Thursday, March 25, 2010

NCAA's Final Judgment

Memphis crashes the Sweet Sixteen but not in a good way.

Posted By on Thu, Mar 25, 2010 at 4:00 AM

The latest attempt by the University of Memphis to lay the blame for its NCAA infractions on someone else is flopping, just like its earlier efforts did.

Educational Testing Service (ETS), which administers the SAT college entrance examination, went by the book when it invalidated Derrick Rose's test in May 2008, after he twice failed to respond to letters warning that his eligibility was in jeopardy.

"We are legally prohibited from discussing the ongoing nature of an investigation without the test taker's written permission," said Tom Ewing, spokesman for ETS.

Rose never did that, and ETS, like the U of M, still can't even confirm that he is "the student athlete" in the basketball investigation. His repeated refusal to cooperate with ETS or the NCAA in 2008 and 2009, along with another infraction involving his brother's free travel, caused the NCAA to vacate the Tigers' 2007-2008 season records, hardware, banners, and tournament revenue.

The university argued that it never had proof that Rose had a stand-in take his test and that he was ruled ineligible after the fact. The NCAA said that the U of M "had reason to know of a serious problem regarding the student athlete's eligibility" as early as October 2007 — before the season — and that Rose declined to explain his scores, retake the test, or give a handwriting sample.

On Monday, U of M president Shirley Raines issued a prepared statement saying ETS should notify institutions of ongoing investigations involving student athletes and engage in more "open dialogue." She didn't say anything about Rose or former coach John Calipari engaging in open dialogue. Silent Cal issued a statement via the Internet saying he was sorry about the outcome and would not be making any more statements.

About the only person close to this story engaging in any open dialogue was U of M legal counsel Sheri Lipman. I asked her if Rose's four attempts to pass either the ACT or the SAT were cause for concern before he suited up as a Tiger. ETS says only small improvements can be expected, and a third of retesters do worse.

"From what I have seen, kids have lots of struggles with standardized tests," she said. "It's not unusual to try multiple times and get a little better each time. That, on its face, is not suspect."

I asked if a law student who repeatedly failed the bar exam before passing would be suspect. She said the bar exam more accurately reflects coursework than the SAT or ACT.

"There can be a real disconnect between what you do in your high school career and what is on the test," particularly in inner-city schools, she said.

Rose was interviewed by U of M officials in November 2007. The university investigated his scores on the ACT, which he took and failed three times in Chicago, and the SAT, which got him admitted. That test was taken in Detroit.

"We knew all the circumstances of the taking of the test," Lipman said. "The answers provided by the student-athlete were believed by everyone in the room."

Rose, of course, was gone after one season to the NBA's Chicago Bulls. He and the U of M were notified by ETS that his scores were canceled in May 2008. The NCAA sent a notice of inquiry — essentially a warning shot — in September 2008. On January 16, 2009, the U of M got a notice of NCAA allegations but did not make it public for three more months, while Calipari finished the season and subsequently landed a job at Kentucky. Rose declined several times to meet with the NCAA.

When the U of M formally responded last April, athletic director R.C. Johnson defiantly said the 2008 tournament banner would hang in FedExForum pending an appeal. The 2009-2010 basketball media guide features Rose on four of the first six pages and touts the 38 wins that occurred in his lone season.

These are not the actions of an athlete, coach, or university that feels contrite about the former direction of its basketball program. The NCAA is not dense. It usually goes easier on programs like USC, which self-reported its 2007-2008 basketball sins and preemptively vacated the season. The final judgment on the U of M came down in the middle of the NCAA Tournament, which Kentucky is favored to win.

Maybe it's a coincidence, or maybe it's a message.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Final Two

In Murfreesboro, March Madness is more like March Mildness.

Posted By on Thu, Mar 18, 2010 at 4:00 AM

If Melrose and White Station meet in the championship game of the state AAA boys' high school basketball tournament this weekend, it will be the third straight all-Memphis final.

And once again, hardly anyone from Memphis will see it, even though the two teams, which have already met four times this year in jam-packed games, have several future college starters, including University of Memphis recruit Joe Jackson of White Station.

The state tournament that has become a showcase of Memphis basketball is played in Murfreesboro, 240 miles away. The last time it was played outside of Middle Tennessee was 1974, when Memphis hosted it, and Melrose took the title.

Due to a combination of Memphis dominance, timing, and geography, there isn't much March Madness in Tennessee high school basketball these days.

A Memphis team has won the AAA title in nine of the last 10 years. White Station has five championships, Ridgeway two, and Hamilton and Bartlett one each.

Some school systems in Middle Tennessee, including Nashville, are on spring break this week. But Memphis City Schools doesn't start spring break until March 29th.

If their team makes it to the finals, students usually have to take two days out of school to go see the game. The quarterfinal games start on Thursday afternoon, with the semis on Friday and the finals on Saturday. Once their team loses, most fans go home. The all-Memphis finals have been played in Murfreesboro's 11,520-seat Monte Hale Arena in front of fewer than 1,000 fans, in sharp contrast to the noisy, standing-room-only crowds when the top teams meet in the regular season on their home courts or at nearby neutral sites.

