Ever since Memphis fielded its first football team on Oct. 5. 1912, the Tigers have
refused to back down from anyone. The U of M has generated national champions and
record-setting athletes while knitting a closer than usual relationship with the city.
By Greg Russell
Very little divides Tiger Nation when it comes to Memphis sports, but one topic
generates plenty of discussion amongst the ranks: What was the greatest moment in
University of Memphis sports history?
“It has to be the 1972-73 basketball team’s march to the NCAA championship game against
UCLA and Bill Walton,” says Phil Stukenborg (BA ’79), longtime Commercial Appeal sports writer. “The team did so much to unify a city that had been torn apart by
the Martin Luther King assassination five years earlier. There were the ‘Believe in
Memphis’ signs that multiplied in the stands. There was the positive national attention
the community attracted as an improbable Tiger team moved to the finals. And there
was the Memphis duo of Larry Finch and Ronnie Robinson, two prep standouts from nearby
Melrose High, leading not only the basketball team, but the city’s healing process.”
Jack Eaton, radio “voice of the Tigers” from 1959 to 1987, agrees. “No doubt in my
mind it was playing in the ’73 national championship game. Everybody in Memphis stayed
home to watch the title game. Even the burglars stayed home to watch — there were
only two burglaries in the city that night! There were so many fans at the airport
when the team returned home after one of the games, some fans had to stand on top
of a car to catch a glimpse of them. They crushed that car! That’s how popular that
WMC-TV sports anchor Jarvis Greer (BA ’79) looks to a crisp November night in 1996
when Tiger fans tore down goalposts. “The 1996 victory over Tennessee at the Liberty
Bowl when Memphis was a 27 or 28 point underdog and the Tigers won the game in the
final minutes was huge. Of course, the 1973 and 2008 national championship games were
monumental and the first time we beat Ole Miss in football in 1967, which gave legitimacy
to the football program, was big,” Greer says.
The Memphis Daily News managing editor Eric Smith, a former U of M publications writer, sees it this way:
“The moment Anfernee ‘Penny’ Hardaway signed with the U of M is to me the most important
in Tiger history. The decision by Hardaway, a contemporary of mine and in most people’s
opinion the most gifted player to ever come out of Memphis, gave the city hope for
the future as one of its favorite sons chose to stay home. It energized a new generation
of fans and sparked a new era of national prominence for the University’s flagship
athletic program — its basketball team.”
So what was the top moment? Was it Memphis’ magical run to the NCAA title game in
1973? Perhaps the 1963 football season or DeAngelo’s race for the Heisman?
As a way to detail the history of Tiger athletics, we’ve combed through our old yearbooks,
magazines, media clippings and athletic media guides to come up with 50 of the most
memorable events in U of M sports history. The list certainly is not definitive —
we look at all Tiger sports — and if you feel we have left one out, email editor Greg
Russell at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 678-3811 and we’ll include your “top
moment” in an upcoming issue.
50. Schuh goes missing. Memphis tackle Harry Schuh was chosen as the overall No. 2 pick in the 1965 American
Football League draft by Oakland, but not before a national headline-making game of
hide-and-seek. In the competition for the top college players, the Raiders of the
AFL “hid” Schuh from the rival Los Angeles Rams of the NFL by sneaking him out of
a hotel in Las Vegas (with Raiders’ owner Al Davis as a decoy) and flying him to Hawaii.
“I was known as the player who disappeared from school,” Schuh recalls. The Los Angeles Times offered up a “Boo Hoo, I Lost My Schuh” headline the day after he signed with the
Raiders. Only Joe Namath went higher in the draft.
49. First female to compete on a men’s team, ever. With few schools offering women’s tennis, Bonnie Dondeville Farley garnered national
publicity in the early 1960s when she tried out for and made the Tiger men’s tennis
team. She went undefeated with doubles partner Ken Lewis two straight years as the
No. 1 doubles team at Memphis. She won the singles title in the No. 5 spot at the
Men’s Tennessee Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Championships in 1963.
48. Tigers race a true legend. Tiger distance runners John Mohundro and Calvin Johnson competed against distance
running icon Steve Prefontaine at the 1971 NCAA Cross Country Championships in Knoxville.
