The tweet came about half an hour after the Miami Beach Bowl ended in thrilling, violent fashion. Clay Travis, a Nashville based sports personality, writer and college football analyst, expressed sarcastically what most followers of college football, and certainly those in SEC country, were probably thinking as they watched or heard about the end of Memphis’ first Bowl win since 2005:
Totally expected BYU to brawl. But really expected better from Memphis.
Obviously the structure of Travis’ sarcasm was to flip Memphis and BYU and play on stereotypes. The stereotypes, however, are not of the programs themselves. They are of the cultures within which the respective programs exist. After all, prior to this season and maybe even prior to today Memphis football’s reputation on a national level was one of ineptitude built over decades of irrelevance and reinforced strongly by the humiliating performances of the Larry Porter era. If there’s one thing that Memphis football wasn’t known for over the past decade it’s fighting.
No, Travis’ comment wasn’t about Memphis the football program, it was about Memphis the city. And about Mormons, but let’s not worry about that right now. It clearly reflected what Nashvillians, East Tennesseans, and followers of SEC programs throughout the region think of Memphis, Tennessee: violent, unsafe, rough, not worth visiting. Go to Memphis, get beat up. Go to Memphis, get hurt. Go to Memphis, be wary. That’s what Travis was saying. Clearly.
But don’t attack Travis, he was just taking an easy shot. A shot that all SEC fans, and certainly non-Memphis based Tennesseans love to take when given the opportunity. And he was doing the Memphis program a favor.
Because to that, Memphis head coach Justin Fuente should say the following:
Yes, you’re exactly right. We’re Memphians. We’re of Memphis and from Memphis and proud of it.
And guess what? We’ll happily fight you too.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that Fuente should publicly condone fighting. I’m also not suggesting that Memphis has bad kids. I’m sure Memphis and BYU both have great kids. I’m simply suggesting that this brawl was great for Memphis Football. And spare me a lecture on sportsmanship and class. There’s a time and place for sportsmanship and class – and it wasn’t today in Miami. This whole football game was a brawl and it just happened to continue after Memphis won the game. You don’t go from 3-9 to 10-3 without a serious fight – and that mentality obviously couldn’t be turned off 2 seconds after the game clinching, and season ending, interception. In the heat of that moment, that conclusion, that comeback, a brawl makes perfect sense. It had to happen.
This brawl – and Clay Travis’ comment – were about the bigger picture. Fuente’s ultimate objective is to build an American Athletic Conference program that can be competitive in the shadow of Clay Travis’ mighty, mighty SEC. You don’t narrow that chasm being nice and backing down. You don’t narrow it by winning sportsmanship awards. You do it by taking on bigger teams and being tougher and maybe drawing a little blood if you need to. After all, as Tom Brady once said, “this is football, not tiddlywinks.” Indeed.
This was about a national TV audience on a Monday before Christmas watching a team fight, win, and then fight some more. This was about next October 15 (2015) at the Liberty Bowl, and building the kind of football program that can be physically competitive with Ole Miss on that coming day. And this was about delivering a performance that can attract the kind of recruits that will elevate a program the same way Fuente’s former program (TCU) was elevated – as an underdog with less resources, but more tenacity and discipline and greater willingness to wound and be wounded.
Travis’ insult, no doubt echoed on message boards and Twitter feeds of fan bases throughout SEC country, and the fight that inspired it were both perfect branding for this program on this day. So was the game itself, and if it got overshadowed in the name of added emphasis on the core message – that Memphis Football has a program, that it’s dangerous and ready to fight – then so be it. Maybe that’s a good thing.