The Memphis football program has struggled for many years to connect with the campus it represents, with student support at home games paling in comparison to that of similar institutions. Of course, there are reasons for such apathy, and the football-focused administration has worked hard to address them.
The game-day atmosphere received a shot in the arm with the opening of Tiger Lane, bringing grass, fountain, and order to what had been an asphalt abomination (the Memphis Fairgrounds, which stood ugly and empty during the eleven-and-a-half months each year when the fair was not in town). Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium itself received a face-lift, and shuttle service to and from campus was boosted on game days, somewhat mitigating the 2.5 mile journey between points A and B. Of course, no improvement in student interest could be achieved without a competitive gridiron product, a hopeful prospect given recent history.
However, another development is happening that may prove to be the most important of all; a development with the potential to make football part of day-to-day campus life. It is the proposed Park Avenue Campus.
The University of Memphis' hundred-year history is one of considerable change. Opening in 1912 as a rural teacher's school east of the city center, the institution grew with the city. The population of Memphis expanded eastward during the post World War II era, down Poplar and Park Avenues, two automotive arteries that would roughly define the north and south extents of the university as well.
Development of these surrounding neighborhoods, though good for enrollment, limited the university's geographic spread, necessitating the acquisition of the Kennedy VA Hospital campus in the 1960s. This new parcel of land, christened the South Campus for its location a mile south on Goodlett Street, developed in isolation from the day-to-day activities of then-Memphis State University.
Memphis State, you see, was a commuter school, and East Memphis, a commuter-driven neighborhood. Though only a mile separated the Main and South Campuses, the roads that connected them were not amenable to casual strolling. So, while most academic activities were located on the Main Campus with the students, the South Campus received a motley list of also-ran tenants.
The local public television and radio stations set up their studios there. The Defense Contract Audit Agency rented a building or two.
By the time your correspondent attended The University of Memphis in the late 1990s as a naive undergraduate, the South Campus was an asterisk at most, an archaic (sometimes dilapidated) storage and ancillary space of no interest, unless you were a biology major interested in catfish research, or an attendee of a court-ordered defensive driving seminar, or a resident in one of the sparse apartments there.
Or, if you were an athlete. For that is where the land-strapped Memphis State University had located its athletic practice facilities.
Today, the Park Avenue Campus (as it has recently been renamed) is in the midst and on the verge of a variety of updates. The Community Health Center, almost completed, promises to bring nursing, audiology, and speech pathology students to the Park Avenue campus, along with a community health clinic. Visible to popular Audubon Park across the avenue, joggers, golfers, and picnickers will soon see activity where there was previously just a few deserted old buildings. The spacious gaps between buildings will be filled by a number of academic and research facilities, with untold potential for collegiate activities.
The crown jewel in this development from a pigskin perspective is the indoor football practice facility, which will provide a world-class practice and team space for the Tigers. It's impressive, expensive, and happening (the construction permits have been filed just this last month).
Yet, the transformation of the sparse South Campus to the vibrant Park Avenue campus is what may prove more useful in the long run, as more Memphians and University of Memphis students will have reason to venture onto its grounds and, perhaps, see Memphis football for what it is: a vital part of campus life.