As executive director of the AutoZone Liberty Bowl Football Classic, Steve Ehrhart oversees one of the oldest postseason contests in college football. Pitting the champion of Conference USA against a team from the mighty Southeastern Conference, this year's game will be played on December 29th and televised nationally on ESPN.
Can you put a dollar figure on what the Liberty Bowl brings Memphis each year?
The University of Memphis studies have shown it's between $17 million and $20 million, and that's new money. No roll-over effect. If we average bringing in 20,000 out-of-towners, with an average stay of three nights in a hotel, with all the food and the celebration . . . it's more valuable than your typical convention. And that's why bowl games are so critical to communities.
What separates the Liberty Bowl from the other 31 bowl games?
Our history, all the hall of fame players and coaches. We've had four Heisman Trophy winners -- including the late Ernie Davis' last game -- and coaches like Bear Bryant [who coached his final game at the Liberty Bowl in 1982], Joe Paterno, and Tom Osborne. We're playing on a Friday this year, and we think it will be a great time, an opportunity for people to enjoy a holiday weekend in Memphis.
How important was it to get the SEC back in the mix?
Alabama's played here four times, and could actually be our team this year. There was an effort to give Conference USA and the Mountain West Conference an opportunity as the fifth BCS [Bowl Championship Series] game, but when that didn't work out, we felt returning to the geographic ties to the SEC made more sense for Memphis and the Liberty Bowl.
What keeps you busy throughout the year, planning for this annual event?
We really have five missions: showcase the community, the economic impact, create events that Memphians can be proud of, the patriotic tradition, and the participation with St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. We're the only bowl game that has a charitable institution as a part of everything we do. Danny Thomas was a big football fan, you know. He owned a piece of the Miami Dolphins at one time. He realized football communicated with people, and could get St. Jude's message out across the country.
Can a visit from a football player really impact St. Jude?
When Donovan McNabb was here [with Syracuse in 1996], all the New York cameras followed him through the hospital [on a tour of the facility]. Contributions from the New York area were up noticeably in the weeks that followed.
Is there a game that stands out among those you've seen as executive director?
The game two years ago, between Louisville and Boise State was marvelous. Louisville won, 44-40. It was declared an "instant classic" by ESPN. I think at the time it got the seventh-highest rating in ESPN history. Boise State came in 11-0, and Louisville was 10-1, the two highest ranked offenses in the country. It was a great matchup.
During your career, you've been in charge of the USFL's Memphis Showboats and baseball's Colorado Rockies. How is life different, managing an event as opposed to a franchise?
It's the need to keep focused throughout the year. It's a holiday event, and it all comes down to a sprint in December, but I enjoy the camaraderie, and working with the universities. We just need to make sure the community understands the great impact this event has -- on all the participants -- each and every year. I enjoy the development side of the sports business, and it's great to see the excitement of all the young people: the players, the bands, the students. It's a special week.
Anything new for fans this year?
LeeAnn Rimes [recipient of this year's Outstanding Achievement Award] will be performing at halftime of this year's game. She'll also be our featured performer at the President's Gala at the Peabody on December 28th.