Clarence Saunders of Memphis, the founder of the Piggly Wiggly grocery store chain, owned a semiprofessional football team called the Saunders Tigers.
He proposed that a large football stadium be built at Memphis, thinking the city eventually could attract a National Football League team. What’s now the NFL had started in 1920 as the American Professional Football Association and changed its name to the NFL in 1922.
Saunders never achieved his football dream. He lost a fortune during the Great Depression, thus beginning decades of futility when it comes to the Bluff City and professional football.
The city did, however, get its new stadium.
In 1932, a group of business and civic leaders in Memphis presented the board of the Mid-South Fair Association with a plan to build a 25,000-seat stadium. The Memphis Park Commission gave its approval for a stadium at the fairgrounds that summer, but the plan was set aside in favor of a competing proposal at Central High School.
Construction of the stadium at the high school was completed by the WPA in 1934 with seating for 7,500 fans. The school board voted to name the stadium for former Mayor E.H. Crump, who continued to rule the city even after leaving the mayor’s office. He was known across the Mid-South simply as Boss Crump.
A 1936 game at Crump Stadium between Ole Miss and Tennessee drew a standing-room-only crowd of 11,000 fans, leading the city to remove the original wooden bleachers on the south side and replace them with concrete stands. That increased the capacity to 15,000. Control of the stadium was transferred from the school board to the Memphis Park Commission.
A release from the WPA said: “California has its Rose Bowl, Louisiana has its Sugar Bowl and now Memphis is to have its Cotton Bowl.”
Instead, a Texas oilman named J. Curtis Sanford funded the game out of his pocket, and the Cotton Bowl went to Dallas for its Jan. 1, 1937, inaugural.
Back in Memphis, 40 games (high school and college) were played at Crump Stadium in 1936. By 1939, the Crump Stadium capacity was 25,000.
The Delta Bowl was played there in 1948 and 1949. In 1947, the Arkansas-Texas game was played at Memphis. John Barnhill, the Arkansas athletic director at the time, moved the game to Memphis to make the point that a stadium with more seats was needed in Arkansas. When War Memorial Stadium opened the following year, the Crump Stadium manager (Allan Berry) was hired to run the new facility at Little Rock.
Ole Miss and Tennessee played each other at Crump Stadium until the 1960s. Mississippi State also was a regular visitor.
The city released plans in November 1962 to expand Crump Stadium to 45,000 seats, but that project fell by the wayside in favor of building a stadium at the fairgrounds to be known as Memphis Memorial Stadium.
Crump Stadium was transferred back to the school board when the new stadium opened in 1965. High school games were played there through 2004. The old stadium was torn down in 2006, and a new high school stadium that kept the Crump name opened in 2007 on the site. It retained the original outer brick wall, gates and entrances. The new stadium seats 7,000.
Other famous events in the history of Crump Stadium included a Billy Graham crusade in 1951 and an Elvis Presley performance in 1957.
Memphis Memorial Stadium was constructed at a cost of almost $4 million. It shared the Mid-South Fairgrounds with the Mid-South Coliseum and the Libertyland amusement park. The first regular-season game in the stadium was between Ole Miss and what’s now the University of Memphis.
Liberty Bowl founder Bud Dudley moved his game from Atlantic City to Memphis that year, where it has remained. The stadium was renamed Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in 1976.
In 1987, a renovation project increased the stadium’s capacity from 50,160 to 62,380. Another renovation project two years ago decreased capacity to 59,308. Changes since the last time the University of Arkansas played in the Liberty Bowl in 2009 include new lights, two new video boards, new elevators, new turf and extensive painting.
In addition to hosting the Liberty Bowl each year, the stadium has hosted the Southern Heritage Classic since its inception in 1990. Tennessee State and Jackson State draw about 50,000 fans for that game, ranking it in the top three in attendance among historically black college football classics.
The University of Memphis has played home games at the stadium since 1965 after having played 28 seasons at Crump Stadium.
And it seems as if almost every professional football league has called the Liberty Bowl home at one time or another.