"If it were here, it would be sold out and it would be huge," said Kevin Kane, head of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Unlike last week's Southeastern Conference Tournament in Nashville, where scalpers were getting $400 or more, cost isn't an issue. A $12 ticket gets you into three division final games.

"It's the travel," said Bernard Childress, executive director of the TSSAA. "When we had Spring Fling (the spring sports championships) in Memphis a few years ago, it was the same thing for people from East Tennessee."

Melrose is trying to win the state championship for the first time since 1983. The school has a rich basketball tradition, including stars Larry Finch, Ronnie Robinson, and William Bedford, all of whom went on to play for the University of Memphis.

White Station has tended to send its basketball talent out of town, to schools like Tennessee, which landed Dane Bradshaw and J.P. Prince, and Alabama, which nabbed Ernest Shelton.

Former U of M coach John Calipari recruited nationally and courted "one-and-done" future pros like DaJuan Wagner, Derrick Rose, and Tyreke Evans. New coach Josh Pastner wants to reestablish the hometown base. Stay-at-home star Jackson, a point guard, is considered a likely starter for the Tigers next season.

Childress says there's nothing stopping Memphis from hosting the finals. The contract with Murfreesboro expires next year. Childress would like to sign a two-year contract for the 2012 and 2013 tournaments before then.

"Our board is going to start the bid process at our next meeting, and several cities have expressed interest," he said. "We have heard from Memphis, Chattanooga, Cookeville, and Murfreesboro. The last time Memphis talked to us, FedExForum was being mentioned."

Talk is cheap. The host city must clear its arena for two weeks to accommodate both the boys' and girls' tournaments in all divisions. That could be a problem for Memphis with the Grizzlies and Tigers already sharing the arena, plus special events like the 2010 NCAA women's basketball regional March 27th and 29th.

Kane said he tried to get the TSSAA to move the state football championship game for private schools to Memphis when the finalists were Memphis University School and Christian Brothers. But he ran into resistance from sponsors in Murfreesboro. He believes that the only realistic chance for Memphis is to form an alliance with East Tennessee and lobby the TSSAA board of directors.

"If the board told the directors to move it around, they wouldn't have any choice," he said.

A former college basketball player at Belmont in Nashville, Childress agrees that there could be as many as 10 future college players on the floor, if White Station meets Melrose again on Saturday.

"It would be fun," he said.

Too bad most of us will miss it.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Fairgrounds Triage

"Green it and clean it" (but don't reduce parking) in Phase One.

Posted By on Thu, Mar 11, 2010 at 4:00 AM

Football fans will see a cleaner and greener fairgrounds and a lot more empty space around Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in September.

In the southwest corner of the fairgrounds, heavy-equipment operators are grooming the former site of Libertyland, turning it into a shady, grassy grove suitable for pregame parties and picnics. Meanwhile, on the fifth floor of City Hall, heavy political operators are performing triage on the property and putting first things first. Which is to say, football and parking, all 5,372 spaces.

City councilman Reid Hedgepeth, a former college football player determined to move the ball on this project, gathered the main players Monday. They included University of Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson, Steve Ehrhart, representing the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, Fred Jones, representing the Southern Heritage Classic, and Robert Lipscomb, representing the city administration.

(The full council was scheduled to take up the issue Tuesday after Flyer deadlines.)

The goal was to get an agreement on Phase One of the "clean and green" of the amusement park site and move on. The next phase includes demolition of the cattle barns and most of the other buildings west of the stadium so they can be replaced with a "Tiger Lawn" (aka "The Great Lawn") from the East Parkway entrance of the fairgrounds to the stadium. Hedgepeth and Lipscomb want to get that much done before the 2010 football season starts and the U of M takes the field under new head coach Larry Porter. The cost is approximately $2 million.

"We're not finalizing the fairgrounds. All we're tying to do is clean the place up," Lipscomb said.

Noting the recent flare-up, mainly by Jones, over fears of lost parking places, Lipscomb added, "If we have this kind of problem cleaning it up, imagine the problem we're going to have advancing the notion of what ought to be there."

Conspicuously absent at the table was Henry Turley, whose group Fair Ground LLC was chosen as developer of the fairgrounds by the city's appointed fairgrounds reuse committee and confirmed by then-mayor Willie Herenton in 2008. Turley, the developer of Harbor Town and Uptown (and a minority stockholder in Contemporary Media, Inc., the Flyer's parent company), has a national reputation as an expert in new urbanism. He has called Fair Ground "the best idea I ever had." But he can't get political support for his plan, which includes big-box retailers like Target and hotels like Hampton Inns to generate taxes that would pay for an amateur team-sports complex and fairgrounds and stadium improvements.

Also absent was anyone from the Memphis Park Commission, which operates the stadium.

Calling the shots, at least for now, are Lipscomb and former city councilman and architect Tom Marshall, who leads a fairgrounds redevelopment group that has the blessing of FedEx executives, the U of M, and most members of the City Council.

No matter who gets the job, it won't be easy. The lineup for the East Parkway side of the fairgrounds is set, with Fairview Middle School, the Salvation Army's Kroc Center for recreation, the grand entrance, and the greensward at the old amusement park. So is most of the north side, with the Children's Museum and the high school football field and track.

