Something happened to Memphis Tigers fans in 2012, when the program was invited into the Big East – at that time considered a “power conference.” For Tigers fans, it was a validation of what they had always believed in their hearts; that Memphis was a national program. They had NCAA Final Four banners to prove it. They had a national basketball brand in John Calipari. Sure, football was floundering (Calipari had expensive tastes), but that could be alleviated with the exposure of a power conference. The Tigers had become “next level.”
The Big East collapsed and folded and mutated into The American, but the fan DNA had already changed. They turned the page and went all in on “Power 6.” When Memphis defeated Harsin’s Red Wolves in 2013, there was little support in the Bluff City for renewing the 100 year old battle that was once known as The Paint Bucket Bowl. The fury that brought the largest crowd ever to Jonesboro – when A-State hosted #25 Memphis in 2004 – had cooled to ambivalence.
In the Digital Age, proximity no longer matters so much. Television contracts and branding matter. The Tigers went their way, and the Red Wolves took their own path. Since 2012, Memphis has finished in the AP Top 25 three times and played in a Cotton Bowl. Meanwhile, the Red Wolves competed for titles in the Sun Belt – at least for awhile, before watching members of their own conference pass them by. When Memphis hosted Ole Miss, the Tigers won. When Arkansas State hosted Missouri, the other Tigers won. It’s hard to maintain a rivalry when one party lags behind the other.
We can’t pick and choose our rivals. Ask Arkansas and Missouri about that. Rivalries are a matter of mutual animosity that transcends win/loss records. They’re not temporary. There is equity. There are shared experiences and there is the passage of time. Louisiana and Appalachian State aren’t rivals. South Alabama and Troy are. The animosity is mutual.
Recently, I chatted with a Cajuns’ personality about Louisiana rivals, and he listed a comical number of programs – everyone from Nicholls to Appalachian State. Arkansas State, who has dueled the Cajuns for conference supremacy for decades, didn’t even make his extensive list.
Talk to any Red Wolves fans, and he or she will talk rivals. The old timers hate Louisiana Tech. Generation X loathe the Memphis Tigers. I’m not sure who this current crop of young fans dislike. Maybe it’s everyone. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Perhaps in this digitally connected age, Tulsa can be our hated rival one week, and Georgia Southern can be the next. I still loathe Memphis. I’m not much for those damn Cajuns, either. It’s all good. The only real rivalry is the one within ourselves, and we can use that energy to push forward.
And that’s fine.