Worth the Wait

For long-suffering Memphis football fans, 2017 has been a 'dream season'

By Don Wade

A true college football fan’s pain is personal because losing extracts a cost. Food doesn’t taste as good. Sleep doesn’t come as easily. The hurt goes to depths that not everyone can understand.

“My wife is an Ole Miss girl,” Memphis Tigers football fan Steve Gross says by way of introduction. “So you know I’ve suffered.”

University of Memphis football players celebrate after the Tigers claimed the AAC West Division title by defeating SMU 66-45 Saturday, Nov. 18, at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. (Memphis News/Houston Cofield)

Gross, 62, has been a fan since he was 9 years old and his dad was taking him to games. Knowing that, maybe you can begin to appreciate where he has been – to hell and back – and what this Tiger football season has meant.

The first game of this historic season was played on Thursday, Aug. 31 vs. Louisiana-Monroe. Long before kickoff, the remnants of a tropical storm brought rain and wind just short of biblical proportions to Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.

But his team was coming off three straight bowl appearances – two under Justin Fuente and one under Mike Norvell. Times had never been this good.

Quarterback Riley Ferguson was back under center. The local walk-on turned record-setting receiver, Anthony Miller, was ready to run under and catch anything Ferguson launched into the air.

Steve Gross, season ticket holder, owns good seats on the 40-yard line behind the Memphis bench.

But could a man potentially drown on the 40-yard line in the stands? It was a fair question. His wife had another: “Are you really going to go sit out in that?”

“Susannah, I sat through a 17-game losing streak,” Gross said, a reference to the back-to-back 1-10 seasons under Rex Dockery in 1981 and 1982. “We beat Arkansas State and tore the goal posts down. So I’m gonna go to this one.”

The Tigers’ historic season began Aug. 31 against Louisiana-Monroe. The remnants of Hurricane Harvey, which devastated Houston, Texas, and portions of Louisiana, came through and brought torrents of rain and gale force winds to Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. But the fans endured it, and Memphis got its first win. (Matthew A. Smith)

The Tigers won that day and kept winning: 7-0 this season at home, 10-2 overall, American Athletic Conference West Division champions, and ranked 17th in the last regular season Associated Press poll. Their only two losses came to UCF in Orlando – a 40-13 whipping on Sept. 30 and a 62-55 double-overtime defeat in the conference championship game on Dec. 2.

“We were in Orlando,” Gross said. “That was a great game.”

That’s how far the program has come, to a place where there is genuine honor in fighting the good fight in a championship game even if coming up just a little short.

Which doesn’t mean there wasn’t pain. There was.

“Of course it hurts,” Ferguson said moments afterward. “We went out there and gave it our all. We left it all on the field and it hurts. If it doesn’t hurt … you need to check yourself because you shouldn’t be playing football.”

That loss meant the Tigers would not play in the Peach Bowl on New Year’s Day in Atlanta. But it also set up more history: Memphis staying home for its first appearance in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl on Saturday, Dec. 30 vs. Iowa State of the Big 12.

“This team has a chance to do something no team in Tiger history has ever done and that’s win 11 games,” Norvell said a week before the game. “To go undefeated at the Liberty Bowl would be pretty special.”

Staying the Course

Ed Sheeler moved to Memphis from New York in 1978. Became a Tiger football fan.

Senior WR Anthony Miller, who will leave Memphis with several receiving records, was named an All-American and has been a force all season. (Memphis News/Houston Cofield)

He waited. And waited. And then waited some more.

“I used to say I wish I could go to one Tiger bowl game before I die,” said Sheeler, 69. “I guess I have to up my expectations.”

After Memphis played in the Pasadena Bowl in 1971, it took 32 years to reach the New Orleans Bowl on Dec. 16, 2003. The Tigers beat North Texas 27-17 that day as quarterback Danny Wimprine ran for one touchdown and passed for another.

The Tigers would play in five bowls in six years under coach Tommy West. DeAngelo Williams, who played from 2002-2005, would rush for 6,026 yards and 55 touchdowns. Wimprine would be the quarterback gold standard until Fuente discovered Paxton Lynch.

But after the 2005 season, Williams, Wimprine and kicker Stephen Gostkowski, who still makes field goals for the New England Patriots, were gone. West held it together until he couldn’t. Fired after the 2009 season, he exited with opinions blazing in his last press conference: If the administration wasn’t going to really put something into this program, he said in less-than-polite terms, then the football future was doomed.

“We beat Ole Miss two years in a row, thought we could starting getting a little better recruits, changed the culture a little bit,” said Wimprine, who now is a vice president in his father-in-law’s commercial sanitation company near New Orleans. “It took a downward turn. I was worried.”

