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VOL. 10 | NO. 4 | Saturday, January 21, 2017

College Football Bowl Scene Changes, But AutoZone Liberty Bowl Endures

By Don Wade

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Step inside the East Memphis offices of the AutoZone Liberty Bowl and the 58-year history of the game is captured in long, mirrored display cases featuring the helmets of every team to play in the game – from the simple crimson-and-white helmet of Alabama to the golden dome of Notre Dame.

Georgia coach Kirby Smart and players celebrate after winning the 58th annual AutoZone Liberty Bowl, 31-23, over TCU on Dec. 30.

(Photo courtesy of Bill Wright)

“It’s a nice collection,” said AutoZone Liberty Bowl executive director Steve Ehrhart, and he opens up the case and hands a visitor a black-and-gold helmet from the University of Missouri, which last played in the game in 1980.

The helmet is light to the touch, especially compared to a modern purple-and-white TCU helmet; the Horned Frogs played in the 2016 game and the helmet feels about as heavy as a bowling ball.

“That’s why guys are always taking them off whenever they get to the sideline,” Ehrhart said.

Helmet technology is just one change since the first Liberty Bowl was played on Dec. 19, 1959, in Philadelphia. Penn State, with a young assistant coach named Joe Paterno, defeated Alabama 7-0, and the losing coach was Bear Bryant. Twenty-three later at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, Bryant would coach his last college game as his boys sent him out a 21-15 winner over Illinois in the 1982 Liberty Bowl.

When the Liberty Bowl moved to Memphis in 1965, college football had nine bowl games and they all had simple names – Cotton, Rose and Sugar, Bluebonnet, Liberty and Tangerine.

The 2016 college football season had 40 bowls, and various websites had fun ranking them. Spoiler: The Raycom Media Camellia Bowl didn’t score well in any of them.

Last April, the NCAA approved a three-year moratorium on new bowl games. Even so, cities are angling. Chicago, for instance, wants a bowl game in Wrigley Field.

“I hope it stays forever,” Ehrhart said of the temporary new bowl ban. “Cities are thirsting because it’s new dollars. It’s more valuable than conventions because fans are here to celebrate and spend dollars and have some fun.”

Ehrhart says they figure the local annual economic impact of the AutoZone Liberty Bowl to range from $20 million to $25 million. A recent national study of all bowl games placed the impact at around $40 million for the “average” bowl game – something greater than the Raycom Media Camellia Bowl but less than the national championship game.

In any case, Ehrhart says each year they have a five-fold mission: First, showcase Memphis; second, make an economic impact; then create events Memphians can enjoy with pride; maintain the bowl’s historic and patriotic theme; and continually build on the partnership to benefit St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

Although the last AutoZone Liberty Bowl was just played on Dec. 30, plans are underway for the next one. The plans, however, have to be rather fluid because Ehrhart does not know the date or the time of the game yet. He only knows that it likely will be played somewhere in the Dec. 27-30 window – after Christmas and before the national semifinals on Monday, Jan. 1.

Ehrhart just got back from the national championship game site in Tampa, Fla., where he attended meetings with other bowl directors and television partners. The TV partners essentially boil down to four letters.

“Except for two bowls, ESPN either owns or distributes the rest of the bowls,” he said.

Complicating next season’s bowl schedule: The NFL’s last regular season games of 2017 will be played on Sunday, Dec. 31. And the Cotton, Fiesta and Orange Bowls, which are out of the playoff rotation in the upcoming season, will be played on Saturday. Dec. 30.

That likely leaves the preceding weekdays for the next tier of bowls.

“Twenty-four years ago, we tried to go head to head with an NFL playoff game – Jim Kelly and Buffalo against Dan Marino and the Dolphins – and we got crushed,” Ehrhart said. “So it’s like 40 different bowls all arm wrestling to get primo time.”

Even so, there are some things that Ehrhart knows will be part of the AutoZone Liberty Bowl experience. Each year, a major musical act or entertainer is honored and typically performs at the President’s Gala Dinner/Dance and at halftime. Last year, it was the Commodores.

“We’re one of the few bowls that still has that major halftime spectacular,” he said.

Then there’s the annual parade, a fashion show, rodeo, prayer breakfast, and player and coaches luncheon. And for the last 15 years, there has been the Annual High School All-Star Football Game, whose alumni list includes East High School’s Dan Williams, who went on to play at Tennessee and is a defensive tackle with the Oakland Raiders; and Dontari Poe, who played at Wooddale and for the University of Memphis and is now a 346-pound nose tackle for the Kansas City Chiefs when not making the nightly highlight shows by throwing Tim Tebow-like jump passes for touchdowns.

Ole Miss kicker Gary Wunderlich (MUS) played in the 2013 game and Christian Brothers wide receiver Anthony Miller played in the 2012 game. You now know Miller as Tiger quarterback Riley Ferguson’s favorite target and a holder of several Memphis receiving records.

The game has proven to be a showcase, especially for players previously overlooked. On national signing day in 2013, a record 46 players from the previous all-star game signed national letters of intent. It is one of Ehrhart’s favorite things about what the AutoZone Liberty Bowl festival of events has become.

“Anthony Miller played in our game, didn’t have any offers,” Ehrhart said. “He was catching everything and Memphis gave him a walk-on deal. Now, he’s their best player.”

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