I had several reservations when the University of Memphis announced the hiring of John Calipari to take command of its basketball program on March 11, 2000. Here was an Armani clad carpetbagger sweeping into town in the aftermath of the most public wooing in these parts since Elvis was serenading Priscilla. Calipari had led the University of Massachusetts to the Final Four in 1996, only to jump ship for the NBA amid a scandal involving All-America Marcus Camby. He took a lowly New Jersey Nets franchise to the playoffs in 1998, only to lose control of the team before being fired 20 games into the abbreviated 1998-99 season. Calipari seemed like a "me-first" coach who would treat the Memphis job as little more than a launching pad toward greener pastures elsewhere.
Consider me at least a qualified convert. I wish I saw more cases like Shyrone Chatman and Earl Barron, contributing players under Calipari who have either graduated or expressed intent to do so. Love him all you like, but Chris Massie -- regardless of the loaded coarse load he tackled to qualify for the spring semester -- was no more a student at the U of M
than I am. He's a 25-year-old basketball player with ambitions to play professionally. I find it easier, alas, to root for student-athletes.
With that said, Coach Cal is doing precisely the job he promised a little over three years ago . . . and is earning his seven-figure salary. Over his three seasons in the Bluff City, Calipari has won with a team recruited by Tic Price, made the most out of a disappointing club relegated to the NIT, and regained admission to the Big Dance for the U of M after losing arguably his three best players.
Calipari's critics often tend to be that part of Tiger Nation most devoted to Larry Finch, the greatest Tiger of them all, and the program's top career winner (220 games). While Finch inherited a solid team in 1986 from the disgraced Dana Kirk, Calipari took on a club that finished 1999-2000 at 15-16 under interim coach Johnny Jones. Finch won 67 games over his first three seasons and made appearances in the NCAA tournament his second and third year (winning one game in '88). Calipari has won 71 games in his three seasons, reached the NIT semifinals his first two (winning the title last year), and led a team no one forecast for such heights back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1996.
The 2002-03 Tigers were the first Memphis team to truly reflect Coach Cal. Chatman, Kelly Wise, and Shannon Forman weren't his recruits that first season, and last year's stud, Dajuan Wagner, really wasn't a Calipari kind of player (defender first, gritty, covered with floor burns). When not only Wise and Wagner, but Scooter McFadgon and his 10 points per game were taken from his roster, well, the local hoops "wise men" had rebuilding on the brain.
Calipari took reclamation projects in Massie and John Grice and made them stars for this year's club. He held his team together around injuries to Jeremy Hunt and Billy Richmond. He oversaw a 12-game winning streak (after a 10-game streak in 2002 and an 8-gamer his first year; Finch never won more than 8 in a row). And his team started beating the big boys. After going 3-11 against major non-conference opponents his first two years, Calipari was 5-2 against the heavy hitters in 2002-03 (the wins coming against Syracuse, Ole Miss, Illinois, Arkansas, and Villanova). This is the strongest measuring stick for how the U of M program is progressing nationally. And its a credit to Calipari.
Finally, let's not forget a figure every bit as important to the University of Memphis administration as the wins and postseason success: 16,940. That's the average attendance at The Pyramid since Calipari coached his first game there on November 17, 2000. The season before his arrival, the figure was 11,974. And for the first nine years in the building, the figure was 14,135. Calipari is winning games, sure, but he's also selling tickets and filling seats. All this with NBA competition in the very same arena.
Calipari knows the breadth of his job and its responsibilities within this region. "The obligation in this town is to be involved in all segments of the community," he said after beating UAB in The Pyramid last month. "If you come into this job to just coach basketball, you're cheating the position and you're cheating the city. This job is bigger than just coaching basketball. That's what makes this a tough job. You're in a position to cross all racial lines, from walking into Orange Mound to walking into the Memphis Country Club."
I hope I was wrong in my misgivings of March 2000. Here's hoping Calipari goes into the history books (many years from now) remembered primarily for his achievements in the Bluff City. For the first time since he swept into town, I'm starting to believe this just may happen.