Back in 1993, Memphis tried to make the Hound Dogs happen…
The same year that the Charlotte Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars came into existence, some bigwigs down in Tennessee attempted to bring an NFL team to Memphis. And yeah, they were gonna call it the Hound Dogs.
Memphis has a tumultuous relationship with the sport of professional football. For years, the city tried to make itself appealing to the NFL. But without the coastline or the big-name companies, it struggled to get their attention. They certainly had the heart and the fan base within their population (not to mention the river, the blues, and the barbecue), but the NFL never gave them the time of day.
Back in the 1970s, Memphis dabbled in the World Football League with a successful franchise called the Grizzlies (long before the basketball team of the same name). They developed a strong following in the city and surrounding areas, and they even made the cover of Sports Illustrated when a few players from the NFL jumped ship to join them. But when the World Football League folded in 1975, Memphis tried to save their team by getting them into the NFL. The city took deposits on over 40,000 season tickets in an attempt to convince the NFL to bring the Grizzlies into the league. It didn’t work.
In the late 80s, Memphians were hyped about a US Football League team named the Memphis Showboats. They sold out mid-summer games at the Liberty Bowl and everything! Following an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL by USFL owner Donald Trump, however, that league also collapsed.
After all that, Memphis invested many millions of dollars in revamping its aging Liberty Bowl. Then they waited for the NFL to send them a team. Several guys even came together to invest in ownership of that potential future team, including cotton magnate (and former Showboats owner) Billy Dunavant, founder of FedEx Fred Smith, and Elvis Presley Enterprises.
Yeah, the whole Elvis connection explains their proposed team name – the Memphis Hound Dogs. (Unsurprisingly, 70% of Memphians polled were not a fan of the name.)
As Memphis waited, they had to watch as Jacksonville and Charlotte received NFL expansion bids, and Baltimore and St. Louis wooed existing franchises away with their swankier stadiums. The NFL continued to turn its nose up at Memphis.
But then it came time for the Houston Oilers to move cities. After much drama involving team owner Bud Adams, the Oilers were looking to make a quick exit from Texas. And who else but neighboring Nashville would welcome them with open arms?
Only… they didn’t have a stadium ready yet.
Not wanting to play in the nearby University of Tennessee or Vanderbilt stadiums, Adams looked to the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, just a three-hour ride away, as a convenient alternative for his team. This might seem a natural choice to an outsider, but anyone within the state of Tennessee could tell you about the strong rivalry between Nashville and Memphis. Hating on the other city is a favorite pastime of local residents… and they’d never support the other’s sports teams.
So this turned out to be a bad choice by Bud.
When the NFL called up Memphis to see if they could “borrow” their stadium for a couple of years, the city basically laughed in its face. The team tried to hold meet-and-greets with “fans” but instead they ended up holding parades on Beale Street where nobody showed up. They stayed in mediocre, half-empty Memphis hotels, took cabs to games, and never even came close to filling the Liberty Bowl, despite reasonable ticket prices and fans from the opposing teams who traveled well. The Oilers reached a record high attendance of 50,000 in Memphis once… when Steelers fans came to town en masse.
When the Oilers rolled out in 1997, that was the last NFL game played in Memphis. Two years later, comfortably settled in Nashville and rebranded as the Titans, that team made it to the Super Bowl. Cue eye rolls from Memphis.
Babysitting the Oilers (and hating it) was about as good as it got in Memphis for football in the 90s. In 1995, a Canadian Football League team known as the Mad Dogs lasted one season in town. In 2000, an American Basketball Team with the Houn’Dogs moniker (man, they were dead set on using that, weren’t they?) played a season in Memphis before disappearing.
Nowadays, the Liberty Bowl is used by the University of Memphis Tigers. The NCAA also holds the annual college bowl game of the same name there too.
But hey, Memphis’s luck finally turned around in 2001 when they got a very legit NBA team in the form of the relocated Vancouver Grizzlies! They also got a minor league baseball team to play in their sweet new downtown stadium – the Redbirds, a St. Louis Cardinals affiliate. So Memphis is doin’ all right these days.
Even if they don’t necessarily love the Titans yet.