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VOL. 125 | NO. 173 | Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Fan Friendly

Tiger Lane rejuvenates Liberty Bowl’s football festivities

By Bill Dries

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(Click to view larger) This panoramic image shows construction on Tiger Lane, left, which is west of Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium at the Mid-South Fairgrounds. The $15 million project will create approximately 600 tailgating spaces and new entrance roads onto the property. Fans attending the University of Memphis, Southern Heritage Classic and AutoZone Liberty Bowl football games will have access to Tiger Lane, which is nearly complete.
Photos: Lance Murphey

The Mid-South Fairgrounds may be the most unlikely landscape for a civic project that has succeeded in catching the eye of skeptical Memphians.

But it isn’t the architectural renderings of water-colored citizens strolling in the glow of a possible future that has our attention. It’s what Memphians don’t see when they drive by the fairgrounds that has their attention.

Land from the East Parkway stone monuments to the west wall of Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium has been cleared of most of its buildings, leaving only the landmarks of the football stadium and the adjacent Mid-South Coliseum.

University of Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson remembers hearing from a casual Tiger fan who looked around the fairgrounds site, saw the construction work and told Johnson, “Boy, the stadium looks great. What did you do to it?”

The short answer: crews have cleared about 400 yards of buildings and barns for a better view of the stadium and a tailgating area called Tiger Lane.

The three tenants of the 45-year-old city owned stadium – the Southern Heritage Classic, the University of Memphis and the AutoZone Liberty Bowl – are watching and hoping the $15 million government improvement project is completed by Sept. 11, the date of the Southern Heritage Classic.

“I think it will be more fan friendly and also more family friendly. You won’t have to worry about a kid throwing a football and hitting someone’s car. It will be a lot nicer.”

– Tom Fristick, President, Highland Hundred

The tailgating spaces on either side of Tiger Lane open that day at 8 a.m., 10 hours before kickoff between Tennessee State University and Jackson State University.

Two hours later, the Classic Parade from Orange Mound to the fairgrounds gets underway. And the following Saturday, Sept. 18, the U of M plays its home opener against Middle Tennessee State University.

The greenspace of Tiger Lane will be open for picnics, with lawn chairs and blankets welcome. On each side of the greenspace are 546 tailgating plots that are being sold by each of the three tenants under differing terms.

The plots are 10-by-20-foot concrete rectangles, in which the tailgaters’ vehicles and trailers must fit. There is another 10-by-10-foot grass pad next to it and a 20-amp electrical connection.

Parking on the lawn or grass pad is prohibited. So are “tiki torches” and open flames. Tents cannot be staked into the grass or drilled into the asphalt. Grills are limited to the concrete pad and no dumping charcoal on the lawn or under vehicles.

The spaces go for $25 each in the case of the Southern Heritage Classic. They are $165 with tickets to the game for the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. And the U of M offers them for $150, which reserves the space for all six home games.

The Ambassadors Club – the U of M’s top donors – got the spots nearest the Liberty Bowl. The Highland Hundred group got about two-thirds of the slots.

There is no tailgating in the general parking areas during the Southern Heritage Classic, but there is for Tiger football and the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.

Highland Hundred president Tom Fristick expects the boundaries between the tailgating spaces and the open part of the lawn to be blurred, resulting in chance invitations, networking and informal gathering before the U of M games.

“Instead of just having you on an asphalt parking lot or concrete where it is in a lot of other places … I think it will be more fan friendly and also more family friendly,” Fristick said. “You won’t have to worry about a kid throwing a football and hitting someone’s car. It will be a lot nicer.”

Public space

Antonio Miller, from left, Terance Crawford and Sammy Grigsby of West Memphis Fence & Construction work on a fence surrounding a new fountain area at Tiger Lane.

Ask Classic founder Fred Jones Jr. what he thinks of the project and his response will be, “I can tell you that on Sept. 12. The main question I get everywhere I go is, ‘Are they going to be finished?’”

It’s a valid question. Government-funded and planned construction projects costing less than the $15 million being spent on Tiger Lane usually take at least 18 months.

Tom Marshall, the architect overseeing the planning and a former City Council member said he can’t remember a 90-day project of this magnitude being on time and within budget.

Marshall insists all but a few trimmings will be ready. The new roads into the site from East Parkway and Hollywood are the last tasks for the construction crews before the season kicks off.

“You’re going to see everything done short of the fountain and the ticket towers by the Southern Heritage Classic game,” Marshall said. The towers will feature not only admission to the site but space to sell merchandise as well.

Jones doesn’t offer false assurances. “As we get closer to it, if we have to make some contingency plans, we’ll see,” he said recently in an office where his staff was busy preparing for the 21st annual Classic.

Jones already had a meeting earlier that day with city officials ironing out some details. “We are preparing right now as if everything is gong to be done. … We have not explored a Plan B at this point.” The emphasis was on “at this point.”

As for Johnson, he has visited the construction site every day even though he admits there is nothing he can do.

“There’s going to be issues. There’s going to be problems. So let’s just get geared up for it,” he said. “It’s all brand new. Let’s just be prepared for it. No sense getting angry and don’t get uptight.”

