Calipari using familiar formula for success
Dick "Hoops" Weiss / Special to FOXSports.com
(Thanks to G. for pointing this article out to me, ed.)
When Conference USA blew up two years ago, the earthquake tremors shook up the college basketball landscape.
DePaul, Marquette, Louisville and South Florida left for the Big East, while St. Louis and UNC-Charlotte inexplicably resurfaced in the Atlantic 10.
Memphis coach John Calipari was faced with two options.
The Tigers, who were left behind in a non-BCS conference needing major reconstructive surgery, could either drift into the shadows or separate themselves from the rest of the league like he did at UMass.
Calipari took UMass — which had a 295 RPI out of 306 Division I teams and very little tradition and funding when he arrived in 1988 — off the scrap heap, winning five consecutive Atlantic 10 championships in the early 90's, advancing to an Elite Eight in 1995, and a No. 1 ranking and a Final Four appearance the following season before he left for the NBA's New Jersey Nets.
How he resurrected the Minutemen was one of the greatest stories in the history of college basketball.
What he is doing at Memphis is pretty much a Xerox copy, even though the Tigers have far more tradition, past NCAA success and a more fertile recruiting base in the city.
Calipari, who inherited a stagnant program in this border town, just across the river from Arkansas, has coached the Tigers to a pair of 33-4 seasons, two Top -0 finishes and two consecutive Elite Eights the past two seasons. He has a legitimate chance this upcoming season to win the school's first national championship.
Provided Jeff Green and Roy Hibbert — two projected lottery picks — leave Georgetown early, the Tigers will get our vote for pre-season No. 1 ahead of North Carolina, Indiana, UCLA and Louisville. They, along with Louisville, are the two teams not affected by early defections to the draft.
Calipari has his entire starting five — center Joey Dorsey, forward Robert Dozier and guards Antonio Anderson, Chris Douglas-Roberts and Willie Kemp — back from a 33-4 team that beat Texas A&M in the Sweet 16 in a less than neutral San Antonio before losing to Ohio State in the South Regional finals.
They also have Shawn Taggart, a 6-foot-10 transfer from Iowa State; 6-8 sophomore Pierre Niles; 6-10 Kareem Cooper; backup point guard Andre Allen and guard Donnell Mack and two blue chip recruits — 6-4 McDonald's All American guard Derrick Rose from Chicago Simeon and 6-5 swing forward Jeff Robinson from USA Today's second-ranked St. Patrick's of Elizabeth, N.J., giving them 12 useable players who can all play in a big-time game.
And they have Calipari, a coaching animal and Larry Brown disciple, whose track record speaks for itself. Calipari has won more games (374) in his first 15 years than any other coach beside Hall of Famer Roy Williams, who won 418 in that period at storied Kansas before moving on to North Carolina. He is one of only three coaches — along with Williams and Bill Self of Illinois and Kansas — who have coached two different teams to No. 1 seeds.
"BCS teams all want to do the Wal-Mart thing,'' Calipari said. "They all want to dominate the world. We're like a thorn in their side. Here we are, just like the UMass days. We've bumped into their parade, their party.''
Calipari has already produced four pros in the last five years, despite signing just two so called McDonald's All Americans — guard DeJuan Wagner from Camden, N.J., who was the sixth pick in 2002; and guard Darius Washington from Orlando Edgewater. Last year, he produced two first-rounders — forwards Rodney Carney and Shawnee Williams. This year, sixth man Jeremy Hunt — the only senior of significance — has been invited to the Orlando pre-draft camp.
And the assembly line is just getting started.
Calipari has done all this while working at a disadvantage. Memphis does not have the pedigree of programs like Duke and Kansas, and there have been times when he has been unfairly vilified because his 1996 UMass team had to vacate its Final Four appearance after star center Marcus Camby admitted to accepting money from an agent.
Calipari was never personally cited by the NCAA.
"Most BCS schools walk away with between $9, $10, $11 million a year,'' Calipari said. "With non-BCS schools, it's more like $1.5 million. We've been able to raise $5 million a year for our basketball program, but we're lucky. We're in a urban area with great wealth. Most can't do it.''
As much talk as there was about parity in the tournament after George Mason made it to the Final Four in 2006, there was only four non-BCS teams — Memphis, Southern Illinois, Butler and UNLV — in the Sweet 16 this spring.
Calipari has survived — even flourished — because of his ability to produce a high visibility program that plays to sellout crowds at FedEx Arena, his reputation for preparing players for the NBA and ability to graduate players.
Still, there is a chance he will never get the credit he deserves. Calipari has built his current program in much the same way he did at UMass — with creative recruiting, continuous dominance in his league and a willingess to upgrade his RPI by scheduling elite programs in the non-league.
This upcoming season, he has Arizona, Gonzaga, Tennessee, USC, Ole Miss, Holy Cross and possible matchups against Kentucky and UConn in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic at Madison Square Garden.
Calipari has had opportunities in the past two years to move to more sanitized surroundings. He was approached by Missouri and romanced heavily by NC State last year, and Arkansas offered him an outlandish amount of money to move this spring.
But, in many ways, he seems happy where he is — a blue collar kid from Moon Township, Pa. who is comfortable working with first-generation college players, who all seem to get better both on and off the floor.
Calipari is all about giving kids like himself a chance. Six of his current players were post graduates from prep schools — four from Laurinburg, N.C. Institute — which may be why he has taken a strong stand against the NCAA's decision to come down hard on all fifth-year players attending prep schools by limiting them to just one core course to improve their GPA.
"They couldn't get Philly Lutheran so they're trying to blow up a fly with bazooka and blow up every prep school,'' Calipari said. "Not every prep school is bad. I think it's time to go back to partial qualifiers — give a kid a scholarship and let him sit out.
"The way it is now, they're targeting one group.''
Calipari can back up his theories with the fact he graduates his players — 80 percent at UMass and 12 of 15 at Memphis, which had a zero graduation rate when he arrived.
It's time to start showing him a little more love.
Veteran college basketball writer Dick "Hoops" Weiss is a frequent contributor to FOXSports.com.