Let's face it. Had it been possible, after the second-round defeat of the University of Memphis Tigers by Virginia, to scientifically measure local fan loyalty for the surviving teams in the just-concluded NCAA basketball tourney,
there's not much question as to which team would have been dead last.
To apply the same percentile method by which prodigious students score in the high 90s on exams, the Kentucky Wildcats and their coach, John Calipari, would clearly have been in the low aughts hereabouts. Much of this, of course, is sour grapes — in the original sense of the Aesop fable: The fox, who aspired after the grapes, sees them so far out of his reach in the heights of a vine that he professes to despise them as "sour," not worth pursuing.
In a sense, that's all the local fans who gloried in the semi-pro teams that Calipari was able to recruit year after year during the decade that he spent as head basketball coach at the University of Memphis. The emotional connection to the 2007-08 team was particularly strong. That team, which won a then-NCAA record 38 games, boasted, among other superb athletes, the extraordinary point guard Derrick Rose, a Chicagoan who was arguably the player of the year in college ranks that season. Never mind that he missed some key free throws late in the NCAA championship game loss to Kansas, before packing off to the Chicago Bulls.
Memphis fans grieved over that loss, but they still regarded the team as heroes and Coach Cal as something of a savior. Never mind that most of those "student athletes" were in pro ranks the next year, replaced by a new crop of one-and-done freshman, willing to log the single year of college play required by the NBA before becoming eligible for the pro draft. Cal, a specialist in these matters, could and did recruit yet another All-Star team.
That's where our fable of Coach Cal turned sour. He himself was recruited by the University of Kentucky, whose pedigreed basketball reputation had gone to seed. Though fans, boosters, and university officials pleaded with him to stay, he took the offer from the Bluegrass State. (Remember the 48-point font newspaper headline: "He's Gone!") And, adding insult to injury, he took most of his newly recruited (for Memphis!) one-and-doners with him.
There is a happy ending of sorts. Calipari deigned to leave behind a talented assistant, Josh Pastner, who became the U of M's head coach and who revived the Memphis tradition of recruiting locally and encouraging players to work toward a degree. Two of the real standouts on this year's team were seniors Joe Jackson and Chris Crawford, from White Station and Sheffield high schools, respectively. Four more Memphis players are still in the ranks, ready to take another shot at the NCAA tournament next year.
Memphis hasn't gone to the Final Four under Pastner, as it did under Calipari. But, of course, that achievement was wiped out by NCAA sanctions, along with the entire glorious season, because of the aforesaid Rose's forged admission tests. Turned out those grapes really were sour.
As for this year's tourney final? Suffice it to say, there were a lot of UConn Huskies fans in Memphis Monday night.