Let's talk about failures. Let's talk about professional sports
in Memphis. All kinds of teams have gone through Elvisville. You
remember the Memphis Tams of the American Basketball
Association. (With a name like Tam--for Tennessee, Arkansas,
Mississippi--who could forget? But then the team was also known,
in the latter part of its five-year existence, as the Sounds.)
In the neon World Football League there were the Memphis
Southmen/Grizzlies. Then there were the Memphis Showboats of
United States Football League fame. Within the last three years
the Memphis Mad Dogs of the Canadian Football League, the
Memphis Fire of the U.S. Basketball League and the Memphis
Pharaohs of the Arena Football League all came to town--and
left. Simply put, the track record in Memphis isn't good.
So it was hardly surprising when a measly 30,171 people showed
up at Memphis's dowdy old Liberty Bowl on Sunday to watch the
Tennessee (ne Houston) Oilers, the state's first NFL team, eke
out a 24-21 overtime defeat of the Oakland Raiders, who also
know a thing or two about baggage handling. For weeks before the
game all indications were that this debut would have been better
made elsewhere. In Memphis, which likes to think of itself as a
mini-New Orleans, it was hard to spot a single Oilers banner
downtown. "I heard there's a team coming," said a worker at
Graceland, Helen Amisano, in an all-too-familiar refrain, "but I
can't think of its name for the life of me."
It's the Oilers, Helen.
"Oh--are you sure?"
Quite sure. Though Memphis is the home of the Elvis Presley fly
swatter ($1.99 at the Memories of Elvis emporium), its
inhabitants aren't stupid. They know when they're being used.
Oilers owner Bud Adams and his team are here because it's an
inexpensive place to play home games until 1999, when Nashville
completes construction of a 65,000-seat state-of-the-art stadium.
Though they will spend eight weekends in Memphis this fall, the
Oilers still train, practice and reside 210 miles to the east,
in Nashville. "Memphis?" running back Eddie George said last
week, before making the first plane trip across the state. "I
went to Graceland once as a kid--real weird. Some pretty ugly
rooms. Other than that...."
Who could blame the Memphis citizenry for being gun-shy about
its latest pro team? As the Oilers took the field on Sunday,
they received as many boos as they did cheers. But by the time
George had run his team to a 10-0 halftime lead, crowd sentiment
was beginning to shift in the Oilers' favor.
Alas, Oakland rallied to tie the game at 21 with 22 seconds to
play, when quarterback Jeff George connected on a scoring pass
to wideout Tim Brown for the third time, this one covering 16
yards. The game went into overtime, and the fans rooting for the
Raiders went into overdrive. But Eddie George continued to wow
the spectators, who couldn't help but appreciate that, with 216
yards on 35 carries, he had tied Billy Cannon's 36-year-old
single-game team rushing record. When Al Del Greco hit a
game-winning 33-yard field goal on Tennessee's second OT
possession, the cheers weren't deafening, but they were
undeniably loud. "Memphis showed today that it'll get behind
us," Oilers Pro Bowl safety Blaine Bishop said after the game.
"Winning brings fans. I think they'll come more as we succeed
Fine. But what about fan interest in Nashville? The city that
for 18 months did whatever it could to woo the Oilers--holding
dozens of rallies, placing banners in windows all over town,
hosting celeb golf classics and putting on a massive drive to
sell personal seat licenses--seemingly has lost interest. As in
Memphis, there are virtually no indications downtown that the
Oilers exist. Before the season, people weren't talking about
the team. Two preseason games were played at Vanderbilt, but
only 24,722 and 21,407 fans turned out. "Down the line this city
will support us," veteran offensive lineman Kevin Donnalley says
of Nashville. "I know they're into their sports here. But we're
new, and like anything, it takes time. We're trying."
Not that the Oilers haven't contributed to their image problem.
Ever since Adams announced on June 12 that he was going to end
the team's 37-year affiliation with Houston and head for the
Volunteer State, he and his staff have been perfecting the
off-field fumblerooskie. The team logo, which was unveiled that
day, has an upside-down Tennessee state flag on it. Early on,
Adams announced that he would hold a statewide contest to come
up with a new team name. Visions of Outlaws, Guitar Pickers,
Rebas and more came to mind, but the competition never took
place. Citizens who wanted tickets to Oilers games were put off
by having to wait interminably to talk to uninformed sales people.
Adams has already complained that the Oilers' new 11-acre
training site, built as part of his deal for reduced stadium
rent, in the Nashville suburb of Bellevue is too small and will
have to be replaced (presumably at the taxpayers' expense). He
couldn't have picked a better way to renew the greedy-owner
sentiment that arose during last year's citywide referendum on
the new stadium.
Most of the Oilers have come to accept, if not embrace, the
Music City. Donnalley has bought a house in Nashville, Del Greco
likes the town, and cornerback Anthony Dorsett has found a gig
on the side, hosting a radio show every Tuesday night during the
season at Planet Hollywood.
But if the Oilers run off three more wins in a row, though, if
George piles up a few more 200-yard games, they might not have
to be Nashville's club or Memphis's loaner at all. They might
truly be Tennessee's team.
COLOR PHOTO: PATRICK MURPHY-RACEY High-stepping Eddie George wowed his new fans with 216 rushing yards, tying a franchise record. [Eddie George in game]
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO In Memphis, a city known for its pro sports busts, the small turnout at the Liberty Bowl was no surprise. [Sparse crowd watching Tennessee Oilers and Oakland Raiders in game]