Faith and Football

Memphis fans hopeful as new season finally dawns

DON WADE | Special to The Daily News

The four men had parked themselves in lawn chairs under a tent outside Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium on a Saturday with no Tigers football game. Yes, there was Fan Fest and soon enough a “mock game” would begin inside the stadium as Tiger players ran around in helmets, jerseys and shorts.

Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium is ready for the 2013 University of Memphis football season. The team’s faithful are ready, even if there are likely to be plenty of ups and downs in the season. 

(Daily News/Andrew Breig)

In their tailgating spot on Tiger Lane, the men had the fan’s sustenance of life: hot dogs, chips, beer and hope – not necessarily in that order. One of the men, Pat Fogerty, 63, volunteered that he even enjoys driving past on the nearby parkway just to catch sight of the huge, sombrero-shaped stadium that has housed so many disappointing seasons.

“It’s uplifting to me,” he said.

Three of the men have had season tickets for decades. None of them – and maybe this is the most amazing part – graduated from the University of Memphis. All of them grew up here and they have chosen to back Memphis’ college football team as at least one part civic duty in the face of relentless criticism from their SEC-loving friends, who call Tiger football “low-budget” and “second-class” and “Tiger High” and other things not fit for public consumption.

But this is not a gloom-and-doom story. Not this time. There are good vibes heading into Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. kickoff here against Duke and the start of Justin Fuente’s second season as coach. Fuente, a former assistant at Texas Christian University, has fans believing better days lie ahead.

“Everybody loves the coach,” Terry Oldham, 59, said.

Plus, it just feels like a season of change. The school has left behind Conference USA and will compete in the new American Athletic Conference. Second-year athletic director Tom Bowen might not have the fast draw with a handshake that predecessor R.C. Johnson did, but he does seem serious about making the Memphis football experience better.

Consider: Bowen sent out a congratulatory letter to the school’s recent graduates. The letter read, in part, “This is a tremendous accomplishment of which you should be very proud. With this in mind, I would like to extend a gift to you on behalf of the Memphis Athletic Department. In recognition of your academic achievements and commitment to the University of Memphis, we would like to offer you two season tickets for the 2013 Memphis Tigers football season.”

Oldham believes it is anything but an empty gesture.

“It means a lot,” he said of Bowen’s ticket offer and making other improvements, including making it possible for fans buying tickets on game day to be able to pay with a credit card at any ticket window; stadium suites also have undergone long-overdue remodeling.

“A lot of alumni don’t come because nobody ever asked them to come,” Oldham continued. “It’s a breath of fresh air.”

Said Fuente: “As far as Tom and what he and his staff are doing for our program, for this community, I can’t say enough. It’s obvious that they have made it an emphasis to do things the right way. We’ve got a lot of things to fix both on and off the field, but every day we’re fighting the battle to go get it done the right way.”

Oldham and his friends still have their concerns, of course. A week before game day the grass around Tiger Lane was freshly cut and looking fine. But how will it look in another three weeks? Will the stadium bathrooms have enough towels? It’s hard to imagine Bowen not making sure such basic things get covered, but these were real issues under the previous administration.

Overall, however, the diehards are encouraged. While reaching a bowl game is not likely, it’s not impossible.

“6-6 would be fantastic,” said Phil Moore, 69, knowing that six wins is the magic number.

Inside the stadium, the mock game underway, cheerleaders jumped up and down and yelled “T-I-G-E-R-S – Tigers!” as the team played the one game it was guaranteed to win. The Tigers were, after all, 4-8 last season and will be facing tougher competition this year. But players are encouraged about what’s possible and running back Brandon Hayes’ message to fans is simple: “Just give us a shot.”

And a little time, the coach might add.

“There’s nothing I want more than to get off to a great start, but I’m not going to put that on my young team,” Fuente said. “We’re not ready for that. … But yeah, there’s nothing I’d like more than for those people that have been there through so many tough times to get some reward.”