The Trio of Tenants

Southern Heritage Classic
The Sept. 11 game is the 21st Southern Heritage Classic. Fred Jones founded the series in 1990 capitalizing on the large number of Tennessee State University and Jackson State University alums in the Memphis region. The first game drew 39,579.
All the games have featured Tennessee State; all but two have featured Jackson State. The 1991 game featured Mississippi Valley State University, while the 1993 game featured Grambling State University.
But since 1994, it’s been all JSU and TSU. Following that year, attendance never dipped below 43,000 except 2001, when the game was held two months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and drew 28,690. Average attendance since has been 56,000.

University of Memphis
The most prominent tenant of Tiger Lane is University of Memphis football. The program’s six-game home schedule begins Sept. 18 with Middle Tennessee State University and ends Nov. 27 with the University of Central Florida.
Four of the six home games will be televised. The team has a new coach, Larry Porter, after the stormy exit last season of Tommy West, who complained about inadequate facilities for the team.
Attendance for the six Tiger home games in the 2009 season averaged 25,795.

AutoZone Liberty Bowl
The Liberty Bowl game has been around since 1959. It began in Philadelphia and had a brief stay in Atlantic City before moving to Memphis in 1965.
The stadium was only a few months old when Ole Miss played Auburn in the bowl game’s Memphis debut. The event, which has had various conference alliances and sponsors over the years, benefits St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
For the last 10 years, the AutoZone Liberty Bowl has had an average attendance of 58,042.

Growing four football fields worth of grass that the public is encouraged to walk on doesn’t happen overnight. There will inevitably be sod squares visible as there were in the bluff area when AutoZone Park, the city’s most recent sports venue with no roof, opened 10 years ago.

Some of the first features to be tested by the elements will be the entrance wall and open area nearest the stadium, which were among areas added for better drainage in wet weather.

Jones spotted a problem two weeks before his event. No one had written into the plan that he could simply park cars on the space that used to be Libertyland, the section of land that still has most of the trees it had when it was an amusement park. The rest of the park is history. And an extension of Young Avenue across East Parkway is to run through the land with four parking pads to the sides of it.

“It’s at the discretion of the tenant how that area is going to be utilized,” Jones said. “In my case, it will all be used for general parking.”

That doesn’t mean the “general tailgating” allowed in the general parking areas in the other two sets of rules.

Each of the three major tenants has different rules. The Southern Heritage Classic permits no tailgating outside of the Tiger Lane spaces. The U of M and the AutoZone Liberty Bowl will also use the Libertyland area for parking but will have tents in part of the area as well as access to the two buildings bordering that part of the fairgrounds – the Creative Arts and Pipkin buildings.

Improved ambiance

The Liberty Bowl game, benefiting St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, has had teams from all over the country bringing with them family members and fan bases that have resulted in a lot of first impressions over the decades.

It hasn’t always been a good impression, admitted the bowl’s executive director Steve Ehrhardt.

“When we had people wandering through the cattle barns and barbed wire and all of that, it made for such a difficult experience around the game and getting access to the stadium,” he said referring to the now razed barn areas once used for livestock competitions in the old Mid-South Fair. “It drug the stadium down. The ambience of the surrounding area was so difficult.”

But Ehrhardt and the other tenants had found a way to work with the problems and were wary of a complete wipe of the fairgrounds property.

The two buildings left standing near Libertyland are essential to the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. Frigid weather and the event – traditionally held in late December but now a few days into the New Year – are synonymous.

The game had hosted an annual brunch on game day in the Arena Building for the families of the players. The building had tin siding and several enormous fans on one end but it was reasonably warm, water tight, had a concrete floor and it was big enough and close enough to the stadium.

So when the initial plans for Tiger Lane called for demolishing it and every other building aside from the Mid-South Coliseum, which was too big and off limits because of handicapped access problems, Ehrhardt was concerned.

The Arena Building, the nearest building to the Liberty Bowl in the planned Tiger Lane corridor, came down in the compromise. There will be tents in the wooded area as well as tents on the Tiger Lane greenspace itself for the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.

“We will actually have VIP tents with floors and heat and bars inside, inside the Tiger Lane,” Ehrhardt said. “I don’t think people realized that Tiger Lane is four football fields long by a football field wide. It’s huge.”

The AutoZone Liberty Bowl will sell a tent for 20 featuring fully catered barbecue meals and tickets to the game at $3,500 each. There’s a smaller tent package deal for 10 that goes for $1,850.

Tailgating in its broadest definition is serious business for all three of the football tenants.

“In today’s day and age in college football, the opportunity to get back together with friends from college or families to have an opportunity pre game as well as post game – that’s so important to the entire experience,” Ehrhardt said.

“At the Rose Bowl, tailgating and the parking area is on the golf course that adjoins the Rose Bowl.”

Johnson has a different priority when touting Tiger Lane’s impact on the U of M.

“Everything we do one way or another, directly or indirectly, has to do with recruiting. I mean it just does. That’s the world we live in,” he said. “The atmosphere we’re going to have … is going to have such a huge impact on the recruits and the parents that bring the recruits to games.”

Jones described his organization as built on the proposition that “the devil is in the details.”

“Particularly with this, they are taking the buildings down. You park in a different place. You tailgate in a different place. You have to enter in a different place. All of those things have to be our major consideration,” Jones said.

“We have to keep in mind how this will affect the fans coming to the game. They don’t know either. This is all new to everybody who has ever been to the Liberty Bowl stadium and the fairgrounds. This is a whole new experience.”

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