“He was so far ahead of me, I didn’t see him again until I got back to the hotel lobby,
and he had already changed into his street clothes,” says Mohundro.
47. O’Brien nets a first for Tiger soccer. Former Evangelical Christian School star Dayton O’Brien became the first All-America
selection in U of M soccer history after leading the Tigers to a 16-4-1 record and
second-ever NCAA berth after the 2004 season.
46. Gostkowski boots his way to record. Tiger kicker Stephen Gostkowski nailed a school-record 53-yard field goal against
Marshall and finished his senior season in 2005 with three 50-yarders to help him
to the top of the Memphis career chart in field goals (70 of 92) and total points
(369). He is now the most accurate field goal kicker in New England Patriots’ history.
45. Tigers top the “other” Tigers. The 1975 football team with Richard Williamson at the helm pulled off one of the decade’s
biggest shockers by upsetting No. 7 Auburn 31-20 at Auburn. Memphis made it two straight
wins the following season as Auburn alumni lobbied to take Memphis off the schedule.
44. Memphis in a basketball shutout? The Tigers opened a February 1989 contest with No. 8 Louisville at Freedom Hall on
an unprecedented 24-0 run with Elliot Perry knocking in 13 of the 24. Memphis had
to hold on late for a 72-67 win.
43. National magazine calls Tiger quarterback “best back in the South.” With James Earl Wright leading the nation in total offensive yards through the first
five games of the 1961 season, Time magazine spotlighted the Tiger quarterback in an Oct. 27, 1961, article that featured
Alabama’s Paul (Bear) Bryant saying, “Wright is too good to be coached by anyone but
me.” Time went on to say, “With Wright running the attack Memphis State might be a match on
any given Saturday for any team in the U.S.”
42. Tigers travel to California for 1991 shocker. Memphis garnered a piece in The New York Times by pulling off one of the biggest upsets of the 1991 season, a 21-10 victory over
No. 16 Southern Cal. “I don’t think USC was ready to play us,” said wide receiver
Russell Jones, whose 40-yard touchdown catch from Keith Benton in the third quarter
tied the score. “What they know is that we only play basketball.”
41. 1912, a gridiron first. Less than a month after the inaugural day of classes at the school, Memphis players
suited up for their first-ever football game on Oct. 5, 1912, at Red Elm Park (later
Russwood Park). The Normals or Blue and Gray Warriors, as the team was called, played
to a 0-0 draw against Memphis University School.
40. First win in 35 years? Memphis women’s basketball with new coach Mary Lou Johns returned to competition
in 1972 after a 35-year layoff with a 83-27 win over Jackson State Community College.
Women’s sports, except for intramurals, had been discontinued in 1937.
39. Chamberlain delivers an ace two years in a row. Phil Chamberlain won the singles championship and was a part of the title-winning
doubles team at the Metro Conference tennis tourney in 1975. The Australian native
would repeat the feat in 1976.
38. Tiger baseball finds “no place like home.” Memphis’ 1981 baseball team posted a sparkling 32-1 home record en route to a 48-11-1
overall mark, including victories over Notre Dame and Tennessee.
37. Handball begins lengthy title run. The Tigers and coach Charlie Mazzone won the first of eight straight U.S. Handball
Association’s national collegiate titles in 1986 with Jeff Cottam winning six national
titles during the stretch: three singles and three doubles championships. Memphis
won its first title in 1977 with Mike Lloyd capturing the first of his two individual
36. Golf team at home plate? On the baseball diamond, Terry Pressgrove had a flair for the dramatic. His best moment
came in the 1978 Metro Conference tournament title game against Florida State in Tallahassee.
With the Tigers trailing 9-7 with two outs in the bottom of the ninth and runners
on first and second, Pressgrove drilled a 2-2 pitch over the right field fence for
the win and automatic NCAA tournament berth. Memphis’ tennis and golf teams, also
in Tallahassee, somehow made their way to home plate and jumped in the pile of celebrating
players as Pressgrove crossed the plate. “Their fans always treated us like bad-guy
wrestlers coming to town,” former coach Bobby Kilpatrick says of the intense rivalry.
