Lost Wins

The Calipari Era ends with a whimper

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Twin legacies. If University of Memphis basketball and John Calipari weren’t indelibly linked before the news that the Tigers’ 2007-08 season has likely been “vacated” by the NCAA, they certainly are today.
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College basketball historians can now count exactly one program to have twice vacated an appearance in the Final Four: the University of Memphis. Those same historians have just as easy a task counting the number of coaches to have presided over twice-vacated programs: John Calipari. The fact that each party’s first, well, “vacation” took place before they joined forces in 2000 only makes the inevitability of this week’s news that much more eerie. Somewhere, Dana Kirk and Marcus Camby must be shaking their heads. Smiling? Let’s hope not.

There’s a parallel between the emotions Tiger Nation must now reconcile and those unleashed over the steroid era in Major League Baseball. When performances we cheered so passionately are erased in the record book (or in baseball’s case, public opinion), how do those cheers echo in our memory banks? When events that brought so many together toward the same happy goal are proved to be fraudulent, what do we do with the laugh lines that still crease our cheeks from those epic moments? In the case of Tiger basketball, the asterisks are now quite real, and there’s no explanation — “it was an over-the-counter supplement” — to purchase enough doubt to matter.

Karma can be cruel. With less than two years of hindsight, we now see the game-tying, buzzer-beating trey drained by Kansas’ Mario Chalmers as a salve for college basketball history. Had that shot been a few inches left or right, the University of Memphis would now be the only program in college basketball history to vacate a national championship. At least this week’s sorrow and regret seem to dovetail with the community’s collective grief in the aftermath of the Jayhawks’ unlikely win on April 7, 2008.

Most damaging to fans who relish achievement in the context of history — count me as one — is the loss of the record-breaking 38 wins, a standard that would likely have stood for a few decades, or until the NCAA expanded its regular season. And if you want to find two of the bloodiest victims in this rules-breaking massacre, look no further than the just-graduated pair of Antonio Anderson and Robert Dozier. Integral members of the Final Four team, Anderson and Dozier finished their careers with an NCAA-record 137 wins. The record book now leaves them with 99.

Back to measuring karma, you have to believe Calipari’s departure for Kentucky last April — shocking at the time — would be especially necessary now for these two soiled parties to move on. Kentucky boosters have what they paid for: the highest-paid, most media-friendly recruiter of talent in the land. They also have, by the NCAA’s take, an outlaw. (Calipari will certainly distance himself from the “decisions” Derrick Rose and his entourage made before enrolling at the U of M, just as he distanced himself from Camby’s dealings with an agent during the 1995-96 UMass season. But if a coach is given every credit for his program’s successes, he must absorb the lead when misdeeds place his program in front of a firing squad.)

The Tiger program is now in the hands of a 32-year-old rookie coach who was not even here in 2007-08. If Josh Pastner felt fresh when he was announced as Calipari’s successor four months ago, he’s a cloudless spring morning after a thundershower now. Pastner’s Tigers will not win 30 games next season. They won’t win the Conference USA championship. It’s unlikely they’ll reach the NCAA tournament. But let’s take the view human beings should with anything new: the 2009-10 Tigers will be clean.

There’s a great line Pastner should consider in the months ahead. It might do Tiger basketball fans some good, too. “Adversity is the state in which man most easily becomes acquainted with himself, being especially free of admirers then.” The man who uttered this wisdom? John Wooden.

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