I got a few odd looks around the office last Tuesday. Co-workers asked what I thought about the prospect of John Calipari leaving his coaching post at the University of Memphis, and I replied with some variation on "good riddance." It was not, at the time, a common response.
To most, the Calipari era will be remembered for a 252-69 win-loss record and six NCAA tournament appearances, including two Elite Eights and one run to the national title game. Maybe it'll be remembered for an NIT championship and — yes, this happened — an NIT championship parade.
But there's another story about the Calipari era, one that most Tiger fans have tried to ignore. This story is about the presence of William Wesley, aka "Worldwide Wes," the notorious operator who played a murky role in the procurement of Tiger stars Dajuan Wagner, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Derrick Rose, and Tyreke Evans. This story is about diploma factories, such as Laurinberg Prep, which provided the foundation for the team's recent string of deep tournament runs. It's about package deals, the most recent of which had Calipari hiring freshman Evans' personal trainer as an "administrative assistant" for $4,500 a month, according to ESPN's Outside the Lines.
It's a story of "student-athletes" who were more often treated like the temporary contract workers a broken system has turned too many of them into: Jeremy Hunt welcomed back from a "permanent" suspension; recruit Keena Young dismissed because his high school teammate (Kendrick Perkins) had the temerity to back out of a scholarship commitment and turn pro. It's the story of a string of behavioral and legal problems so lengthy it would be folly to try to list them here. And it's the story of a torrent of B.S. and outright lies from the mouth of "Coach Cal" himself — a logorrheic maelstrom that was insulting when it wasn't hysterical.
Calipari revealed himself with his messy, but inevitable, departure, potentially napalming the program he'd built up and, by most reliable accounts, lying about it. Calipari claimed he was encouraging Memphis recruits to stay put, but reporters more trustworthy than Calipari have suggested that he in fact delayed his signing with Kentucky for the purpose of legally persuading those recruits to follow him north. The University of Memphis student newspaper, The Daily Helmsman, proclaimed Calipari "dead to Memphis," capturing the tone of once worshipful fans whose current sense of betrayal is not entirely justified.
Why rehash the Calipari era now? Because the future of University of Memphis basketball will be driven, in part, by how Memphians perceive the recent past.
To most fans, the success of the Calipari era was worth the baggage. People don't like to remember that the University of Massachusetts' one Final Four run under Calipari was later stricken from the books because of NCAA violations. I hope the same thing doesn't happen to the University of Memphis. But if it doesn't, I suspect it will only be because Calipari became more sophisticated about gaming the system.
Chasing Calipari-style success in the hiring of his successor will likely result in a program that duplicates Calipari's shadiness more than his skill — and suffers more than losing games in the process. The program may have dodged this bullet by failing to hire Baylor coach Scott Drew, who profiles as a Calipari mini-me. It remains to be seen which direction newly hired recruiting specialist Josh Pastner will take the program.
Instead, Calipari's departure should be seen as an opportunity to reshape Tiger basketball. With such a fertile recruiting base, excellent facilities, strong community and college support, and, frankly, such a weak conference, Tiger basketball can function at a high level even without living as fully in the gray area as it did under Calipari's rule.
A post-Calipari era might look like this: a more likable coach running a somewhat cleaner program in a business that's now almost universally sketchy; a stronger contingent of the homegrown and area recruits for whom Memphians love to root; a return to the regional rivalry games that fans enjoy but that Calipari had brainwashed the Tiger faithful into thinking the university shouldn't schedule; fewer one-and-done rent-a-stars.
A program like this — one reminiscent of Tiger basketball in the Larry Finch years — would probably mean having a Top 25 team that makes an occasional tournament run rather than a Top 5 team that makes an annual tournament run. But fans wouldn't have to play the see-no-evil/hear-no-evil game quite as much. I think that trade-off would be well worth it. Sadly, I suspect most Tiger fans — now accustomed to the propped-up heights of the Calipari years — would disagree.
Chris Herrington is the Flyer's music/film editor and also writes "Beyond the Arc," an online blog about the Memphis Grizzlies.
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