Seminole fans pelted the Memphis faithful with gravel after another game, and a “terrible
brawl” broke out during a 1981 nationally televised contest.
35. 1957 hoops team thwarts Louisville. Was it the true arrival of Tiger basketball? Memphis upset No. 3 Louisville 81-78
at Ellis Auditorium in downtown Memphis. The Tigers were ranked No. 16 following the
win over the Cards, and three nights later the team upset No. 20 Western Kentucky
86-84 at the Elma Roane Fieldhouse.
34. Tigers go bowling and say goodbye to “Spook.” The Tigers dominated San Jose State 28-9 in the 1971 Pasadena Bowl in California.
The game would mark Billy J. “Spook” Murphy’s final contest as a head coach.
33. Tiger soccer earns first post-season berth. The Tigers upset national soccer powerhouse Saint Louis 1-0 with a late goal by Bernard
Licari in the 1993 Great Midwest Conference men’s soccer championship at Echles Field
to earn the program’s first NCAA tournament appearance. Current Tiger women’s coach
Brooks Monaghan was tournament defensive MVP.
32. Wright captures national title, sets world record. Terron Wright won the national title in the 60-yard high hurdles in 7.14 seconds at
the 1981 NCAA track and field championships. He also ran the 300-yard dash in 29.27
seconds, an indoor world record that still stands.
31. Women begin unprecedented NCAA basketball streak. Memphis began the first of their school-record four straight NCAA tourney appearances
with a heart-stopping 74-72 win over Southern Cal behind future WNBA star Latonya
Johnson’s 15 points in a March 17, 1993, contest.
30. Hume breaks 4-minute barrier. Scotland native Colin Hume ran Memphis’ first and only sub 4-minute mile, a 3:59.58,
during the 1983 indoor season.
29. Basketball takes first national title. The U of M men’s basketball team topped South Carolina 72-62 behind DeJuan Wagner
to win the 2002 NIT championship.
28. Booker ends stellar career. Betty Booker finished her Tiger career (1976-80) with 20 of 32 individual school records
including most career points, 2,835, a mark that still stands. She was inducted into
the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame in 2005.
27. Zurcher’s swing nets batting title. Memphis infielder Chad Zurcher captured the 2011 NCAA national batting title with
a .443 average, the first Tiger to do so.
26. Tigers storm the Big Easy to end dry spell. The nation’s longest bowl drought ended in a big way for Memphis. The Tigers, not
in a bowl since 1971, defeated North Texas 27-17 behind Danny Wimprine’s 254 yards
passing in the 2003 New Orleans Bowl to complete a 9-4 record.
25. Finch sets single-game mark. With what Larry Kenon calls the “purest shot ever,” Larry Finch set the all-time
single-game scoring record for the Tigers with 48 points during a 112-92 win over
St. Joseph’s on Jan. 20, 1973. The mark still stands.
24. Allison honored as nation’s best kicker. Junior Joe Allison connected on 23 of 25 field goal attempts to win the inaugural
Lou Groza Award in 1992, given to the nation’s top kicker.
23. Baird wins world free throw title. At the World Free Throw Championships held in Charleston, S.C., in spring of 1928,
Ellen Baird won the world title in a playoff by hitting 60 out of 60 free throws,
the first of three straight such titles.
22. Whitmore captures scoring title on last day of season. Tamika Whitmore led the nation in scoring her senior season in 1999 with a 26.3 points-per-game
average and was named to several first-team All-America lists. Whitmore would go on
to enjoy one of the most successful pro careers of any Tiger, playing 11 seasons in
the WNBA, including an all-star season in 2006.
21. Little’s feat looms large. All-American Mark Little broke six single-season marks in leading the Tigers to a
record 52 wins and a berth in the NCAA baseball regional finals in 1994. Little still
holds the school mark for hits (104) and runs scored (93), and his .424 career batting
average is still a modern-day school record.
20. Tidmore shoots her way to NCAA title. Beth Tidmore scored the U of M’s first NCAA championship ring since 1981 and first
for a female when she won the air rifle division at the NCAA championships in 2005.
