The Inner Circle
By Dan Wolken, Memphis Commercial Appeal
November 12, 2006
There was, on the surface, nothing all that historic about it, nothing in the record books to show that the University of Memphis' run to the NCAA Elite Eight last season was that much different than the previous three times this program had made it that far. Isn't it true, after all, that Memphis had already etched its name in Final Four history twice before last year, dwarfing anything less than a national title? And isn't it true that Memphis' accomplishment was no different from that of schools like St. Joseph's and Xavier and Kent State, all of whom have made the Elite Eight in the last five years and immediately faded back into anonymity? And, by the way, didn't something called George Mason do the Tigers one better last year?
But as Memphis prepares to open the 2006-07 season on Thursday against Jackson State, last year's breakthrough is beginning to look more and more like the watershed moment in program history. In this ESPN-fueled, Rivals-dot-com-crazy college basketball landscape, Memphis has indeed arrived, on a national scale like this city has never seen.
"When we went to the (1985) Final Four in Lexington, Ky., Sports Illustrated had the pictures of three of the four teams on the front cover," said Win Rainey, president of the Rebounders booster club who has followed the program since the 1950s. "Memphis wasn't even mentioned.
"Now, every time you turn on the TV, something's said about either John Calipari or the University of Memphis. He's on 'The Best Damn Sports Show Period.' He has Larry Brown here, big-name coaches coming down. So, yeah, Memphis has arrived."
In one sense, it has been that way since Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson hired Calipari in 2000 to fix a program that had been broken by mismanagement and scandal under Tic Price.
With him, Calipari brought the national profile that, right away, got the Tigers on national television and lured top recruits like Dajuan Wagner. By his third year, Calipari had gotten Memphis back into the NCAA Tournament, which, for fans who endured the previous regime, was a good time.
But it wasn't the big-time.
Calipari knew that as well as anyone, which is why he readily admits that last season -- a 33-4 record, the school's first No. 1 seed in its NCAA Tournament history and advancement to the Elite Eight -- was a breakthrough.
"I think everybody was waiting," Calipari said. "For six years, and I'm talking not just in Memphis but people around the country, they knew coming here that we wanted to compete for national titles. We want to be one of those teams they talk about.
"And the landscape changed. Kids could go directly to the NBA. Kids could leave after a year. In my last run at UMass, that never happened. So that happens, and it sets us back. A couple issues set you back, and then all of a sudden you're fighting to survive. Fighting to survive here was 23 wins a year. It's not like we won 15 a year. We won 23 a year, and then I think the Elite Eight said, 'Wait a minute, they're not just playing to win games, they're playing to win a national title.'"
Perhaps the biggest piece of evidence that the perception of Memphis has changed nationally is that the Tigers were ranked 14th recently in both major preseason polls, despite losing two first-round NBA draft picks in Shawne Williams and Rodney Carney, plus starting point guard Darius Washington.
Though nobody is quite sure whether 14th is vastly overrating or underrating this particular team, only a handful of programs get that kind of respect in years when their players are largely unproven.
Without the Elite Eight, Memphis might not have shown up in the preseason top 25.
"I'm on the NCAA management council, and I go to a lot of national meetings. and I can tell the difference (in perception) by talking to those people," athletic director R.C. Johnson said. "As you get to that point, there's so many fans that are into the NCAA Tournament, and when you're to that point, everybody knows who's left and it becomes rather significant.
"The plan all along was for that to happen. And the main reason that I really wanted to go with John was that I felt he was the guy that could do it."
Though Memphians have long had the reputation for believing their basketball program belongs in the same stratosphere as North Carolina and Kentucky, the overwhelming evidence suggests otherwise.
In fact, even within Conference USA, one could make a pretty strong argument that Houston occupies a more significant place in college basketball history.
The periods in which Memphis has achieved a level of national prominence can be defined the following way: the Gene Bartow era 1970-74, the 1981-86 stretch in which Memphis made five straight NCAA Tournaments, and Penny Hardaway's two-year stint beginning in 1991.
John Wilfong, who played 1983-87, said he sees a difference between those eras and the present one.
"There have been brief periods when they've ascended to national prominence," Wilfong said. "Cal has brought it to where he has a chance to sustain greatness.
"My four years, we won 110 games, and that's a lot of wins. And you had great players that contributed to that. And so if Calipari is able to sustain something like that, over a five-, six-, eight- or 10-year period like he's moving towards, I think that puts it above what has been accomplished here."
Memphis this season is guaranteed to appear on national television 17 times -- four times on CSTV, once on CBS, once on Fox Sports Net and 11 times on either ESPN or ESPN 2.
Ilan Ben-Hanan, ESPN's senior director of programming and acquisitions for college basketball, said Memphis is now one of the country's elite teams in terms of national television appeal.
"I think they have stepped above the crowd based on their players, their coach, the team they have and their take-on-all-comers philosophy," Ben-Hanan said. "They have a very charismatic coach that people like to root for or perhaps root against. They're not afraid to go on the road and play big-nonconference games or bring in anyone (to FedExForum).
"We love high-profile games, and Memphis plays a lot of them."
Here's how much that kind of television exposure, combined with the recent success, has changed the Tigers' program.
When Calipari first started recruiting Chris Douglas-Roberts, now a sophomore guard, the only thing the Detroit native knew about Memphis is that "Elvis was from there," Douglas-Roberts said.
Last Saturday, Memphis secured a verbal commitment from Derrick Rose, the nation's No. 1 point guard and perhaps the best high school player Calipari has recruited.
Rose, who's from Chicago, has no connection to the city of Memphis and no connection to the school. At the press conference announcing his college destination, Rose's brother, Reggie Rose, said Derrick hadn't thought about going to Memphis until he saw the Tigers play in last year's NCAA Tournament.
"They love our style of play. If you know how to play, Coach lets you play," Douglas-Roberts said. "There's recruits from everywhere that know about us now."
There is, of course, a possibility that Memphis could have a very good season without duplicating its Elite Eight run. But even if that happens, Calipari will be able to look forward to 2007-08, when Rose's arrival will bring even more attention and another legitimate opportunity to make a national splash.
"Kids from around the country, they're seeing guys being drafted, but they're also seeing that we're on national television, we're competing for national titles," Calipari said. "That's what they want. But you've got to have a program that is at that level, competing at that level."
And now, it appears, Memphis is finally there.
-- Dan Wolken: 529-2365
Opponent: Jackson St.
When, where: Thursday, 7 p.m., at FedExForum
TV: WLMT (30)
Tickets: Call 678-2331, go to gotigersgo.com