Sunday, February 12, 2012

Oh Happy Day

Another football season is in the books. Eli was great in the Superbowl and a Manning for all seasons, and Madonna showed that the only thing flatter than her abs, is her voice. Plus, the actual game was exciting. Not the most exciting I've ever seen, however. That distinction would go to the game between Memphis State and Mississippi State at Crump Stadium, Oct. 26, 1963, back when they still used leather helmets. The previous year, the Tigers had claimed Mississippi State as their first victory ever over an SEC team, and the Bulldogs were looking for payback. Memphis State was quarterbacked by Russell Vollmer, who was among my first boyhood heroes. I was in junior high when Vollmer starred in football and basketball for Central. Although I cheered for East, my big sister dated a benchwarmer on the Warriors basketball team, and I sometimes ventured onto enemy turf to watch Vollmer play. Consequently, I was excited when Vollmer announced he would play football at Memphis State, especially since my parents had season tickets since the dawning of mankind.

The Tigers already had a spectacular season going. A month earlier they had battled Ole Miss, ranked #2 in the nation, to a 0-0 tie in a game that still stands as a milestone in Memphis football. When the Bulldogs and their cowbell ringing fans came to town, Memphis had the #3 ranked defense in the country. Vollmer started the game with a 70 yard punt return before Memphis' Justin Canale kicked a 39 yard field goal for the Bulldogs. Vollmer returned the kickoff and was running out of bounds. In Crump Stadium, the locker rooms were located under the stands and the players reached the field by walking up a steep set of concrete stairs, which was protected on the surface by a steel railing. As Vollmer ran out of bounds, he received a late hit, or shove, which sent him careening toward the Bulldog bench, which he vaulted, then hitting the protective railing at full gallop, Vollmer flipped heels over head and plunged ten feet onto the concrete steps below. The capacity crowd of 31,650 was stunned silent as medical personnel ran to tend to the motionless Vollmer. After an excruciating wait, Vollmer was carried up the stairs on a stretcher and placed into an ambulance waiting to race him to nearby Methodist Hospital. It appeared as if his injuries were going to be extensive.

With Vollmer gone, the Bulldogs pulled ahead to take a 10-9 lead at halftime. The fans' mood was somber as the second half began with the star quarterback in the emergency room, and no word yet about his condition. In the third quarter, it was beginning to look like the Tigers' dream season might be over, when suddenly, ascending the stairs from the dressing room came Russell Vollmer. It had been loud at Crump Stadium before, but nothing like this. As Vollmer trotted around the field to the Memphis State side, section after section of Tiger fans went delirious. The air was electric when Coach Billy "Spook" Murphy said to Vollmer, "Do you hear that? Now get out there and let's win this game." Vollmer led the team on a final, 70 yard drive, culminating in a touchdown run by fullback Dave Casinelli, giving Memphis State the win, 17-10. The Tigers finished the season 9-0-1 but turned down an invitation from the Sun Bowl, hoping for a call from the Gator Bowl, which unfortunately never came. Casinelli led the NCAA in rushing and scoring, and unheralded Memphis State, shunned by the major conferences, rose as high as #15 in the national rankings. Russell Vollmer ascended to that high place of esteem reserved for all-time Tiger heroes.

There's been nothing like that magical season when a combination of hometown stars, like Vollmer, John Fred Robilio, and John "The Bull" Bramlett, along with some key recruits like Casinelli and Harry Shuh, went undefeated in front of a packed stadium for every game. However, there's something new in the air, and regardless of recent frustrations, I'm beginning to think that sort of passion for Tiger football is once again within our grasp. I've been walking on a cloud ever since it was announced that Memphis would be joining the Big East Conference in all sports for the 2013 season. I'm rapturous over the return of our traditional basketball rivals, along with some of the most fabled programs in college hoops. But this is a stellar chance for Tiger football. New head coach Justin Fuente needs the football equivalent of a "Larry Finch moment," when a couple of bona-fide hometown star athletes, like Melrose's Finch and Ronnie Robinson, decided to stay home to play their college ball. With admission to the Big East, Fuente can now offer a local, blue-chip recruit that might want to stay and play in front of his friends and family, the chance to play big-time football. Suddenly all things are possible. Sink or swim, the Tigers are in the big leagues now.