That leaves the stadium, the Mid-South Coliseum, and enough asphalt to land airplanes if Memphis International ever shuts down. At Monday's meeting, Marshall had a display board with six reasons to tear down the coliseum. Jones wants it to stay. He's a tough advocate, with friends on the council.

If the football crowd has its way, parking will reign, millions more dollars will be poured into the stadium for fans who don't come and for handicapped seating that isn't needed, and the U of M will cross its fingers that a new coach and players can turn the program around and get Memphis into a Bowl Championship Series conference — the latest Holy Grail.

Turley's mixed bag is also a long shot. A "Target tax" or "Trader Joe's tax" would probably pass in some affluent precincts in Midtown, but big-box retailers always run into resistance. His sports model is Bridges, the nonprofit that brings private and public schools together for season-opening football games, only he wants to do it regularly.

In a town where public more often than not means poor (schools, the Med, MATA, etc.), Memphis may not be ready for that leap of faith. We prefer our racial reconciliation and happy endings in small doses, à la The Blind Side — or on the sports page or the football field.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Tourist Traps

Investing in tourism might look like a no-brainer, but it's not.

Posted By on Thu, Mar 4, 2010 at 4:00 AM

Tourism itself may not be recession proof, but the lure of entertainment districts, convention centers, and sports facilities as visitor magnets is as irresistible as free beer.

Two years after former mayor Willie Herenton proposed one, a new downtown convention center is creeping back into the news. So is Beale Street, thanks to a fresh audit of John Elkington and Performa Entertainment. And so is the fairgrounds, which was the subject of a Memphis City Council committee meeting last week.

Tourism harnesses the power of other people's money, not to mention the Food Network and the Discovery Channel. It plays to our strengths. The payoff is packed hotels and restaurants. An economic stimulus package that works. Fun for everyone.

There's big money and upside in tourism, but there are a lot of traps too.

Trap one: What's your niche? Scott Robinson is head coach of the Germantown swim team. He and 1,500 coaches, parents, and swimmers from Tennessee, Alabama, and the Florida Panhandle spent four days in Nashville last week at the short-course championships. The city-owned Centennial Sportsplex has an aquatic center that works for them (as well as an ice-skating rink and indoor/outdoor tennis courts).

"Pools here in Memphis don't have the capacity to handle that many people in one meet," Robinson said. "To keep the meet within a reasonable time frame, they use two pools. We have pools that size here with movable bulkheads, but they can't handle the spectators."

It took three-and-a-half days to run all the events. That's four hotel nights if you're keeping score. The meet was the fourth one in four weeks in Nashville. Make that 16 hotel nights. The University of Memphis used to host a long-course meet but stopped bidding on it five years ago.

The heavy hitters in the Memphis fairgrounds discussions are the tenants of the football stadium. That leaves 355 non-football days a year. What would you put at the fairgrounds that the Mike Rose Soccer Complex, First Horizon baseball fields, and the Racquet Club of Memphis don't already offer?

Trap two: Tourism is not a solution to a budget crisis. Because of special districts and financing arrangements, tourism taxes pay the debt on stadiums and arenas and convention facilities and promote more tourism. The plans for the fairgrounds, Graceland, and the Bass Pro Pyramid all envision keeping the "tax increment" inside the special district. Money for schools and police and trash pickup comes from unrestricted taxes.

Trap three: Tourism draws cities into an arms race with their neighbors to build new convention centers. Nashville is a heavyweight with a firm base in the vibrant country music industry. Memphis is a middleweight with one foot in the musical past, a bipolar downtown with the convention center and the Pyramid at one end and the Peabody, Beale Street, and FedExForum at the other end, and a history of squandering money on white elephants.

Trap four: gentrification. Lower Broadway in Nashville looked like it was hosting a Chi Omega sorority convention last Saturday. We ate grilled bologna sandwiches and drank Pabst Blue Ribbon at Robert's honky-tonk and saw Alison Krauss at the Ryman Auditorium, but the pitfalls of progress were obvious too. From hamburgers at Earnestine and Hazel's on South Main to Beale Street blues to Harry Connick at the Cannon Center, Memphis more than held its own.

Trap five: Tourism and entertainment is not enough. A downtown needs a business base. New Orleans is in the same boat as Memphis. Nashville has new skyscrapers and corporate headquarters and the state capitol. The main reason we were in Nashville several times recently was work and a nice payday. The fun was a bonus. Memphis business consultant Don Hutson tells his audiences to move toward abundance and away from scarcity. Nashville still has an abundance of abundance.

Trap six: The back-story doesn't matter to visitors, but it does matter to the city. Elkington and the Beale Street club owners deserve credit for turning nothing in 1982 into something today. They do not deserve an exclusive call on profits for eternity. The Watkins Uiberall audit addresses past claims that may or may not be worth pursuing, not political shenanigans and corruption. The city, which provides services, should legitimately expect lease payments. Casinos pay 12 percent in state and local taxes in Mississippi, and that's one of the smaller cuts in a capital-intensive industry that generates a lot of cash.

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