MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Location, location, location.
The three most-important things about real estate are two of the most-important things about bringing fans to a bowl game. Where the game is played is paramount. But having those fans feel good about their team has to fill the other spot.
Iowa State dropped in the Big 12’s bowl pecking order to Memphis’ Liberty Bowl, to which Memphis says “Thank you much, Camping World Bowl and Orlando. Bless your hearts, Cactus Bowl and Phoenix.”
“We sold 15,600 tickets in less than 96 hours,” Iowa State Athletic Director Jamie Pollard told a group of Cyclone fans Friday. How large was that group? Well, it was in downtown Memphis’ AutoZone Park, the home of the Memphis Redbirds Class AAA baseball team, which has 10,000 seats.
Nearly every seat was filled, and hundreds of other ISU supporters took up standing-room spots at Iowa State’s pep rally for Saturday’s Liberty Bowl. Which happens to be against the University of Memphis.
“I’ve got news for the Memphis Tigers,” Pollard told his people. “Looking at all of you in here and on Beale Street tonight and at that (Liberty Bowl) parade (Friday afternoon), I think they forgot who the real home team is going to be.”
The game at the 57,266-seat Liberty Bowl stadium is a sellout. Memphis is pleased. Beale Street, which had nightspots stuffed with Iowa Staters Thursday night, is very pleased. And Cyclone fans are delighted, too, having gone bowl-less since Iowa State lost to Tulsa in the Liberty here five years ago.
“Everybody’s definitely excited about (Coach Matt) Campbell and the direction they’re going there,” said Craig Smith of Mount Vernon, who hit the road with his family at midnight and got to Memphis in time for the 11 a.m. rally.
“It was an easy eight-and-a-half hour drive,” Smith said.
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“They certainly exceeded expectations, and they missed out on opportunities. This could have been an unbelievable year.”
But, this season’s 7-5 is a lot better than the 3-9, 2-10, 3-9 and 3-9 of the previous four seasons, with victories over Oklahoma and TCU in the 2017 mix.
“I’d been really unhappy as an alum,” Gary Stefani of Independence said. “There’s no reason a class university like Iowa State shouldn’t be able to compete like they have at Iowa.
“But I’m happy to be here, obviously.”
Lynn and Dan Davis of Cedar Rapids have had ISU season tickets for over 40 years and are at their third Liberty Bowl. The first was in 1972, when the Cyclones lost to Georgia Tech.
“We went to every game the (1994) year they went 0-10-1,” Dan said.
“Things are on the way up,” said Lynn. “We’re extremely supportive of this coach. It seems like he’s doing everything the right way.”
Part of the Cyclones’ allure is good individual stories, like All-Big 12 wide receiver Allen Lazard, quarterback Kyle Kempt, and running back David Montgomery. But the topper is quarterback-turned-middle linebacker Joel Lanning, whose “Dilly Dilly!” greeting to the pep rally crowd got a big cheer, then got a big laugh when he called the Liberty Bowl stadium “South Trice Jack, or whatever.”
Lanning has about 60 relatives and longtime family friends in Memphis today. One told a story suggesting he had quarterback written all over him as a tot. Another had a 15-year-old story that indicated Lanning had a future as a defensive player.
“I’m his godmother,” said Allison Ripperger of Fort Dodge. “I’ve been watching him play since he was on a flag football team.
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“I was baby-sitting for him when he was nine months old. I gave him a little Nerf football to play with. The kitchen was about 15 feet long. He was sitting at the kitchen table and threw the ball across the kitchen and hit me in the head.”
No harm done there with a spongy toy. But Lanning’s cousin, Andrea Laubenthal of Bradgate, Iowa, felt Lanning’s oompf when he was 6 or 7 years old.
“We were tailgating at a game at the UNI-Dome on the grass lots,” Laubenthal said. “We were throwing a football around, messing around before the game. Joel tackled me and sprained my ankle.
“I guess I kind of got over it.”
She’d like to see her cousin tackle some Tigers on Saturday. It’s Memphis’ stadium and Memphis’ team. But the visitors are many, and have made themselves at home.