19. That perfect season. Skeeter Ellis rambled 82 yards for the game-winning touchdown to give the Tigers an
8-0 victory over Delta State and its first and only perfect season, 10-0, in 1938.
The team turned down an invitation to play San Jose State in the Prune Bowl in California
when bowl officials wouldn’t guarantee travel expenses. “We were all ready to go.
We had won 10 and we figured we could have won one more,” said team member Douglas
18. Last minute goal sends women’s soccer to fourth straight title. Junior Melissa Smith’s goal with 55 seconds left in the 2010 C-USA women’s soccer
championship gave the Tigers a dramatic 1-0 win over Central Florida and its fourth
straight NCAA tournament appearance. It was also the team’s fourth straight C-USA
title. The NCAA streak ties the second longest by a Memphis team in any sport.
17. Casinelli finishes tops in two NCAA categories. Senior fullback Dave Casinelli finished the 1963 season as the NCAA leader in rushing
and scoring. He ran for 1,016 yards and scored 84 points, and is the only Tiger back
to win both titles in one season.
16. Huge rally catapults Tigers to 1973 finals. Larry Finch called it his favorite game ever. Memphis stormed back from a 49-40 halftime
deficit to beat Providence 98-85 in the NCAA semifinals behind Larry Kenon’s 28 points
and 22 rebounds. Memphis outscored the No. 4 Friars 13-1 in the game’s final minutes.
The wild post-game celebration included singer Isaac Hayes and then-governor Winfield
15. Bowlan hurls perfect game. Frayser High School product Mark Bowlan tossed the only perfect game in Memphis baseball
history in a 1987 contest against Louisville, a 13-0 rout.
14. Tigers finish just short in 1957 NIT. Tournament MVP Win Wilfong scored 31 points in an 84-83 loss to Bradley in the 1957
NIT championship game at Madison Square Garden. Memphis students had piled into five
chartered buses for the 17-hour ride to New York City to watch the game. Despite the
loss, 2,000 fans, including Elvis Presley, greeted the team when it arrived back in
13. Women’s team shocks Ole Miss for Sweet 16 appearance. Linda McKinnie scored 22 points and Kim Duppins added 21 as Memphis defeated the
Rebels 72-70 during March Madness in 1982 in the first round of the NCAA tournament
in Memphis. The Tigers finished with a 26-5 mark and was the sixth-highest scoring
team in the nation. Duppins, McKinnie and Metro Conference MVP Regina Street all would
have their jerseys retired, joining Betty Booker and Linda Street as the only Tigers
with the honor.
12. Race for the Heisman. DeAngelo Williams became Memphis’ first legitimate threat to win the Heisman Trophy
during the 2005 season. His 7,573 career all-purpose yards and 34 100-yard rushing
games are still NCAA records. He ran for 200-yards or more nine times in his career,
including a school-record 263 yards against South Florida in 2004. He ranks fourth
on the all-time NCAA career rushing list.
11. Fast on his feet means two national titles. “Ed Hammonds was a runner who could blow others away — our best ever sprinter,” legendary
track coach Glenn Hays says. Hammonds did have a way of coming through, winning two
national titles at the 1973 NCAA outdoor track and field championships in Baton Rouge.
Hammonds ran the 100-yard dash in 9.4 seconds for his first gold medal then teamed
with Maurice Knight, Lynn Fox and Everet Taylor to give the Tigers a championship
in the 440-yard relays (39.6 seconds). The performance helped the Tigers to an overall
eighth-place tie with Texas, still the highest finish of any Memphis track team.
10. Roberts wins third national title. Andy Roberts won the 1987 U.S. Racquetball Intercollegiate National Singles Championship
for the third time in four years while the Tigers won their 12th straight national
team title under Larry Liles (they would eventually win 14 straight). Roberts lost
only one match in his four-year collegiate career. The U.S. Olympic Committee named
him “Athlete of the Year” four straight years beginning in 1988.
