VOL. 131 | NO. 259 | Thursday, December 29, 2016
New Coaches Highlight Past Year in Memphis Sports
By Don Wade
As always, you can categorize the sports year by the wins and losses. By the Grizzlies making a sixth straight playoff appearance and by the University of Memphis football team going to a third consecutive bowl game. And by the Big 12 eliminating U of M from the expansion process before the league ditched the idea altogether.
Also, by the passing of beloved sports contributors.
The 2016 sports year was, overall, one of great change. New coaches led the Grizzlies and the Memphis football and basketball teams. The FedEx St. Jude Classic was played under a new director, and late in the year the Memphis Redbirds hired a new manager who might, or might not, do a backflip before his first game in 2017.
While Memphis football’s Mike Norvell and the Grizzlies’ David Fizdale were getting the first head coaching gigs of their careers, the basketball team welcomed a future Hall-of-Famer with a national championship on his resume: Tubby Smith.
Tubby Smith hopes to return the University of Memphis Tigers basketball team to relevance after several disappointing seasons.
(Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)
When Smith was introduced at an April press conference, U of M president M. David Rudd called it a “historic hire” for the school and said Smith was the “most accomplished coach” to lead the program. Smith succeeded Josh Pastner, who after leading the team to four straight NCAA appearances, could not get back to the postseason the last two years as the community engaged in collective angst over those seasons and millions of dollars remaining on Pastner’s contract.
But when Pastner left for Georgia Tech that freed the university to hire Smith. And provided more incentive for the team’s best player, forward Dedric Lawson, to return. So far in the early going of the 2016-17 season, Lawson had been a double-double machine and Smith’s team had proven to be well-schooled in the fundamentals and willing to play hard for 40 minutes despite a thin roster. Early signature victory: in overtime at Oklahoma on Dec. 17.
Fizdale, a former Miami Heat assistant, came in after the Grizzlies and Dave Joerger parted ways and in the wake of a frustrating season in which the Grizzlies had used an NBA-record 28 players; that season has been filed under Forgettable.
In the 2016-17 season, the new coach has been open – even blunt – with both players and media, a truth-teller not heard around here since Hubie Brown. The Grizzlies were 19-12 through Dec. 22 and already had played many games without point guard Mike Conley, $94 million free agent signee Chandler Parsons, and power forward Zach Randolph.
Fizdale also has turned center Marc Gasol loose to shoot threes and he was hitting them at a clip well over 40 percent. The Grizzlies even shocked the Golden State Warriors, who were at full-strength, with a 110-89 victory on Dec. 10 at FedExForum.
David Fizdale’s first NBA head coaching job is here in Memphis, and the Grizzlies have responded well to his candor and leadership.
(Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)
“It’s a regular season game, I don’t want to make too big of a deal out of it,” Fizdale said. “All I wanted them to understand is that what I’m saying to them aren’t just words, and what we are working on isn’t just motions. It’s actions and it’s real.”
Norvell was hired in 2015, but this was his first season on the sideline and his work made for a smooth transition from Justin Fuente (who did well at Virginia Tech, by the way) as the Tigers went 8-5 and defeated a then-ranked Houston team at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in the last regular season game.
The coach brought in Riley Ferguson (once at Tennessee) to succeed Paxton Lynch (drafted by the Denver Broncos), and Ferguson flourished. He set a new school record for passing touchdowns, and his favorite target, wide receiver Anthony Miller, set a new school record for TD catches.
In fact, the biggest loss for Memphis football this season didn’t come on the field. A member of the American Athletic Conference, Memphis hoped to jump to a Power Five league. But the circus that was the Big 12 expansion process resulted in Memphis being booted from the tent early, and then only for the league not to expand at all.
“We like the American,” Tigers running back Doroland Dorceus said. “They’re North American, so it’s fine.”
As for the summer sports, the FESJC was run under new director Darrell Smith and he admitted: “It was special for me because it was my first year as tournament director. It’ll always be a tournament I remember.”
It was also special for the leaderboard on the last day. Daniel Berger won the event by three strokes over Brooks Koepka, Phil Mickelson and Steve Stricker. Dustin Johnson, who shot a 63 in his last round and was eventually named 2016 PGA Tour Player of the Year, finished fifth. Johnson won the tournament in 2012.
Fans have to love the St. Louis Cardinals’ selection of Stubby Clapp as new manager of the Memphis Redbirds. Clapp, who did pregame backflips, is one of the franchise’s most popular players.
(Courtesy of Memphis Redbirds)
The Redbirds upped their profile after the season when the parent St. Louis Cardinals tabbed former Redbirds second baseman and fan favorite Stubby Clapp to lead the team in 2017 after Mike Shildt was promoted to a coaching position in St. Louis.
Clapp, who made a name for himself as a scrappy player who did pregame backflips, says when he first takes that lineup card to home plate it will “be surreal; it’s coming full circle.”
Kei Nishikori made history at the city’s annual pro tennis tournament in February when he won the Memphis Open a fourth straight time. The sports year started on Jan. 2 with the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. Arkansas defeated Kansas State before a sellout crowd and in one of the most-watched non-New Year’s bowl games of the season.
But the year was not without some sadness as several well-known local sports contributors passed away. Among them: longtime FESJC tournament director Phil Cannon; former St. Louis Cardinal and Christian Brothers High School graduate Phil Gagliano; journalist and sports talk radio pioneer George Lapides; former U of M basketball coach Bob Vanatta; former Tigers quarterback Billy Fletcher; and Phillip Spain, former football coach and until his death in December, the athletic director at First Assembly Christian School.
Each made a huge impact in their own way. Lapides was remembered as an ambassador who had a hand in the Redbirds moving from Louisville to Memphis, the building of AutoZone Park, and by extension, the Grizzlies’ move from Vancouver to Memphis.
“He made Memphis sports what it is,” said Pastner, who was a close friend and leaned on Lapides for advice during his tenure here. “He’s the guy. What Elvis Presley did, that’s what he did.”