Rivalries are what make college sports. Yes, there are arguments to be made about passion, love of the game, the fans, and tradition, but the rivalries have components present from each of those reasons. As fans of college sports, the passion for the teams we adore is rivaled only by the disdain for those teams we despise. Sports are wonderful because of all the good they can bring, the underdog stories, teaching hard work paying off, the psychology and strategy of the game, the history, the chance to let the rest of the world fall away until the clock hits zero, and the opportunity to pour out all the emotions normally held so tightly under control. The rivalries offer another opportunity though, a chance to pour out the hate and ill will we all feel into another team. No one gets hurt, we are able to continue on as good people in all other times, and we fans can get it out of our system in a way people understand.
These reasons are all part of the reasons we become invested in and enjoy sports, but the rivalries, the big games, are always the ones we love best. Try as they might, professional sports simply cannot stoke their rivalries to the levels of hatred in college sports. Rivalry Weekend, and the various rivalry games throughout the year, are simply the most fun. A huge part of what makes them so special is the history, and that is one of the saddest parts of the recent realignments in college football; the deaths of great rivalries. Texas and Texas A&M, Oklahoma and Nebraska, Nebraska and Colorado, West Virginia and Pitt, Michigan State and Notre Dame, these are just a few of the storied rivalries that we have seen go by the wayside in the last few seasons. Rivalries in college sports are special, and with so many going away, we need to preserve what we have and bring back those games when we have the chance.
This is precisely why Memphis Athletic Director Tom Bowen and Tennessee Athletic Director Phillip Fulmer need to get the University of Memphis and the University of Tennessee competing against each other, every season, in all sports, again. Such good, clean hatred shouldn't go to waste.
Life has seen me live all over the state of Tennessee, growing up in the mountains of East Tennessee, spending a few years living in Memphis in the Western part of the state, and currently residing in Nashville in the Mid-State. The time spent in Memphis opened my eyes to a different portion of the rivalry, and started the wheels turning on reasons the games should come back. There are far more pros than cons for each school all around, and hopefully this reasoning sees the two schools agree to restart the various series.
Both schools would benefit from having nationally televised games in football and men's basketball when they played one another. Bad Memphis and Tennessee teams would at worst be televised on the SEC Network, while had the two teams met on the gridiron during the 2016 season, it would likely have been a matchup ESPN sought out as a primetime game across the nation, a battle of two Top 25 teams. The Memphis football program is currently enjoying the most successful stretch in the history of the program, started by former coach Justin Fuente and now continued by Mike Norvell. The Tigers have beaten some highly ranked opponents in the last four years, including some SEC opponents and UCLA this past season. Jeremy Pruitt even sniped a coach from the Memphis staff in new Wide Receivers' Coach David Johnson. The Tigers are a genuinely good football team, and at various points over the last five seasons, would likely have been favored against the Vols. A game against Memphis would be another quality opponent for the Vols, and a win over Tennessee is always huge for Memphis. In football, these two teams playing each season just makes sense for national exposure.
These two teams playing in basketball makes even more sense than in football. Yes, this would also be a nationally televised game that would be given a lot of attention, even though the Tigers have been a bit down in the last few seasons. Yes, Tennessee is entering the upcoming basketball season as one of the favorites to contend for a National Title. Yes, this is a rivalry that makes sense publicity wise, but none of these are the biggest reason this game needs to come back, or why it would draw national eyes. This game needs to return because in basketball, these two teams flat do not like each other. Sure it was John Calipari and Bruce Pearl at the time, but these two teams hated each other's guts, and it showed on the floor and between the fans. The entire country loves to watch those games, when it is evident that more is on the line, and clear that no one in the building likes anyone in the other color. This is a game that benefits both teams in their RPI, the winner leaves with a quality win, but all that is secondary to how good it feels to knock off a team you loathe. And don't take my word for it, look up interviews of former basketball players from both teams talking about the series. They don't hold back.
Good games, helping strength of schedule, national coverage, and exciting the fans are all well and good, but ADs like Fulmer and Bowen need to feel like they are coming out ahead in reviving this series. They need to be able to look at this arrangement and feel that there is something overwhelmingly positive for their school from this deal. Keeping that in mind, let's take a look first at what the Vols gain from scheduling the Tigers again each season.
In football, Tennessee may actually stand to gain the most from this series coming back, and they can maximize that potential if they played the Tigers at the Liberty Bowl every season, rather than alternating to Neyland Stadium. The reasons for this are manifold, but one of the biggest is this; there is an enormous Tennessee fan base and alumni group in Memphis. Actually, there are a huge number of current UT students. The University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center is located right in the middle of Memphis, with buildings on Union and Madison Avenues. These are parts of UT's Medical, Pharmacy, Dental, Nursing, PT, PA, and Dental Hygenist Programs. That means that along with a huge base of alumni in Memphis, there is a large population of current UT students all over four hundred miles away from Knoxville that almost never get to see the Vols compete. As a result, you see instances like the last matchup in football between the Vols and Tigers, where both teams entered at 2-6, and yet the Liberty Bowl was full and overwhelmingly orange.
Playing the games each year in Memphis allows a large Volunteer fan base an opportunity to see their team, all while turning a rival's home stadium into Neyland Stadium West. That is a powerful show, both to the nation and to recruits, the other reason the Vols need to start playing Memphis in football again. Not to mention, wouldn't you rather see the Vols and Tigers play instead of UTEP, Utah State, Ohio, Southern Miss, or Western Kentucky? No disrespect to those programs, but as a fan, if the Vols have a non conference game outside the Power 5, at least bring in a team there is some animosity with.