Of course, there had been downward turns before. Much longer ones that tested fans’ resilience.

“Years ago, like everyone else, I was frustrated,” Sheeler said. “My wife (Karen) was actually the one that said, `Either we’re in or we’re out.’ I’m tired of you coming home complaining about the losing.’ She wasn’t going to put up with me acting crazy anymore.”

Many hardcore fans endured years, even decades, of mediocre to bad University of Memphis football teams, so 2017 has been sweet for them. (Memphis News/Houston Cofield)

So they invested when Tiger football stock was low. Ed became an officer in the Highland Hundred. They were such a presence that many of the players started calling Karen “Mom.”

The years came and went and in lean times at the Liberty Bowl, the faithful few still showed up. It was as though they had taken a vow. They were there out of obligation, even as they were empty of hope.

Many of them, even while they cheered for the Tigers, looked for comfort elsewhere. They wanted meaningful football after mid-October, so they kept an SEC team, or maybe a Notre Dame or a USC, on the side.

But not Gross. He was a one-team man. Still is.

The Liberty Bowl and Tiger Lane, after all, are nearby. His team is the hometown team and it’s winning. His coach is good, never attempted to use a garbage can as some wacky symbol like Butch Jones did at Tennessee before he was the one discarded.

And even though rumors were rampant, Mike Norvell didn’t depart for a so-called better job.

All of which leaves Gross with bragging rights when talking to his friends who are Vols fans.

“You guys have to drive six and a half hours for a home game,” he tells them. “And you suck.”


QB Riley Ferguson, leader of this year’s band of Tigers, hugs sophomore running back Darrell Henderson after yet another touchdown. (Memphis News/Houston Cofield)

The season is full of nice memories, including signature victories over UCLA and Navy at home when both teams were ranked in the Top 25.

“We were like, we got to strap up,” Miller said after the 48-45 win over the Bruins. “There’s no way boys from L.A. are going to beat us.”

Wimprine, watching from afar, was amazed at the numbers changing on the scoreboard (the Tigers averaged 47.7 points per game this season, second in the country).

“The offense they have is far superior to what we had,” Wimprine said. “Of course, we had DeAngelo at running back. But we didn’t have receivers like they do now.”

As the season rolled on, Miller broke more records. Kick returner Tony Pollard (Melrose) joined Miller on All-America teams after racing from one end zone to another multiple times.

And the Tigers found ways to win even when it appeared they wouldn’t.

“The Houston game, when we were down 17-0,” Pollard said of his favorite memory, a 42-38 comeback win on the road. “A lot of people had stopped watching the game or had gave up. We came out second half and fought back. I was able to get a good kick return to turn momentum, and we came out with the victory.”

Tight end Joey Magnifico (St. Benedict) also mentioned the Houston game.

Head coach Mike Norvell will return next season with a new contract and promising player commitments. (Matthew A. Smith)

“Something I’ll tell my kids about,” he said.

Defensive coordinator Chris Ball points to plays made, drives the defense halted, and all the Ferguson-Miller hook-ups. But 20 years from now, he knows he’ll focus on more than that. He’s got a soft spot for seniors such as Miller and Ferguson and the senior anchors on his side of the ball: linebacker Genard Avery and DB Jonathan Cook.

“You get so involved in what you’re doing and don’t really have time to enjoy it,” Ball said of the week-in, week-out, grind of trying to go 1-0.

“But you look back and you go, `what a season, what a season.’ To win 10 games, play in the Liberty Bowl – that’s something this school’s never done before. But you’re gonna remember the kids.”

Ed Sheeler likes the image of those kids out on the field after beating SMU 66-45 to clinch the AAC’s West Division title, lifting up the trophy, the band playing. He was also eager for the opportunity to play Iowa State, the snub from the Big 12 as the league explored expansion, still fresh.

“Here’s a little taste of what you missed,” Sheeler said, looking ahead to the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.

Steve Gross, of course, will be there. Probably four or five hours before kickoff. He’ll tailgate on Tiger Lane – “the place to be,” he’ll tell you – and then he’ll go inside what once was a house of horrors and now is the playground for an offensive juggernaut that went undefeated on its home turf in the regular season.

He’ll sit next to the Ole Miss girl that is his wife. Probably see a friend or two that flies Tennessee orange – you know, when the timing is right – and he’ll settle in for one last game of Tiger football.

He’ll have a smile on his face at kickoff and he says that smile won’t fade no matter the final score. For in 2017, college football’s world order – at least in this little corner of the world – flipped.

“All my buddies are Tennessee fans,” he said. “She’s Ole Miss. It’s been a dream season.”