MEMPHIS, Tenn. – He took the FedEx Forum court Thursday to a lusty mixture of boos and cheers, which is exactly how it should be for John Calipari.
A segment of this city still hates him. A segment of this city still loves him. Nobody in college basketball produces stronger reactions than Cal, and nowhere are the Cal reactions more conflicted than Memphis.
That’s why his initial appearance in the arena where he took the Tigers to the best of times produced an audible response. He coached Memphis to the brink of a national title in 2008, and they adored him for it. Then he jilted the place for Kentucky in ‘09, with a full-blown NCAA investigation ongoing behind closed doors, and they loathed him for it.
They’ve had eight years to move on, and most of them have. But not everyone, which is why some Memphians showed up at an open NCAA tournament practice in the middle of a workday to drop some boos on the guy they once cheered wildly.
“There are people who will never get over it, and there is still a lot of bile,” said Geoff Calkins, columnist at the Memphis Commercial Appeal and local talk radio host. “But most of the city doesn’t give a flip, and even some of the people who do give a flip have moved on.”
Calkins wrote a compelling column this week noting all the positive civic progress Memphis has made since Cal left. The place hasn’t exactly withered because a college basketball coach changed jobs.
But when it comes to college basketball, a city that loves the sport has endured a major decline since Cal’s circus left town. After five straight seasons as a No. 1 or No. 2 NCAA tournament seed and coming within a Mario Chalmers 3-pointer of winning it all, Memphis has missed the NCAA tournament as often as it has made it: tourney berths in 2011, ’12, ’13 and ’14; no tourney berths in 2010, ’15, ’16 and ’17. Josh Pastner was basically run out of town, fleeing to Georgia Tech, and replacement Tubby Smith had a completely underwhelming debut season.
Meanwhile, Calipari has been a winning machine at Kentucky. He’s taken the Wildcats to four Final Fours, and in 2012 won the national title that eluded Memphis. The team he brings here for the South Regional is 31-5 – and although the competition is stiff, with UCLA the Friday opponent and a potential regional final against North Carolina, a fifth Final Four is a distinct possibility.
Factor that in – the 248 victories at UK, during a stretch when Memphis won 186 – and it’s all part of the angst.
Of course, Pastner’s chance of immediately perpetuating Calipari’s success was crippled by the fact that Cal took everything but the last speck of Who Hash when he left for Lexington. He took plenty of staff, but more importantly all the recruits – John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe were considered locks for Memphis but instead went to Kentucky, making Cal’s first team there an instant national title contender.
All is fair in love, war and recruiting, of course. Taking a collection of five-star talent with him before they’d enrolled at Memphis is how the game is played. But it did leave Pastner with a talent deficit.
“It was the most wins in a four-year period in the history of the NCAA his last four seasons,” Pastner said. “And I had to follow that. Hardest job in the country. But I would not be at Georgia Tech without that opportunity I had at Memphis, so I am so thankful for coach Cal and so thankful for Memphis.”
Spoken like a true diplomat, which Pastner is to a painful degree.
But while there are reasons to miss Cal, there also is a big reason to resent him beyond the fact that he left. If you check the rafters of the FedEx Forum, there is no banner hanging here from that national runner-up season in 2008. The NCAA vacated Memphis’ best season ever for academic fraud (Derrick Rose’s bogus SAT score) and impermissible benefits (Rose’s brother, Reggie, received free accommodations and travel on multiple occasions).
The NCAA’s investigation remained a closely guarded university secret until after Calipari had fled to Kentucky. He escaped before the hammer fell, and Memphis unwittingly aided and abetted that exit by keeping the investigation quiet. Kentucky would have had a very hard time hiring Cal if everyone knew Memphis had been charged with major violations.
“He was going out the back door,” said Calkins, “when the NCAA was coming in the front door.”
Cal was asked Thursday about the missing banner, and whether it bothers him.
“There’s nothing that can take away what that run was about for all of us, including the city,” he said. “It was a special time. … It’s unfortunate, but I’ll tell you what, that was a great run.”
When the run was ending – when Calipari was negotiating with Kentucky – Memphians were maintaining an overwrought vigil. A local TV station put a camera on the entrance to the Finch Center, the Tigers’ practice facility, and just left it on – Cal Cam was born. Fans gathered outside to show the coach how much they loved him.
“You feel kind of like an idiot being outside holding a sign saying, ‘Please don’t go,’ when inside he’s already decided he’s going,” Calkins said.
Wednesday night, Cal partook in a reception at the Peabody Hotel with about 100 friends and former players from the Memphis days. Nobody was booing him there. Feelings were warm and nostalgia was strong.
In the lobby, William Wesley – “Worldwide Wes,” Calipari’s famously connected and controversial pal – circulated with Dajuan Wagner, Cal’s first superstar recruit at Memphis. Former Memphis assistant Derek Kellogg, freshly fired as head coach at Massachusetts, was in town as well.
It was like old times – like Cal had gotten the band back together. But the team he brought to the Forum for practice Thursday wasn’t the Tigers. Those days are gone, to the lingering dismay of many Memphians.
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