Jeremy Pruitt has already taken steps to recruit more in Memphis than the Vols have in a long time. While Memphis may be, “In State,” for Tennessee, high school athletes in Memphis are closer to Arkansas, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Auburn, Alabama, Vanderbilt, LSU, and Missouri than Tennessee, and those are just the SEC schools. While Memphis may reside in Tennessee, the distance has put the Vols at a disadvantage recruiting in the area, a hot bed of talent, for a long time.
By renewing an annual feud with Memphis, and playing in the Bluff City, the Vols would create a regular presence in the city that would feel like a Tennessee home game in most seasons, expose Memphis area recruits to the Vols every year starting at a young age, and allow them to know that once a season they would have an opportunity to play in front of their friends and family. This recruiting boon, the service to West Tennessee fans, adding another quality opponent to the schedule, and helping the Vols show their influence as the flagship University of the entire state of Tennessee should be enough to make football make sense.
In regards to basketball, that series should resume but as a home and home. The fans of both schools despised one another so much during the height of this series that two extremely impressive venues for college basketball, the FedEx Forum and Thompson Boling Arena, need to each play their part in this series. As to why Tennessee should schedule Memphis in basketball, it is pretty simple, the Vols really don't have a multitude of great basketball rivals, and essentially none outside of the SEC. Bringing back the contest against Memphis and stoking the bad blood between the teams should be relatively easy. Both teams have room to adjust a non conference schedule, and both teams have an opportunity to add a quality opponent. As in football, the increased presence should help Tennessee and Rick Barnes recruit the Memphis area in basketball, all while providing another quality opponent for the Vols, particularly if the Tigers return to traditional form on the hardwood under new coach Penny Hardaway. Also, similar to football, wouldn't you rather see the Vols and Tigers in an annual home and home rather than games against even NC State or Wake Forest?
Looking at a renewal of this series for Mike Norvell and his football Tigers, the rewards are obvious. As a team in the AAC, a win over an SEC team is an enormous plus on the resume. The Tigers have a seriously good football team, this season replacing Riley Ferguson, now departed for the NFL, who replaced Paxton Lynch, also in the NFL. Replacing a star QB isn't easy, but the Tigers have already managed it once. If they manage it again Norvell will be at the helm of a team that will contend for the AAC Title again and will likely spend some time in the Top 25 again as well. The Tigers believe they can beat the Vols in football, and are itching for a chance to prove it. A game against Tennessee means the national spotlight for the Tigers, and it also means a full Liberty Bowl, and that revenue is big whether the fans wear blue or orange. All of this pales in comparison to what a win over Tennessee, not just an SEC team, but the Vols specifically, would mean to the Tigers. If there is any doubt of the value such a win holds to the Tiger faithful, simply ask about the 1996 matchup. (Apologies for bringing that up again Vol fans, but it is relevant to the topic.) For Memphis, this would be one of if not the biggest game on their schedule each season, and the hype and exposure surrounding the game would likely help both schools in recruiting.
For Penny Hardaway's Tigers, a matchup with the Vols on the hardwood represents an opportunity to return to form. The Vols under Rick Barnes are currently viewed as one of the favorites to contend for a National Title, and as long as Barnes is the coach for the Vols there will be expectations to make an impact on the national stage. Hardaway is currently trying to rebuild an extremely proud basketball program in a city that lives and breaths Tiger basketball. While everyone around the program feels Hardaway is up to the task, conference realignment has left Memphis with less in the way of rivalries already infused with venom or top tier opponents.
A renewal of hostilities with the Vols would provide the Tigers' new coach with both, as well as serious national exposure. Vol Nation would be well represented in FedEx Forum, but the Tigers would have a clear home court advantage. It would provide Hardaway a showcase game for his team, their fans, and their facilities, as well as a measuring stick game for his team during the rebuild. Furthermore, it gives him a game to circle that his team can work for, can highlight, and pour extra into when they face a hated rival. It would rekindle the fire in the players and the fan base, something Hardaway desperately needs entering his first season.
While this series returning would be a win for both programs in both sports as well as a win for the city and high school athletes of Memphis, the biggest winners would be the fans. Both fan bases want the basketball series to return, and while the Tennessee football fans are a bit divided, the Memphis fans want this football game. As someone who had the opportunity to attend the last Memphis versus Tennessee football game, my friends and I walked from my apartment, up Central Avenue to the Liberty Bowl, I can attest that the game that night was special.
Yes, it was a pair of 2-6 teams, but the stadium was packed with Vol and Tiger fans alike. I saw many Tennessee fans taking their children to their first game, all because they had an opportunity to actually make a game. Many Vol fans in East and Middle Tennessee may take the proximity and ease of attending a game in Knoxville for granted. That was only a situation I shared for a few seasons, but the weight of that game, which happened to be the first for my little sister, was not lost on me. This is a rivalry near to my heart, it is good for the entirety of Vol Nation, and benefits both schools on and off the field. And it is an excuse for some healthy animosity, and to sing Rocky Top at the top of your lungs down Beale Street when the Vols knocked off the then Number One Tigers (I regret nothing). Mr. Bowen, Mr. Fulmer, let's make this happen.