MARK GIANNOTTO

Memphis fans can't control conference realignment. Might as well enjoy the tailgate | Giannotto

Mark Giannotto
Memphis Commercial Appeal
Fans tailgate on Tiger Lane before the Friday Night Stripes Memphis Tigers football spring game at the Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium on Friday, April 16, 2021.

Perhaps Tobey Park can provide perspective. Or at least a temporary reprieve.

If only Memphis football fans had as much sway over conference realignment as they do arbitrary tailgating edicts. Then the thorny issue of whether Memphis belongs in the Big 12 would get solved in short order.

Just like the latest salvo in the parking shortage around Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium created by the city’s ambitious Liberty Park project. 

The latest reports of the Big 12 favoring BYU, Cincinnati, UCF and Houston in its quest to expand would turn into reports about the desire to keep the status quo in the American Athletic Conference. The focus would again turn to who’s under center when Memphis begins the 2021 college football season against Nicholls State on Saturday night.

But none of that is in your control at this point.

Memphis has tried valiantly to improve its lot, from pouring resources into the football program to improving its academic profile to showing passion for its major athletics programs that are virtually unmatched among its peer institutions. The school has done everything it could over the past decade but build an on-campus stadium (and Houston, UCF and Cincinnati all have one). 

Memphis' Jacobi Francis (32) looks to wrap up Cincinnati's Wilson Huber (82) as he rushes the ball Friday, Nov. 29, 2019, during a game at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in Memphis.

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This is now in the hands of over-fed college administrators and television executives. This is about hoping the AAC sticks together, for the sake of football and men's basketball. If that fails, maybe the College Football Playoff still expands to 12 teams. 

So for now, just enjoy the tailgate you helped save. What better way to digest the past 24 hours or so, when the city did an about-face on the parking situation at Tobey Park and the Big 12 took another step toward survival after the loss of Oklahoma and Texas to the SEC?  

Given the chance to discuss how the palace intrigue of conference realignment could leave Memphis behind in a weakened AAC, or what coach Ryan Silverfield’s indecision at quarterback might mean for the program, or what the return of tailgating might mean for the fans, isn’t the choice obvious?

It’s the beer and the burgers. It’s the community that will once again come together — some for the first time since 2019 — by the power of football. It’s the part of this sport everyone missed last year, the sincerity and scenery that made us fall in love before everybody was so aware of the slimy and subversive nature of the money-grabbing industry overseeing it all. 

Greg Lloyd seasons some chicken quarters as he tailgates on Tiger Lane before the Friday Night Stripes Memphis Tigers football spring game at the Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium on Friday, April 16, 2021.

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It’s the passionate people supporting Memphis football and the Southern Heritage Classic who were so loud they forced the city to change course. 

A tweet Wednesday declared that tailgating at Tobey Park would not be allowed this year, even though more fans than ever will be forced to park there due to the ongoing construction of Liberty Park that eliminated approximately 3,000 parking spots used for events at the Liberty Bowl. And by the way, whereas it used to be free to park at Tobey Park, now it’s going to cost $15, too.

Of course that didn’t go over well. Nor should it have since the reasons didn’t seem to be pandemic-related this time. 

So Thursday, the city sent out a new message with a new directive. 

“Due to overwhelming demand, tailgating can continue at Tobey Park at ALL football games this season,” the tweet read, and it felt like the best news all week when it comes to Memphis football.

This was a reminder of what’s really important about Saturday, of how important the rituals of Memphis football have been in so many lives, no matter what conference the Tigers have been in or who’s playing quarterback. Those are the details we obsess over because there’s a school and a team that binds us, that transcends generations and race and class and political affiliation. 

April 13, 2018 - University of Memphis fans cheer on the players during Tiger Walk before the spring football game at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.

Yes, the future of the AAC will probably come up in conversation Saturday, and so will the debate over the next quarterback – Arizona transfer Grant Gunnell or freshman Seth Henigan. There might even be a discussion of how the success of this particular Memphis team, and the continuing momentum of the program, could depend on the Tigers’ veteran-laden defense as opposed to a high-flying offense.

This might be a bad season for Memphis football to regress a bit. 

This might be a bad season to watch attendance at the Liberty Bowl fall, even if it’s likely an inevitable function of a pandemic that kept people away last season, and might keep some of them away again. 

This might be a bad season for the brand to take a hit given what’s happening on the conference realignment front.

But it is still going to be a season in which tens of thousands of Memphis fans tailgate in parking lots surrounding the Liberty Bowl for hours on end. 

They’re going to watch the latest Tigers football team go through the Tiger Walk and listen to the Mighty Sound of the South. Then everybody is going to meet inside the stadium for a football game that will actually feel like a football game for the first time in almost two years. 

You can reach Commercial Appeal columnist Mark Giannotto via email at mgiannotto@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter: @mgiannotto