Tennessee Big Orange Caravan came to Memphis. Vols should be more here

Rick Barnes was pretty blunt this time.

The Tennessee men’s basketball coach was asked Thursday about the chances of re-scheduling Memphis and almost immediately shut down any thoughts of it.

“I don’t see it happening,” Barnes responded before discussing “the opportunities we have nationally.”

You may think he’s wrong – in fact, I think he’s wrong – but at least the first part sounded sincere.

At least he didn’t avoid the question entirely, as Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel did when the Big Orange Caravan made its stop at the Memphis Botanic Garden.

“I’m not in charge of the scheduling, but (coach) Ryan (Silverfield) does a really good job there,” Heupel said, answering the football version of the question. Memphis sports fans want to know the most when it comes to the flagship. university across the state.

At this point, none of that should be a surprise. Tennessee has made it clear through actions and words that it likes to recruit in Memphis, and raise funds in Memphis, and has a medical school in Memphis. It just doesn’t like playing games in Memphis that much – against the Tigers or anyone else.

That’s what should bother anyone who lives in Memphis, especially the loyal Vols fans who lined up outside in their orange and white gear waiting for this rare appearance with Heupel, Barnes, new women’s basketball coach Kim Caldwell and athletic director Danny White in West Tennessee. This mentality should not be acceptable, especially if White wants to continue claiming that Memphis is “an orange city,” as he tried to do on Thursday.

The fact that Memphis and Tennessee haven’t played in football since 2010 can at least be justified by the extent of planning and how uncertain the landscape has become. On the other hand, Memphis and Tennessee figured out how to play football against each other regularly for the better part of four decades.

The cancellation of the men’s basketball series also makes sense because of the way the most recent one played out. The 2019 game that never happened because Memphis had too many positive COVID-19 tests, combined with the testy public exchanges between Penny Hardaway and Barnes after the Vols’ final visit to FedExForum during the Tigers coach’s first season, has essentially revived the rivalry. non-starter as long as Barnes coaches in Knoxville.

In any case, there is almost certainly bad blood involved, no matter how minor it may be.

But from 1998 to 2012, Memphis and Tennessee played in men’s basketball every year. They again played annually between 2005 and 2012, culminating in the No. 1 vs. No. 2 match at FedExForum in 2008.

The only way this will change anytime soon is if Tennessee lawmakers get involved, as their counterparts in North Carolina might do. This week, prominent Republican House members introduced a bill there that would require North Carolina and North Carolina State to regularly play at least one game per season against East Carolina, Appalachian State and Charlotte in football and basketball.

But a political movement should not be necessary. It doesn’t even have to start with football and men’s basketball. What about every other sport except the major sports?

Tennessee hosted Memphis in women’s basketball last season – their first meeting in 22 years – and will play the Tigers in Memphis (at FedExForum) for the first time since 2001 in the 2024-2025 season. Memphis and Tennessee had a home-and-home series almost every year from 1974 to 2002. Memphis had to hire one of Pat Summitt’s former players as coach (Alex Simmons) to get that going again.

Memphis women’s soccer hasn’t played in Tennessee since 2009 and hasn’t been to Tennessee since 1996. The two schools have played just three times total, despite the Tigers having a nationally relevant program over the past decade.

Memphis men’s soccer has not played in Tennessee since 1985. Memphis volleyball has not played in Tennessee since 2014 and last hosted the Lady Vols in 1999.

Memphis men’s tennis could meet Tennessee this weekend in an NCAA regional in Knoxville, but it has never hosted the Vols in seven previous meetings since 2002. Memphis women’s tennis has played Tennessee just once: in Knoxville in 2018.

Memphis baseball hosted Tennessee for a three-game series in 2017 and last played in 2018. Memphis softball played Tennessee in Columbia, Tennessee in 2022 and a scheduled game against the Lady Vols in Columbia was canceled in April.

GIANNOTTO: Memphis has a strong advocate for the conference realignment in ESPN’s Paul Finebaum

It means that over the past decade, only two Tennessee teams (baseball and men’s basketball) have played a total of four games here. How is that possible for an area that would mean so much to the university and its teams.

“We know there are a lot of alumni and Tennessee fans here in Memphis. Memphis is an orange city. That’s why we’re here,” White initially said.

“Memphis is a big priority for us,” he said later. “We will always be open to opportunities (to play here).”

“This is a big part of Tennessee football,” Heupel noted at one point.

If only the sentiment seemed genuine.

You can reach Commercial Appeal columnist Mark Giannotto by email at [email protected] and follow him at @mgiannotto