TU Takes Blue to Memphis, Returns with Gold

Editor at Large

CELEBRATING LIBERTY: University of Tulsa football players hold the Liberty Bowl trophy high after soundly defeating Iowa State, 31-17, Dec. 31 in Memphis. In the background, TU President Dr. Steadman Upham congratulates the team. To his right is Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett, Jr. in the TU letterman’s jacket, and to Dr. Upham’s left is TU Head Football Coach Bill Blankenship as they stand with Liberty Bowl and Memphis officials.

GTR Newspapers photo

Memphis is all about the blues.
From Beale Street and Stax Records to Elvis and W.C. Handy, Memphis is the unqualified home of the blues.
Its musical heritage is golden.
Similarly, the University of Tulsa is rich in blue and golden hues.

From Conference and Liberty Bowl championships to an 11-win season and performances, the 2012 University of Tulsa football team is the unqualified gold standard of accomplishment.

For one gilt-edged night, a night when the Hard Rock Café along Beale Street celebrated New Year’s Eve with a guitar drop before a gathering of thousands, the University of Tulsa’s royal blue was the brightest, most intense color to be found in Memphis.

With its decisive 31-17 Liberty Bowl victory over Iowa State, the Golden Hurricane suddenly and swiftly transformed the home of the blues into the home of the royal blue.

Tulsa and Memphis have long been linked culturally and athletically.

The cities share a musical passion that is matched only by the historical rivalry that took root in the Missouri Valley Conference.

Tulsa’s earliest musical inclinations were similar to those heard in the Mississippi Delta region around Memphis.

The Tulsa blues and jazz sounds emanated from Greenwood Avenue and were carried to the four corners of the country by the likes of Lowell Fulson and Ernie Fields.

Beale Street gave birth to the Memphis blues and a national phenomenon that reached a zenith with John Lee Hooker and B.B. King.

Tulsa introduced the world to Bob Wills and western swing from the stage of Cain’s Ballroom.

Memphis was the launching pad for Elvis Presley and rock ‘n’ roll from the tiny studios of Sun Records.

A decade after Elvis made his first appearance in Tulsa, Memphis and Tulsa found themselves in competition for basketball superiority in the Missouri Valley Conference.

Tulsa and coach Ken Hayes recruited Willie Biles from Memphis to help open the first golden era of Hurricane hoops.

The ties that have bound the two iconic cities since the days following World War I were revisited and strengthened in the fading hours and days of 2012.

With the University of Tulsa taking part in its second Liberty Bowl in eight football seasons, some 7,000 or so Golden Hurricane supporters and fans made the trip across Arkansas to Memphis.

There was an abundance of pregame activities leading to the New Year’s Eve date with Iowa State University, including a Beale Street party for fans of both teams.

On the night before the game, the sound of Memphis blues and the aroma of Memphis barbecue floated from every barroom, every cafe along the four-block stretch of Beale Street, the followers of TU on one side of the street, fans of on the opposite.

“The downtown area is very suitable to host a number of people with activities that are enjoyable,” TU alum and former assistant coach Mark Wojciehowski said after returning to his home in Tulsa.

“There’s just a lot going on in a small downtown area.”

On game day, hours before the afternoon kickoff, the Liberty Bowl party atmosphere continued to rock.

A pre-game buffet, featuring barbecue and rock bands, was staged in separate but connecting buildings in the shadows of the 62,000-seat Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. Thousands of fans, clad in royal blue on one side, cardinal on the other, dove headfirst into their biggest football day of the year.

A light rain greeted Liberty Bowl patrons as they entered the stadium. The game would be the second meeting in four months for the two teams who had played only once previously, in 1961.

And before the first quarter had come to an end, the Cyclones of Ames, Iowa, had moved out to a 17-7 advantage.

TU did not panic. TU had been there before.

Six times during the regular season, TU had fallen behind early but regrouped each time and bounced back for a victory.

The Liberty Bowl would just be more of the same.

With Trey Watts turning in an -performance at running back, TU rallied for a 31-17 victory, reaching 11 wins for only the second time in school history.

It was a case of, in the words of Elvis Presley, “taking care of business.”

Watts said as much, without the musical accompaniment.

“We had to just keep playing and stick to our game plan,” he says.

The victory tended to ease the memory of the 38-23 season-opening loss at Ames, Iowa – that is, if losses can ever be forgotten. Still, the Golden Hurricane was able to shake off that defeat and put together a run that ended with the Conference championship.

“We’ve had a team before win 11 games, and we’ve had a team before win the conference and the Liberty Bowl,” TU coach Bill Blankenship says.

“But these guys are the first to do all of that in the same year. They are a tough-minded, resilient team.”

Speaking of resilient, many of the fans from both schools resumed the revelry of the holiday, leaving the Liberty Bowl and returning to Beale Street to ring in the new year.

It was one last time, one final fling, to sample the blues and the barbecue of Memphis before 2012 faded into a memory.

Scores of fans flocked into the Rum Boogie Café for the harmonica explosiveness of Brandon Santini and his band.

Others chose the gastronomical favors served up at Miss Polly’s Soul City Café, where the theme is “love, peace and chicken grease.”

Whether it was burgers at Dyer’s, cocktails at Wet Willie’s, or mesmerizing syncopation at Mr. Handy’s Blues Hall or B.B. King’s Blues Club, Memphis and Beale Street proved a winning – and celebratory – combination for fun-loving football fans.
“The Liberty Bowl is a good, solid, traditional bowl game,” Wojciehowski says. “The Liberty Bowl people do a great job.

“When you’ve got an opportunity to go to a bowl like that, you need to jump at it.”
The University of Tulsa jumped at it.

And the University of Tulsa fans jumped on the band wagon. A band wagon painted royal blue.

Updated 01-28-2013

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