With Gore, Clinton in its backfield, Memphis drives again toward NFL goal line

John Steadman

November 11, 1992|By John Steadman

Since 1976, back in the Gerald Ford administration, Memphis, Tenn., has been standing in line patiently anticipating the National Football League awarding an expansion team. That wasn't exactly yesterday. But Memphis continues to hope. It has a tolerance that is admirable.

The wait goes on. Now, by virtue of the presidential election, there might be a different kind of a spin applied to the Memphis application. There's a new president, from a state that is in punting distance of Memphis, and a vice president who lives in Carthage, Tenn.

It's reasonable to expect Sen. Al Gore, the incoming vice president, will once again notify the NFL of his interest in seeing Memphis given proper consideration in the expansion derby. In fact, Gore, to his credit, has long held to the belief the league should expand by four cities, not two.

Now that Gore is in a different role, along with president-elect Bill Clinton, the Memphis bid would figure to receive more serious consideration. The league can hardly put itself in the position of ignoring the wishes of the new leaders of the country, considering they are interested in creating jobs and four teams would mean close to 300 more players, coaches, front-office executives, scouts, et al, in positions that don't currently exist.

Franklin "Pepper" Rodgers, who quarterbacks the Memphis expansion effort, believes the Clinton/Gore/Memphis connection will mean something to the league. "How much?" he asked rhetorically. "I don't know but it has to carry some weight. Vice President Gore has been saying right along the NFL should expand by four teams and Memphis ought to be one of them."

Baltimore, St. Louis, Charlotte, N.C., and Jacksonville, Fla., are the other cities in-waiting. Rodgers, the effervescent personality, who, like the old cowboy philosopher, Will, never met a man he didn't like, is hopeful the league will finally act. And he believes it intends to do just that, come the March meeting of the NFL's ownership.

"I have no problem with Baltimore or St. Louis," he said, "but as Sen. Gore contended, 'Let's move on having 32 teams in the NFL and get it rolling.' The state of Tennessee, including Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville, have put on 12 preseason games since 1976. Now that's a lot of hard work, a lot of waiting."

Memphis, along with Birmingham, was told in 1976, when Tampa Bay and Seattle got the nod, that it would get first consideration the next time the expansion subject came up.

"This is a tri-state area, Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi, and Memphis is the centerpiece of all of that," continued Rodgers. "More people come to Memphis to see the Elvis Presley shrine at Graceland than watch the Green Bay Packers.

"I can't help but think the fact President Clinton is from nearby Arkansas and Vice President Gore has been active in the NFL expansion effort that what we call the mid-south is going to get a serious look from the NFL. I'm in agreement and others are, too, that four cities should be taken in and not two. Such a move is justified."

Maybe the league could activate two new clubs in 1995 and then two years later include two more, which is precisely the path the National Basketball Association took in its last expansion. Ralph Wilson, owner of the Buffalo Bills, has been quoted that the NFL should approach expansion with reluctance, until its problems have been resolved. He utilizes a wartime analogy in saying something like, "you can't attack a beach if there are a lot of mines around."

Yes, but we might still be waiting off Normandy if a prerequisite for landing was total clearance of every obstacle.

"Exactly," said Rodgers. "There is never going to be a time when everything is ideal. You can cite all kinds of problems and the league has done that. It has told us about the television contract, the nation's down economy and not having an agreement with the players association.

"It seems there's always going to be something. But I believe expansion is coming in March. The league needs it. Something positive has to happen and this would be positive. The players association has to act in a reasonable way, too. A lot of jobs are dependent on expansion. And in the mid-south we want Memphis to receive the consideration it deserves. Vice President Gore wants four expansion cities and that's reasonable."

If Gore picks up the telephone and talks to commissioner Paul Tagliabue, plus the expansion committee members, it's going to get attention. When the operator says, "This is the White House," the NFL will most certainly take the call.

For Rodgers, once the coach at Georgia Tech, Kansas and UCLA, and before that the 25th draft choice of the Baltimore Colts in 1954, the Memphis mission has been exciting but also endlessly frustrating. He's hoping Gore and Clinton can break what has been a different kind of gridlock.

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