9. Tigers claw way to second Final Four. Keith Lee and Andre Turner guided the Tigers to a then-best 31-3 record and second-ever
Final Four appearance in Lexington, Ky., in 1985. Memphis lost 52-45 to eventual champion
Villanova in the semifinals. Four of the five starters — Lee, Turner, Vincent Askew
and William Bedford — found their way to the NBA.
8. Robbins putts way to school’s first national title. Hillman Robbins took the college golf scene by storm by winning the 1954 NCAA golf
championship, the first national title in school history. Robbins later won the 1957
U.S. Amateur Championship.
7. A “Penny” for your thoughts. Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway was named a finalist for both the 1993 Naismith College
Player of the Year Award and the John R. Wooden Award that are given annually to college
basketball’s most outstanding player. He became Memphis’ highest-ever drafted player
when he was chosen No. 3 overall in the 1993 draft. He later won a gold medal with
the 1996 U.S. Olympic team.
6. Memphis’ best football team? Memphis fielded what many consider its best team ever as it rolled to a 9-0-1 record
and a No. 14 ranking at season’s end under head coach Billy J. Murphy in 1963. A scoreless
tie with No. 2 Ole Miss was the only thing standing between them and a perfect season.
Memphis also recorded wins over Mississippi State, South Carolina, Houston, Louisville
and Tulsa. Murphy was named The Football News national coach of the year.
5. The house that Roane built. The University’s fieldhouse was named the Elma Roane Fieldhouse in 1994 in honor of
Roane, who was a U of M athlete, coach, professor and administrator for 45 years.
She played in three national softball championships from 1937-1939 at Soldier’s Field
in Chicago and she was also a champion badminton player. Roane was credited on a national
scale for helping women’s athletics regain stature in the 1980s. “She was fighting
for women’s athletics when it wasn’t fashionable or popular,” former President V.
Lane Rawlins said.
4. Tigers tame Rebels 27-17. It was certainly the Tigers’ biggest victory to date as Memphis beat Ole Miss for
the first time ever in football before 50,414 fans at the Liberty Bowl on Sept. 23,
3. Tigers have national title in grasp, but … Future NBA MVP Derrick Rose led Memphis back to the Final Four in 2008, this time
in San Antonio, but the Tigers fell to Kansas 75-68 in overtime in the title game.
Memphis led by nine points with 1:55 remaining in regulation, but a 3-pointer by Mario
Chalmers with two seconds left sent the game into overtime. “Ten seconds to go, we’re
thinking we’re national champs, all of a sudden a kid makes a shot, and we’re not,”
former coach John Calipari said. The Tigers finished the season with a 38-2 mark,
a college basketball single-season record for wins, and were ranked No. 1 for five
2. Tigers topple Vols 21-17. The Tigers, a 27-point underdog, upset No. 6 Tennessee in dramatic fashion on national
TV at Liberty Bowl Stadium in November of 1996 for Memphis’ first win over the Vols.
A local TV analyst had predicted the only way the Tigers could beat Tennessee was
“if the Vols missed the team bus.” But Chris Powers hauled in Qadry Anderson’s 3-yard
touchdown pass with 34 seconds remaining in the game to complete an improbable 69-yard
drive for a 21-17 lead. The Vols seemingly had taken control of the game after kicker
Jeff Hall booted a field goal for a 17-14 margin with 6:01 remaining. Defensive back
Duron Sutton said containing Heisman candidate Peyton Manning was the key. “We gave
him looks he had never seen. We were baiting him on the corners and bailing out. We
had his mind confused.”
1. Meet me in St. Louis. Coach Gene Bartow’s Tigers with Larry Finch, Ronnie Robinson and Larry Kenon leading
the way took the city on a wild ride en route to reaching the NCAA title game in St.
Louis 1973. It was the first Final Four in Memphis history and a run that united a
racially torn city. Memphis closed the first half of the title game on an 8-2 run
to knot the score at 39-39, but UCLA, winners of 74 straight games and six straight
NCAA titles, rode Bill Walton’s 21 of 22 shooting to top the Tigers 87-66. Robinson
summed up Tiger fans’ feelings: “That final game sent chills through me. I can remember
the night before the game having butterflies. I remember saying to myself, ‘This is
my moment to be No. 1.’”