"The support I get in this town. People [in the media] must have been hard, because I'm getting hugged when I walk down the street, go to lunch, or walk in the gym, because they know I'm trying to do right. And then the mean people, who just try to make this an issue ... I'm going to do whats right and fair. I don't care what's said or written, because I don't hear it or read it. I meet with people who I care about, and that's what I did this week."
-- John Calipari, January 13, 2005
You learn a lot about a person in his darkest hours. And we learned plenty about John Calipari four years ago, as he managed an off-the-court crisis centered around one of his players, Jeremy Hunt. This week, perhaps we learned just as much in Calipari's finest hour, as he packs his bags for arguably the most famous job in his profession. Whatever "the mean people" might say about Calipari, he makes decisions that are his alone.
Get ready, Memphis basketball fans, for a two-year lesson on what's come to be known as Tiger Nation. With Calipari on his way to Kentucky -- leaving nine 20-win seasons, including four 30-win campaigns in his wake -- the U of M athletic department and its myriad supporters will soon answer several suddenly pressing questions.
* Which is bigger: the Tiger program or John Calipari? (A coach who outgrows his own program would make for a good Aesop's Fable.)
* Can a program, its facilities, and track record attract recruits, or do they come solely for the coach?
* Will Tiger Nation fill 17,000-seat FedExForum for a team that loses a dozen games? What if that team loses 20 games?
* Can there be a "next Calipari" with the Tigers locked in Conference USA?
These questions will be answered over the next two seasons (the 2009-10 campaign is now a transitional one in every sense). The biggest variable under the U of M's control, of course, is just who it picks to succeed the most successful coach in the program's history.
Calipari did what any sentient basketball coach would do. There are four programs in the country that make for a short conversation when it comes to job offers: UCLA, North Carolina, Kansas, and Kentucky. The history, resources, and limitless support from alumni, boosters, businesses, and student bodies (yes, that counts) make those four schools nirvana for college basketball coaches. Had Calipari refused the offer, we could suspect Fred Smith had transferred ownership of FedEx to him, and Graceland had turned over the key to Elvis' bedroom. It's a job Calipari had to take.
Now, the challenge for the U of M is to build on what Calipari established in his near-decade at the helm. The finest talent in the country will come to Memphis if the allure of national television and NCAA tournament runs remain constant. (They may come for only a season, but such is the landscape of big-time college hoops as it's been drawn by the NBA's draft restrictions. Unless you're North Carolina, Kentucky, UCLA, or Kansas, youd better learn to compete for "one-and-done" players.) Calipari won't be taking FedExForum with him, nor the Finch Center. Players aiming to develop -- and yes, land an NBA contract -- wont find better facilities. But the Memphis program will miss Calipari's unofficial title of "broker to the pros." Unless, of course, the same skill can be cultivated by his successor.
Most important -- particularly over the uneasy days that will come before Memphis names a successor -- tears should be saved for larger crises than John Calipari's departure. It should be remembered that Memphis saved Calipari as much as the coach saved the Tiger program. Calipari had become essentially an outsider in the college ranks after a brief stint as coach of the NBA's New Jersey Nets. Listing in the aftermath of Tic Price's two-year misdirection, the command of the Tiger ship was given entirely to Calipari, and he made the most of it, by every measure. A high-profile coach found a once-high-profile program, and they desperately needed each other. If the "next Tic Price" can be avoided, the Memphis program can continue its climb toward a national championship.
During his stay here last weekend for the South Regional, North Carolina coach Roy Williams mentioned a recruiting trip he made to Memphis in the mid-Eighties, during his days as an assistant under Dean Smith. The recruit he was after? Elliot Perry. It says much about college basketball in Memphis -- and more than a little about then Tiger coach Larry Finch -- that Perry said no to Carolina so he could play in his hometown, for the Tigers. There was, you'll remember, a Tiger basketball program before John Calipari.