only 90 miles apart. I was surprised by how many of the fans I met, that had loyalties to both schools. I ran into several fans where the husband attended one of the school and the wife had attended the other. Another couple had graduated from Memphis, but their daughter was attending Ole Miss.
From the tailgates, I made my way to Tiger Lane. This is where you can find Tom III, the live tiger mascot for the Memphis Tigers. Tom drew a huge crowd before the game. He was paraded around the inside of the stadium prior to kickoff. Tiger Lane also features an outstanding tailgate area, and performances from the band and cheer squad before each home game.
TIGER FOOTBALL BEGINS
Memphis was formerly known as West Tennessee State Teacher’s College. They played their first game in 1912, coached by Clyde Wilson. West Tennessee State Teacher’s College changed its name to Memphis State College in 1941. The Tigers did not field a football team from 1943–1945 because of World War II. Memphis State University changed its name to the University of Memphis in 1994.
Billy Murphy was hired in 1958 to resurrect the football team, and the hiring of Murphy, quickly paid dividends. In his first year the Tigers went 4-6, his only losing record. He then guided the Tigers to nine straight winning seasons, including their first undefeated seasin in 25 years when the 1963 squad went 9-0-1. e was named the national coach of the year in 1963 and retired in 1971 with a 91-44-1 record. He leads all Memphis coaches with those 91 wins.
FUN FACTS ABOUT TIGER FOOTBALL
- In December 1983, the playing surface at the Liberty Bowl was named Rex Dockery Field. Dockery had coached the Tigers from 1981-83. He died in a plane crash in December 1983.
- Memphis home games have been played at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium since 1965. Before then, home games were played on-campus at Crump Stadium.
- The Tigers own a 5-3 record in bowl games.
- Four players have had their jersey numbers retired by the University. They 8 Charles Greenhill (8), DeAngelo Williams (20), Dave Casinelli (30) and (83) Isaac Bruce.
- The Tigers have won or shared five conference titles.
When the University of Memphis first fielded a football team in the fall of 1912, it didn’t have a nickname. In the early years they were known as either the “Normals” or “Blue and Grey Warriors”. After a 1914 game, during a parade, students began to shout “We fight like Tigers,” and the name was then born. It was used unofficially for 25 years, and officially adopted in 1939.
The Tigers have four major rivals, including Mississippi. They first played Ole Miss back to 1921, and the Rebels lead the series 47-12-2. The most played is the Black and Blue Bowl, the rivalry with Southern Mississippi. The first meeting between the schools was back in 1935, and the Golden Eagles lead the series 40-22-1. The rivalry with the Cincinnati Bearcats has taken on more significance since both schools are now in the American Athletic Conference. Earlier this season, the Tigers defeated the Bearcats 53-46. The all-time record now stands at 21-13 in favor of the Tigers. Memphis also has a rivalry with Louisville. The Tigers lead that series 24-19, but this rivalry has no games scheduled in the future.
The Rebels wasted little time scoring on a trick play 20 seconds into the game. Quincy Adeboyejo took a pitch from quarterback Chad Kelly and then tossed a 68-yard touchdown pass to Laquon Treadwell. Kelly then hit Damore’ea Stringfellow with a 23-yard toss on the next possession to give the Rebels an early 14-0 lead, and seemingly taking the raucous Tigers fans out of the game. The Tigers roared back with 24 unanswered points to take a 24-14 halftime lead. Paxton Lynch was spot on, as he hit Alan Cross and Anthony Miller with short scoring strikes.
Many fans were nervous and wondered if the Tigers could close out the Rebels in the second half. Lynch hit Mose Frazier with a 31-yard touchdown pass, early in the third, to extend the lead to 31-14. It is at the moment that the crowd sensed a victory! The Rebels closed the gap to 31-24 with 16 seconds left in the third quarter on a 24-yard field goal by Gary Wunderlich. That would be all the scoring for the Rebels, as the Tiger defense came up with big play after big play,. The fans rushed the field as the last seconds ticked off the clock. Security quickly guarded the goal posts as the fans went crazy in celebration.
Paxton Lynch seemed to enjoy the celebration saying, “I was hit harder during the celebration than in the game.” The win moved the Tigers to 6-0 for the first time since 1961, and the Tigers are now ranked in both national polls for the first time in team history!