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VOL. 132 | NO. 242 | Thursday, December 7, 2017

Worth the Wait

Memphis Tigers in AutoZone Liberty Bowl for first time

By Don Wade

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Just since 1995, the University of Southern California has stayed home to play in the Rose Bowl more than a half-dozen times. Steve Ehrhart, executive director of the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, couldn’t help but look at that with a bit of envy.

Memphis Tigers seniors, left to right, DB Jonathan Cook, OL Gabe Kuhn, QB Riley Ferguson, WR Phil Mayhue and DL Christian Johnson pose with their 2017 Liberty Bowl shirts. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

“For 25 years, we’ve had the Liberty Bowl Alliance and hoped every three or four years we’d get Memphis in the game and it never happened,” Ehrhart said. “We were always angling – with Conference USA, the Big East for a while, and finally all the pieces came together.”

The agreement with the American Athletic Conference allowed the AutoZone Liberty Bowl to take Memphis if it wasn’t the conference champion, which this year was ticketed for a New Year’s Six bowl. So when Memphis (10-2) lost to UCF in double-overtime in the league title game, that opened the way for the Tigers’ first AutoZone Liberty Bowl appearance in this the 59th year of the game.

The Tigers, who were 20th in the College Football Playoffs rankings, will play Iowa State from the Big 12 on Dec. 30. Kickoff is at 11:30 a.m. and the game will be carried nationally by ABC-TV.

Players typically like vacation-type destinations for bowl games. But senior defensive end Christian Johnson (Southwind High School) grew up here, even went to the bowl game a couple of years ago.

“To get to play my last game in Memphis, in the Liberty Bowl, I think it’ll be pretty special,” Johnson said.

So, too, for alumni with a vested interest in the game and the city. Mayor Jim Strickland attended the University of Memphis from 1982-1985. The Tigers won 14 total games in those four seasons and had only one winning year, a 6-4-1 mark in 1983 under Rex Dockery. The ’82 team went 1-10.

“Obviously, we didn’t go to a bowl,” said Strickland, who did go to the New Orleans Bowl in 2003, the program’s first bowl trip since the Pasadena Bowl in 1971. “It was just tough.”

Now, the Tigers are going to their record fourth straight bowl and second under coach Mike Norvell. Worries that Norvell may not stick around for the bowl and take a job at a Power 5 school ended this week when the coach signed a new five-year contract worth $13 million.

The AutoZone Liberty Bowl also ranks as the most prestigious bowl in the program’s history.

“For us and our program this is a milestone,” said athletic director Tom Bowen.

University of Memphis Athletic Director Tom Bowen speaks to media about how proud he is of the Tigers football team for making it to the Liberty Bowl this season. It is the Tigers’ first appearance in the Liberty Bowl, now in its 59th year. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

With the Tigers in the game, a sell-out is a very realistic possibility. The U of M is encouraging fans to buy tickets through their office. For ticket information go to www.gotigersgo.com. For full details on the game and game week, including tickets, go to www.libertybowl.org.

The game also represents a chance to reach those Memphis Tigers football fans who haven’t made attending the AutoZone Liberty Bowl a habit, or haven’t been to the game in many years.

Or, even if they have been to the game, perhaps they were not aware of all the associated activities around the game. Strickland said he was in that group until he became mayor.

“There’s a whole world going on that most Memphians don’t know,” he said. “The parade on Beale Street, The Gala, all these great events leading up to the game.”

In addition, Kevin Kane, president of the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau, said this is an opportunity to reach out to alumni beyond the city.

“Probably haven’t been to a University of Memphis football game in many years,” Kane said. “You can kill multiple birds with one stone. And we’ll be working with the alumni association to make those extra invites.”

The downside to having Memphis in the game is large numbers of fans from only one of the participating teams will be coming in from out of town. Ehrhart says economic impact in recent years typically has exceeded $20 million.

“We may lose a little bit on the hotel side,” Kane said. “But if you get an Ole Miss or Mississippi State (the game in recent years has always had an SEC team), a lot of those fans drive in and drive out the day of the game.

“When you put all that in the hopper, I don’t think it’s a big loss economically not having two out-of-town teams here. A lot of things will balance themselves out.”

Iowa State played in the game five years ago. Ehrhart recalls ISU’s fans taking over Beale Street, which bodes well for having a large travel party from the school.

“They (Cyclones) haven’t been in a bowl game in five years and they’ve beat two top-five teams this year,” he said. “Their fans have been pent up for five years and they signed their coach (Matt Campbell) to a big new contract. They may be the best as far as travel.”

And having the Memphis Tigers in the game?

Well, it’s what Ehrhart had been waiting for all this time.

“I hope we don’t have to go another 59 years,” he said.

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