During the 1974-75 seasons, the Memphis Southmen of the World Football League played there and drew good crowds. Owner John Bassett changed the name of the team to the Grizzlies and made a bid to join the NFL as a 1976 expansion team. More than 40,000 season tickets were sold in the Memphis area. The NFL refused to add Memphis. Bassett filed a lawsuit against the NFL that was dismissed.
The best Memphis could do from 1978-80 was a North American Soccer League team known as the Rogues. That team moved to Calgary after the 1980 season.
Bassett had hooked up to start the league with Gary Davidson, who helped start the American Basketball Association and the World Hockey Association, which later were absorbed by the NBA and the NHL. Bassett was a Canadian tennis prodigy who came from a wealthy family and went on to become a movie producer. He owned the WHA’s Toronto Toros, and his family owned the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League, two Toronto newspapers and several television stations.
His WFL football team in Toronto would be called the Northmen. Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau announced that under the Canadian Football Act, no U.S.-based football league would be allowed into the country to compete with the Canadian Football League. So Bassett moved the team to Memphis.
The 1974 home opener against Detroit drew 30,122 fans. Elvis Presley was there to watch, and Arkansas native Charlie Rich sang the national anthem.
Rich sat down next to Presley at the start of the game, and Presley said: “That’s a tough song to sing, ain’t it?
Rich replied: “It ain’t no Behind Closed Doors.”
Memphis finished with the league’s best record at 17-3 but lost in the playoff semifinals to the Florida Blazers from Orlando.
Bassett received nationwide media attention when he signed Miami Dolphin stars Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield for the 1975 season. Memphis was 7-4 when the league folded in the middle of that 1975 campaign.
Professional football was back in Memphis in 1984 with the Showboats of the USFL. Pepper Rodgers spoke to seemingly every civic club in the Mid-South to promote the team, and attendance was decent by USFL standards.
New Orleans businessman David Dixon had been dreaming of a new professional league since the 1960s. His idea was to have teams play during the NFL offseason. Dixon, an antiques dealer, had helped bring the NFL Saints to New Orleans. During a news conference at the 21 Club in New York City, Dixon announced in May 1982 that the league would begin play in 1983. Chet Simmons left ESPN to become the first USFL commissioner, and the USFL soon had television contracts with ABC and ESPN.
The league expanded from 12 to 18 teams after the 1983 season, and Memphis was among the expansion cities. Logan Young Jr., one of the most colorful businessmen to ever grace the Bluff City, was awarded the Memphis franchise.
Young’s father had made a fortune on margarine during World War II, and the son inherited the family’s Osceola Foods Inc. in Osceola along with a Pepsi distributorship when the father died in 1971. Young Sr. was close friends with Alabama’s head football coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant. Bryant would spend vacations at the Young house in Palm Beach. Young Jr. was born in Arkansas, attended college at Vanderbilt and then moved to Memphis. But his football passions were with Alabama due to the family ties to Bryant.
Family friend Phillip Shanks once said of Young Jr. and Bryant: “Coach was fond of Logan and for good reason. Logan was somebody he could be himself with, let his hair down. And I think they just enjoyed each other’s company. There was a huge age disparity, but Logan just made Coach Bryant feel comfortable.”
“Coach loved to go to Palm Beach,” Young once said. “After the season, we would go down and hang out. He liked to hang out around the beach. Just the two of us. He would just come there, bring his golf clubs. Sometimes he would play, sometimes he wouldn’t.”
Like his father before him, Young helped steer high school players from the Memphis area to Alabama.
When Young was investigated for illegal recruiting in 2000, Alabama banned him from the campus, pulled his 24-seat private box and cut ties to a life insurance policy that would have paid $500,000 to the Bryant Museum on the Alabama campus upon Young’s death.
An assistant coach at Trezevant High School in Memphis claimed that Young paid Lynn Lang, the school’s head football coach, about $150,000 to get defensive lineman Albert Means to sign with Alabama. The school received a five-year probation, a two-year bowl ban and a reduced number of scholarships. Young was convicted in 2005 in federal court of conspiracy to commit racketeering, crossing state lines to commit racketeering and arranging bank withdrawals to cover up a crime.
