A football stadium’s birthday is celebrated not with a cake and candles, but with a kickoff. Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium turned 50 last month, meaning the grand, saddle-style stadium in the Mid-South Fairgrounds has hosted a half-century of college football, not to mention various pro teams . . . and not all of them of the football variety (at least as we define the word in America). The stadium has centered debates
(it’s too big for the University of Memphis; it couldn’t meet NFL standards) and rocked the Mid-South (Rolling Stones, U2, etc.). But since the Tigers first kicked off at the Fairgrounds — September 18, 1965, a 34-14 loss to Ole Miss — the Liberty Bowl has served as this city’s football epicenter, warts and all.
Originally called Memphis Memorial Stadium, the facility was built in a little less than two years at a cost of $3.7 million. The stadium would serve two primary tenants, with Memphis State (as the school was then known) leaving Crump Stadium for a new gridiron and the six-year-old Liberty Bowl — brainchild of Bud Dudley — leaving Philadelphia for a new home in a climate more suitable to early-winter football. (You can count more than 30 bowl games in college football today. Only seven are older than the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.)
Before we get to the college football memories, though, let’s acknowledge the various pro teams that drew crowds (of varying sizes) through the Liberty Bowl gates. The World Football League’s Memphis Southmen (remembered better by their informal nickname, “Grizzlies”) went 17-3 in 1974 before folding midway through their second season. A decade later, future Hall of Famer Reggie White played two seasons with the Showboats of the United States Football League. (My first trip to the Liberty Bowl was for a ’Boats game with the Birmingham Stallions in June 1984.) While the USFL folded after its ’85 campaign, the Liberty Bowl only grew, adding 12,000 seats and a luxury skybox on the east side of the stadium in 1987.
Between the Grizzlies and Showboats, of course, there were the Memphis Rogues of the North American Soccer League, a three-year venture that somehow married the world’s most popular sport with elephants before heading north to Calgary after the 1980 season. One-year wonders? The Liberty Bowl has hosted a few: the Canadian Football League’s Memphis Mad Dogs (1995), the National Football League’s Tennessee Oilers (1997), and the ill-conceived Memphis Maniax of something called the XFL (2001). The Oilers went 6-2 at the Liberty Bowl during their “bridge” season between Houston and Nashville, but it wasn’t enough for measurable allegiance here in Memphis, not after we finished third in a two-team NFL expansion race five years earlier.
There has been allegiance, though, to the college football played just east of the Parkways. Both the Liberty Bowl game and, since 1990, the Southern Heritage Classic (between Jackson State and Tennessee State) draw more than 50,000 fans annually. Arguably the most famous game ever played at the Liberty Bowl was the postseason tilt between Alabama and Illinois on December 29, 1982. The win may have felt minor at the time for Crimson Tide fans more accustomed to New Year’s Day glory, but the game was Paul Bryant’s last as coach, and the Bear would be dead of a heart attack less than a month later.
Through it all, the Memphis Tigers have taken the field, with more winning seasons (20) over the last 50 years than many local fans would guess. And there have been some memorable wins, starting with the team’s first at the Liberty Bowl, an upset of 10th-ranked Mississippi State in the 1965 homecoming game. After a pair of 1-10 seasons under coach Rex Dockery, the Tigers opened the 1983 season with a 37-17 drubbing of Ole Miss, the biggest win in the tragically brief career of Dockery, who died in a plane crash shortly after the ’83 season.
There’s also the win over 15th-ranked Alabama in 1987. And Memphis took down Southern football royalty twice at the Liberty Bowl, first in 1996 when the Tigers upset Peyton Manning and 6th-ranked Tennessee, then again in 2003 when a sophomore tailback named DeAngelo Williams ran for 135 yards and a pair of touchdowns in a 44-34 win over Eli Manning and Ole Miss. The finest player in Tiger history, Williams was just getting started. (This season is his 10th in the NFL.) Perhaps most satisfying of all was the win over Connecticut just last November, a victory that clinched a conference championship for a team that recently won a total of five games over three years (2009-11).
The Liberty Bowl will host the biggest crowd of its 51st season on October 17th, when the Ole Miss Rebels pay their 24th visit to the stadium. The Tigers have won only seven of these showdowns, and none since that upset 12 years ago. Can the home team take the mighty SEC down a notch, if just for a single fall night? If so, we’ll have the Liberty Bowl’s first lasting memory for its second half-century.