Pregame talk brings Tigers, Vols to a boil
Tigers coach John Calipari labeled Tennessee a "national program" Tuesday, a day after Vols coach Bruce Pearl said he doesn't think the University of Memphis respects his program.
By Dan Wolken
December 6, 2006
They had spent the better part of the past year avoiding each other, like two cars on opposite sides of the road, each driver knowing that one false move could cause a crash.
But this week, University of Memphis coach John Calipari and University of Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl had a fender bender. And though the buildup to tonight's game in Knoxville between the two coaches -- and more important, the two programs -- didn't cause a collision as ugly as last year's, there are still some issues in this series.
Issues about players both schools recruited and others they might recruit. Issues about TV, semantics and respect. Issues about who wants to keep this series going and who would just as soon see it go away.
Not to mention a little basketball game between a 6-1 Memphis team ranked No. 16 and the 6-2 Vols, who began the season in the Top 25.
But no good in-state rivalry, it seems, can exist without a dialogue. Last year, it was Tennessee forward Dane Bradshaw and his infamous "gang banger" comment and a conversation about crime rates on the two campuses.
This year, the discussion began Monday when the UT sports information office sent out the transcript of a question-and-answer session with Pearl. Responding to a inquiry about the importance of filling Thompson-Boling Arena tonight, Pearl said:
"It's vital. Memphis looks at itself as a national program. And it is. They look at Tennessee as a regional program. We are trying to become a national Top 25 program. There is no program in the country that respects us less than Memphis, and that's because we haven't done enough to earn their respect. That should bother our fans enough that we should try to show Memphis we are indeed a national program. But we have to do it on the floor."
Upon reading those comments Tuesday, Calipari smiled and offered this response, which could be interpreted as a subtle jab:
"I don't try to create any kind of animosity or hatred. I don't make accusations, because when the players figure out it's about ego for the coach, they won't play for him. Eventually, what happens is, they know it's all about him and not what you feel. So I just don't play any of that. What we're trying to do is, we know how hard the game is going to be. We respect their program, we respect their coach."
The real point of contention is Calipari's repeated comments indicating that he'd rather not play Tennessee, just as he'd rather not play other regional schools like Ole Miss or Arkansas because he wants to play a national, not regional, schedule.
But Calipari said that shouldn't be interpreted as disrespectful to Tennessee.
"They're a national program," Calipari said. "My whole thing is, last year's game didn't get on national television. Why is that? I'm just saying, if we can't get a game on national television, we don't need to play it unless it's a 'buy' game in our building, bottom line."
But hasn't Memphis-Tennessee reached that national level, with the Vols now a regular in the Top 25?
"You'd hope," Calipari said. "And if that's the case, fine. Here's the other thing: In their league they'll have six or so ranked opponents play in their building, which are all games they could win and probably will win. We don't have that benefit. I'm not worried about helping Tennessee's program or their fans or their alums that live here. I'm worried about this program and our fans and our student-athletes and our school."
On Tuesday, Pearl said his intention wasn't to artificially elevate the rivalry.
"Obviously Memphis is a Top 10 program. We're trying to become one," Pearl said. "We've demonstrated that we're capable. We were a No. 2 seed last year (in the NCAA Tournament); they were a No. 1 seed. We've demonstrated that we have a competitive program. ... I think Tennessee basketball is relevant nationally, or ESPN wouldn't be here."
A year ago, Memphis and Tennessee played just a couple months after Willie Kemp, now a Tigers freshman, chose to play for Calipari rather than Pearl in a very public and heated recruiting battle.
Pearl has been hard at work recruiting West Tennessee because, as he said, "I don't think there's any question that the best high school basketball in this state is played in West Tennessee."
Though Pearl said it was disappointing not to get Kemp, he said it was a crucial victory to get Kemp's former teammate, Wayne Chism, out of Bolivar Central when it seemed at one point that the two players would end up at the same college.
"Wayne Chism being in this program is a wonderful thing for lots of reasons," Pearl said.
But Calipari said he doesn't buy into the idea that the results of this game -- or any UT-Memphis game -- would affect potential recruiting battles.
"Other than in Memphis, they have a big advantage on any kid in the state, other than in Memphis," Calipari said. "In Memphis, they don't. But everywhere else, I concede. Now, everywhere else in the country, we have an advantage. In this state, outside of Memphis, if they want a kid, they should be able to get that kid. Memphis is just a different animal."
-- Dan Wolken: 529-2365