NFL

Memphis Could Have Had an NFL Expansion Team in 1995

The state of Tennessee already has an NFL team. But really, the Tennessee Titans mostly represent the Nashville area. It’s a lot harder for Memphis fans to get stoked up about the Titans when they play over 200 miles away. If things had worked out differently during the 1995 expansion process, Memphis could have had a team of its very own.

The 1995 NFL expansion: five cities vie for two slots

In 1993, for the first time in 17 years, the National Football League was ready to expand. There were five realistic contenders, as ownership groups from the cities of Baltimore, St. Louis, Charlotte, Jacksonville, and Memphis all made bids for the two open slots. The two new teams would begin play in the 1995 season.

Cotton magnate William Dunavant, who also owned the USFL’s Memphis Showboats, served as the main force behind the Memphis bid. Also on board was FedEx founder and CEO Fred Smith, with Presley Enterprises serving as a minority partner.

The Memphis franchise bid had one thing that some of the other cities didn’t – a new-ish stadium ready to go. Memphis’ Liberty Bowl had been renovated in 1987 in the hopes of one day attracting an NFL team. Because of the Presley connection, the proposed Memphis team also had, by far, the best name of the potential expansion class — the Memphis Hound Dogs.

Not a fan of the “Hound Dogs”? It could have been worse. We also could have had the Baltimore Bombers or the St. Louis Stallions.

The Memphis dream dies

The Charlotte bid, spearheaded by Jerry Richardson, received the 29th NFL franchise on October 26th, 1993. One month later, on November 30, the NFL surprised everyone by awarding Wayne Weaver’s Jacksonville bid the second expansion slot. The football fans of Baltimore, St. Louis, and Memphis would have to keep waiting.

The Canadian Football League would briefly expand into some of the markets the NFL left behind. Memphis would be one of those markets, with Fred Smith turning to the CFL in 1995 after the NFL dream died. However, like all of the American CFL teams outside of Baltimore, the “Mad Dogs” were not a success and folded after only one season.

Despite being spurned in the 1993 expansion process, Baltimore and St. Louis would both receive new NFL teams before the decade was out. Memphis would not be so lucky. They would not get a permanent professional sports franchise of any kind until the NBA’s Grizzlies relocated to the area from Vancouver in 2001.

Memphis’ brief flirtation with the NFL

Steve McNair as a Tennessee Oiler
The late, great Steve McNair of the Tennessee Oilers in action during a game against Washington Redskins at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis | Andy Lyons/Allsport

Despite the loss, Memphis did eventually wind up with an NFL team…technically.

When the Houston Oilers relocated to Tennessee, their intention all along was to move to Nashville. Unfortunately, their new stadium (now known as Nissan Stadium) would not be finished until 1999, and there was no suitable stadium nearby. While they were headquartered in Nashville, they would play their 1997 “home” games at Memphis’ Liberty Bowl — 212 miles away.

The arrangement was a disaster, as chronicled by Yahoo’s Jay Busbee. Knowing full well they were Nashville’s team and not their team, Memphis fans rejected the Oilers outright. The team commuted three hours to play in front of half-empty crowds at the Liberty Bowl. With this in mind, it’s somewhat of a miracle that the Oilers even finished 8-8 that season. They would play the next season at Vanderbilt’s Memorial Stadium in Nashville, which they probably should have done to begin with.