For long-time Tiger basketball fans, this is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Since 1976, Memphis has not been in a conference that wasn't of our own invention. We've had more conferences than COGIC. Joining the Big East is like finally being called up to the majors. When the news broke in the middle of the night, I woke my wife singing choruses of  "Walking On Sunshine," by Katrina & the Waves. Memphis need no longer be the Rodney Dangerfield of college sports. Jaded northeastern fans say it's not the same Big East since Syracuse, West Virginia, and Pittsburgh are leaving. To paraphrase CeeLo Green, "Forget them." Syracuse is the powerhouse basketball program Memphis is replacing, and we don't need to play those other teams in football yet anyway. Under a bigger spotlight and with major media coverage, perhaps some of our players that might have jumped to the NBA will consider returning to have some fun and raise their profiles. (Hear that, Barton brothers)? The renewal of the rivalry with Louisville is gravy. Like most Tiger supporters, I hate their city, their school, their fans, and their team - but I love their coach. I never thought I'd say this, but, "Thank you, Rick Pitino." And while we're expressing gratitude, thank you, R.C. Johnson. I couldn't have imagined a better going away present. And it's a helluva lot better than the one left us by that greaseball Calipari.


Husky said...

just woke up. Is Memphis in the Big East? Holy lizards!!
I think we have seen the last of Jim Calhoun. And this other Big East team that had such vast potential has now foundered into a Kemba-less funk that has screwed up everything including the weather.
But, the Big East and Madison Square and duels with the ACC and Big Ten will be all the better with the addition of the fabled Memphis franchise.
Who can forget St Bonaventure, Manhattan, Bradley, and all those 1950s NIT teams to which Memphis was a legitimate and essential piece.
From Collinsville, CT, I welcome Memphis and we'll just see what we do to Syracuse and Pittsburgh in the years to come. Yes, indeedie.

Anonymous said...

So now your thanking the Honorable Coach Rick Pitino. He's already screwed us once before when he left C USA along with Cincinnati & Marquette. Is this the same Rick Pitino who was vindicated for having intercourse with his assistant coach's wife on a pocket pool table. Hope he got the ball in the right hole! The assistant lost his job and his wife. Pitino filed suit against the lady and now she's do'in hard-time in the Big House. Right Randy, thank you Coach Pitino for helping us.
Remember, he who serves his-self first may not be there when you need him. He'll bolt from this league soon enough, he wants us to bolster his position (temporarily).
So here it is with Rick: Screwed us once before, maybe twice before its all over. Got rid of his assistant coach and then had the mistress sent to jail.
Welcome to the Big League! At least we're on higher ground.

Anonymous said...

I believe that you are right about one thing and that is that by joining the Big East it may help Memphis to recruit actual football players. I hope that your optimism is warranted, but it will take some patience. Memphis is likely to get their asses kicked by stepping up to a tougher conference, at least initially. The basketball Tigers should hold their own in any conference. Memphis has always been the real deal when it comes to basketball. Now the games should be more exciting.

Father Farken said...

Randy! Thanks for beating the bass drum for The Tigers. I was @ that '63 game as well. My brother Ernie was on that team but 3 concussions kept him out of the game... wrapping ankles instead. You brought a tear to my eye mentioning Justin Canale. Justin died last did his brother Whitt (who played @ Tenn) a month earlier. Sure miss them.

May G*d bless Memphis as they pick up this challenge to win it all in The Big East! Thanks for a great article & thanks for mentioning John Fred-my Patron Saint Of Crunch! The Peace Of The L:ord! FFF

Randolph Haspel said...

Thank you, Good Padre. Your stamp of approval is better than Good Housekeeping. What a helluva game. Bob Weymouth and I were talking about James Earl Wright, and I wondered if he ever had his shirts monogrammed...

Voice Crying In The Wilderness said...

The Canale family is a testimony to the uprightness and strength of character that devout Catholics who honor the authority and the teaching of the Church can produce. They are a dying breed seeing as how about 90% of modern Catholics largely ignore Church authority and teaching and do pretty much whatever pleases themselves. Devotion and obedience to Truth is what made the old-time Catholics like the Canale's so spiritually strong. They tapped into the Reality that the Church has carried and safeguarded throughout the ages for the salvation and upliftment of mankind.