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IN CAL WE TRUST

IN CAL WE TRUST

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The microphone followed his every move, captured his every utterance. The guy holding it, a member of the Chicago-based, ESPN-contracted Intersport team documenting the Tigers for the three-episode "The Season" series that aired Tuesday night on ESPN2, was the hardest worker in the arena. Well, hardest working just after the Tigers' 35-minute plus playing trio of Antonio Burks, Sean Banks and Anthony Rice in Memphis' 91-69 win over Charlotte Saturday. And, there's also the perpetual top brow-wiper to consider, Memphis coach John Calipari. You almost had to feel for microphone man, suited up with a Ghostbusters-style proton pack, one black-gloved hand maneuvering the 7-foot plus pole over the Tiger bench. While squatting to talk with players on the bench, both feet planted, Calipari jumped forward, Frogger-like, onto the court, both feet again flat-foot planted, all while slapping the floor. The Tigers led by 24 at the time. And this is the guy microphone man had to follow. This is the guy who at game's conclusion said his existence didn't depend on the victory. "It's not life or death to me folks," says Calipari. "Will never be. It's just not. Won enough games, done enough good things, taken this program to another level completely from where it was when I took over." Life or Death Last week, listening to the office rumblings and sports radio rants, or by reading and watching the local media, life and death appeared the optimal words. Some Tiger fans and followers, it seemed, had shuffled to the edge, ready to jump. Or, at least some were ready to shove Calipari. All of which is completely absurd. Was there sufficient reason to be mad following road losses to Southern Miss. and DePaul? Yeah. There was reason to be angry, real angry. Was there reason to stand affronted at Calipari's post-DePaul game statement declaring his players, not his coaching, as the reason for the Tigers' resounding defeat? Yes É well, no actually. Actually, who truly gave a damn about that, until local media scrutinized it. Then talk turned to Calipari's record at Memphis to-date, the overall state of the Tiger hoops program and whether the contract extension he signed Sunday through the 2010 season should be postponed. Memphis without Calipari? Now that would be miserable. Winning Basketball É and still winning over the city No, they weren't miserable, though. Nor miserables. Not all of the true Memphis fans, at least. But, they were pissed. Which is why the Charlotte win was imperative, to get a conference victory, to again envelope the program with a positive aura, and to remind Tiger fans and the many, many casual followers of the Calipari positives. Academic improvement and escalating graduations are pointed out frequently by Calipari. Dr. Joe Lucky, Memphis's director of academic services, is mentioned as much as "hustle" and "desire." And, Cal's right. Grades have improved. Coaching at Memphis is also at its highest level in decades. Maybe ever. Everyone can and will second-guess Cal's decisions, even himself. But the facts are, the Tigers actually set screens now. They play tough, rotating, structured, feet-moving, hands-raised defense. Observing practice sometimes, one almost wonders if the teaching and coaching is too good, perhaps too much for every player to absorb. That's often why you see second-half season surges, when the X's and O's start to click. Speaking publicly on behalf of the city and university, Calipari is a constant dynamic spark of optimistic energy, often almost commanding this predominantly pessimistic, self-doubting city to strive for achievements otherwise deemed impossible. From the recently-aired (already-tired) new Kroger commercials, featuring Cal leading his "team" of Kroger baggers and checkers, to USA Today front sports page coverage to appearances on ESPN or at local charity events, Calipari commands coverage like few coaches. Which is saying a lot in today's player-depleted world of college basketball, where no longer are the too often no-name players the stars. The coaches are. Think of the traditional college powers, glance at the Top 25, and then quickly name just one starter from a few. Unless a hoops junkie, you can't. This might explain the flared emotions when Cal rested the blame on his players. Players? What players? Cal is now the face of the Tigers. Vocal, on-the-court leader É on the sideline It was an explicative-peppered tongue lashing not unlike the drill sergeant scenes from l Metal Jacket the player's head didn't drop outright in dejection, his eyes did momentarily. He tries to play less tentative. And, he remains silent, always silent, at least until after practice. If there is one justified complaint about Calipari, it's that the very players he has recruited, seem so ill-suited for the style he demands. (About the losing-recruits-to-the-NBA debate: Are you kidding? You have to go after the best players). He talks of hustle, effort, emotion and vocalizing, and primarily the overall desire to win. Very few Tigers fit that mold. Go down the list. Jeremy Hunt. Soft-spoken, usually lets his actions speak. Sean Banks. Ditto. Same thing for Rice. And Modibo Diarra. And Ivan Lopez. It wasn't until this season that Burks and Duane Irwin started talking and leading. "I am trying to get everybody else involved," Irwin said. "Burks is our leader, but he's going to need somebody else to help him step up and talk." Even then, it seems forced. Where is that natural charismatic and vocal leader? For now, that position again truly falls with Calipari. Which, for even a polished speaker like Cal, leads to emotional outbursts in his call-it-how-he-sees-it style with too many troop-rallying, us-against-the-world speeches. But, would you rather have a coach-speak spin, or see him get as mad as you after a loss. Walled off from it all, behind his stubborn, tough-guy public persona is Calipari the family man, continually striving-to-improve. The coach who, word has it, by his own pocket unceremoniously hung new NCAA, NIT, and retired jersey banners throughout the Finch center. The man who reads Christian self-improvement Max Lucado books, pumps his own money into the school, and brings his children to practice, being father for players and child. "I told them to relax and have fun," says Calipari. "They know that I love 'em. I'm so happy where this program is right now academically, on the basketball floor. What we've done, I'm ecstatic." Hence the reason for ESPN's coverage of the Tigers. "The good news is (The Season crew) was there after the (DePaul) game, listening to everything I said," says Calipari, in reference to his player-blaming. "So, they got the jest of what I said, and why I said what I said." If you are the microphone guy, you got every word. And, if you are a Tiger fan or follower, you'll be listening to the Tigers' best coach ever, admittedly or not, through the miserable moments and winning basketball for six more years.

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