Mike Strange: UT-Memphis rivalry is worth saving

Mike Strange
Tennessee's Duke Crews celebrates after beating Memphis 66-62 on Feb. 23, 2008. Tennessee moved from No. 2 in the country to No. 1 with the win over then No. 1 Memphis at the FedExForum.

Photo by Mark Weber/Commercial Appeal

Tennessee's Duke Crews celebrates after beating Memphis 66-62 on Feb. 23, 2008. Tennessee moved from No. 2 in the country to No. 1 with the win over then No. 1 Memphis at the FedExForum.

A college basketball season is a long haul, from the opener against Southwest-Hyphen State until the last gasp of March. It needs transcendent moments along the journey.

Tennessee-Memphis has provided transcendent moments. However, this annual eruption of intrastate passion is dribbling toward the Rivalry Cliff.

Tonight's game at Thompson-Boling Arena wraps up the latest contract between the two schools. The future is unclear.

Memphis coach Josh Pastner wants to take his ball and stay home, vowing this week he'd never schedule UT again as long as he has power over his schedule.

Play on, says Tennessee. What a relief to find out Thursday that negotiations for more basketball and football games are in fact on the table.

So Pastner probably won't have control over his schedule. Let's hope not. Let's hope the respective athletic directors, Dave Hart of UT and Tom Bowen of Memphis, see a bigger picture.

If the series ended, who wins? Perhaps Memphis signs some future local blue-chipper because the kid has never seen Tennessee play in the FedExForum. If so, chalk one up for Pastner.

The losers? That's easy. It's the fans and the players — on both sides.

Which comes as no surprise. How many important decisions have tilted toward the fans or players in this confounding era of conference realignment?

This rivalry, arriving in a difficult birth, is worth saving. Ground was broken in a holiday tournament in 1969, but it wasn't until 1988 that a regular-season series launched with UT winning a 76-74 thriller.

There have been 24 meetings, 10 of which have been decided by either one or two points. That's one gauge of a great rivalry.

Of Tennessee's past 24 games against Kentucky, only two have been decided by two points. Same with Vanderbilt.

The most transcendent moment of them all was Feb. 23, 2008. No. 2 Tennessee outlasted No. 1 Memphis 66-62 in a throbbing FedExForum that threatened to levitate off its Beale Street moorings.

It was only ESPN's most watched college basketball game ever. But who needs that when you can schedule Oral Roberts.

I've sat courtside at 20 of the 24 UT-Memphis games. They weren't all nationally significant. Heaven knows they weren't all artistic.

But they were all fun, judging from the crowd's intensity, whether in Memphis or Knoxville.

The players felt that way, too.

"This is one of my favorite games of the year,'' UT's Scotty Hopson said two years ago before a crowd of 18,884 witnessed one of the rare routs, a 104-84 Tennessee victory.

I get why Pastner doesn't want to play the Vols. From a geographical recruiting standpoint, he gains zip.

Memphis signed a Knoxville kid in 1968. That's it.

Tennessee, naturally, wants to fly the orange flag in Shelby County in hopes of occasionally prying a recruit away from the hometown school whose tradition includes three Final Fours.

In this case, fans should matter more than recruits.

Look around. Kentucky plays Louisville. Florida plays Florida State. Georgia plays Georgia Tech. Clemson plays South Carolina. Fans win.

Cincinnati plays Xavier. Fans win. In Philadelphia, fans really win. The Big Five (Temple, Penn, Villanova, LaSalle and St. Joe) all mix it up annually.

In Tennessee, the Vols and Memphis are guaranteed only 40 more minutes. If this one goes over the Rivalry Cliff, fans lose.

It's a long season. It needs moments like Tennessee-Memphis.

Mike Strange may be reached at strangem@knoxnews.com. Follow him at http://twitter.com/strangemike44 and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/strange.

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Comments » 10

murrayvol writes:

Pastner may get his way but he won't be around forever.

manning_berry_special_player1614 writes:

they say in memphis that we just want to sell tennessee to recruits......bs..

born2ride writes:

Memphis has been to 3 Final Fours but 2 were vacated for cheating.

Josh Pastner has never beaten a ranked team or won an NCAA tourney game. The Memphis AD threw him under the bus today. Makes Pastner look like a childish dummy.

Pastner is a Calipari clone in recruiting. He learned from the king of cheaters. Why do top recruits go to Tiger High? It is not for academics.

Memphis/UT is a good game for the fans. We played them before Josh Pastner and will play them after Josh Pastner.

Vols will win by 20 points.

Volunatic writes:

If they cancel the series, Tennessee can still play basketball games in Memphis. Just schedule a game against Arkansas, Ole Miss, or Miss St there.
I'm sure the FedEx Forum management would be happy to work something out with the Vols.

chuckfromwoodberry writes:

in response to Volunatic:

If they cancel the series, Tennessee can still play basketball games in Memphis. Just schedule a game against Arkansas, Ole Miss, or Miss St there.
I'm sure the FedEx Forum management would be happy to work something out with the Vols.

Agree. Play a game or two every year in Memphis. The Vols get showcased and we cut little josh out of the picture. There's a reason we call it Tiger High. The way they are acting they remind me more of a pee wee basketball program than a high school.

Volbound1700 writes:

This kind of reminds me of Calipari cancelling the Indiana/UK series which was ridiculous.

Vol_Jokes writes:

in response to born2ride:

Memphis has been to 3 Final Fours but 2 were vacated for cheating.

Josh Pastner has never beaten a ranked team or won an NCAA tourney game. The Memphis AD threw him under the bus today. Makes Pastner look like a childish dummy.

Pastner is a Calipari clone in recruiting. He learned from the king of cheaters. Why do top recruits go to Tiger High? It is not for academics.

Memphis/UT is a good game for the fans. We played them before Josh Pastner and will play them after Josh Pastner.

Vols will win by 20 points.

All these wonderful words about Memphis but not one mention of the king of slease... Bruce Pearl? I'm still wondering how Illinois felt when they found out the slimeball had been cheating and lying. Remember he was the one that squealed on them for it. Class act.

johnlg00 writes:

in response to Vol_Jokes:

All these wonderful words about Memphis but not one mention of the king of slease... Bruce Pearl? I'm still wondering how Illinois felt when they found out the slimeball had been cheating and lying. Remember he was the one that squealed on them for it. Class act.

Pearl is gone; get over it. His "cheating" was a secondary violation; his lying about it was not. If I were you, which thankfully I'm not, I'd be more concerned about the future of my own school's CURRENT coach. I'm not saying he cheats, just that he seems to have trouble winning games that mean anything.

volboy81 writes:

in response to Volunatic:

If they cancel the series, Tennessee can still play basketball games in Memphis. Just schedule a game against Arkansas, Ole Miss, or Miss St there.
I'm sure the FedEx Forum management would be happy to work something out with the Vols.

Good idea. If Tiger High is too chicken to play UT, then lets play someone else on their home floor. Im sure all the Vol fans in Memphis would like a UTBB game to go to without having to leave the city. Tickets could be split between the 2 schools, so there would be plenty to go around.

Tiger4Life writes:

Pastner is 2-0 (will be 3-0 in about 6 or 7 hours) against this clown that UT has on the sidelines. That MVC reject has never even made an NCAA tourney as a coach. He did make it as a player and promptly had his college career ended by....... the Memphis Tigers.

UT will NEVER play a regular season game at FedExForum unless its against the Tigers. U of M can contractually block it. Period. End of story.

Oh, and your suck program still has yet to make a Final 4. You do have that 1 Elite 8 (Memphis has 6 of them).

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