On April 11, 2006, Young was found dead in a pool of blood by a housekeeper in his English Tudor-style home in an exclusive Memphis neighborhood. He had been sentenced to six months in prison but was free pending appeal. A heavy drinker for years, Young also was recovering from an October 2005 kidney transplant.
The police ruled that Young had tripped while carrying a salad and soft drink up a set of stairs, hitting his head on an iron railing. The police concluded that he had walked, while bleeding profusely, through several rooms of the house before ending up in his second-floor bedroom.
Many believed Young, who was known to carry large sums of cash, had been murdered. One newspaper writer called it “a Mid-South mystery better suited for a John Grisham book than a newspaper story.”
Back in 1984, Young was all about getting the Showboats to Memphis. He brought in the flamboyant Rodgers, a Georgia native who had played as the backup quarterback at Georgia Tech from 1951-53 and then served as head football coach at Kansas from 1967-70, UCLA from 1971-73 and Georgia Tech from 1974-79.
Before the start of the 1984 season, Young told the league that many of his assets were tied up in a trust that he couldn’t access. He was forced to take on partners, and the controlling interest soon passed to cotton magnate William “Billy” Dunavant. The family company, Dunavant Enterprises, had been taken over by Billy Dunavant following his father’s death. The younger Dunavant was just 29 at the time but turned the company into the world’s largest privately owned cotton marketer.
Dunavant helped the team capture the heart of many in the Memphis area with players such as future Pro Football Hall of Fame member Reggie White and future professional wrestler Lex Luger. The Showboats finished 7-11 in 1984 and missed the playoffs.
In 1985, Memphis won its division with an 11-7 record and advanced to the playoff semifinals before a loss to Oakland.
USFL officials announced that they would move their games to the fall in 1986 rather than playing during the NFL offseason. Arizona, Baltimore, Birmingham, Jacksonville, Memphis, New Jersey, Orlando and Tampa Bay were scheduled to play an 18-game fall schedule. The league filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL. The USFL later was awarded a judgment of just $1. The USFL owners had been banking on a big settlement to finance the 1986 season. On Aug. 4, 1986 — just four days after the verdict was announced — the owners voted to suspend football operations.
Dunavant, though, tried to keep professional football in Memphis alive. He was an investor in the proposed Memphis Hound Dogs, which sought an NFL expansion team. Steve Ehrhart — who now runs the Liberty Bowl — had come to town from the USFL offices in New York at Dunavant’s behest to run the Showboats. His office on Ridgeway Loop near Poplar and Interstate 240 is still filled with Showboats’ paraphernalia. Rodgers and Ehrhart remained on board to try attract the NFL, but the league decided to expand to Charlotte and Jacksonville instead.
As part of the attempt to lure the NFL, Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium underwent a $12 million facelift and 12,000 seats were added.
The next professional team to play in the stadium was part of the Canadian Football League. Ehrhart managed the Memphis Mad Dogs in 1995, and Rodgers was the coach. The CFL season runs from July to November. Due to the dimensions of the stadium, the Canadian game in Memphis was basically a hybrid being played on a U.S. field. Crowds late in the CFL season — when Memphis fans were going instead to watch college games — fell below 10,000.
One season was all the CFL would last in Memphis.
The NFL finally arrived in 1997, but it was just for a single season. The Houston Oilers announced that the team would play two seasons in Memphis while a new stadium was being built in Nashville. The players would live and practice in Nashville and commute to Memphis on Sundays for home games.
Memphis residents, bitter that the NFL had chosen Nashville over their city, stayed away. And folks from Nashville refused to make the three-hour drive to Memphis, especially since construction on Interstate 40 meant that drive sometimes took four to five hours. None of the Oilers’ first seven home games attracted more than 27,000 people, ranking them among the smallest NFL crowds since the 1950s.
Rather than playing in 1998 at Memphis as first planned, team owner Bud Adams decided to play the home games at Vanderbilt’s 40,000-seat stadium in Nashville.
The next professional team to show up at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium was a team in Vince McMahon’s XFL, the Memphis Maniax. The league folded after its inaugural season in 2001.
So the WFL, USFL, CFL, NFL and XFL all have had a presence at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium through the years.
We’ll wait and see as the long saga of Memphis and professional football continues.