Conference Call

Moving to the Big East is a big win for the University of Memphis.

You can spin some bad-news stories into good news. And you can spin some good-news stories into bad news. But there’s no way to see the story of the University of Memphis getting into the Big East Conference as anything but good news for the university, its teams and fans, and the city of Memphis. 

Within a day of the announcement in February, I was in touch with super-booster Harold Byrd, FedEx CEO Fred Smith, Fogelman College of Business Dean Rajiv Grover, and former U of M journalism teacher and long-time Washington, D.C., resident Bob Levey. They get around, and some of them have had their differences with the U of M athletic department over facilities and personnel. But in this case, all of them were as delighted as the crowd that gave athletic director R.C. Johnson a standing ovation when he announced, “By golly, we did it.”

Smith noted that the Tiger basketball team will be playing in Madison Square Garden and other big-time arenas, and that will make sponsorships more attractive to major corporations who wouldn’t give Conference USA cities a second look.

Byrd is one of the Tigers’ biggest fans but a critic of the administration for not pushing for an on-campus stadium. For now at least, that issue is forgotten. 

“The university is now a BCS school on the ‘inside.’ It is in a much, much stronger position going forward regardless of what happens in the future with BCS conference changes,” he says. 

Grover, whose previous stops in academia include a Big East member, the University of Pittsburgh, likes the challenge. 

“Good for us,” he says. “Now we have to deliver. I like that. We will be forced to get our act together.”

Levey, former columnist and sportswriter for The Washington Post who covered basketball back in the day, called it “huge news.”

I agree. My rooting interest in the Tigers waned when they diluted the basketball schedule and stopped playing Louisville, Cincinnati, and other schools from the old Metro Conference. And the football team simply had no chance when the opposition was UAB or Arkansas State in the Liberty Bowl and a Big Ten or Southeastern Conference game was playing on the big screen in my living room. Not that Memphis beat either of those teams last year. Memphis could well lose to Boise State in a couple of years, but that’s a hot team right now and, along with thousands of other casual fans, I would pay to see them. 

Stronger schedules should keep the near-sellouts coming at FedExForum for basketball and boost football attendance to over 30,000 a game at the 62,000-seat Liberty Bowl. And that would make Tiger Lane look more like a good investment instead of an eight-days-a-year tailgating area for a few thousand die-hards. 

"By golly we did it!"

Memphis has done a good job with academics for athletes, raising the GPA to a 3.19, according to the university. But it’s no secret that Tiger basketball thrived on one-and-dones like Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans and graduates of private-school basketball “academies.” Football gets the SEC leftovers, junior-college transfers, and an occasional diamond like DeAngelo Williams. The Big East affiliation should make it easier to recruit better athletes and better students. 

And one part of the story that has not received much attention is the minor sports in which Memphis already holds its own with the best in the nation. Earlier this year, the Tiger men’s tennis team beat the University of Tennessee in a thrilling come-from-behind 4-3 match.

The name “Big East” needs some work with San Diego State and Boise State in the fold, but so do “Big Ten” and “Pac Ten” in the day of the super-conferences. 

Memphians will happily take some geographic confusion for the sake of stronger competition, bigger crowds, and better games. Bring on Boise State. Who’d have thought it? 

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