If it will help team, Calipari's all for it
By Geoff Calkins
Tuesday, September 11, 2007
A couple months ago, Harold Byrd -- the new president of the Rebounders, the Memphis basketball booster club -- was trying to think of a way to sell more tickets to FedExForum.
"I decided the best thing to do was to have a big, fun gathering," Byrd said. "But I didn't know where to do it."
Byrd ran this idea past Memphis basketball coach John Calipari.
"Why don't we have it at my house?" Calipari said.
Uh, because college basketball coaches don't do that sort of thing?
Because most coaches hesitate to have their players over to their house, never mind regular, every-day fans?
Calipari is not most coaches. So it was that Monday evening at 5:30 p.m., several hundred Memphis fans descended on the big peach house on East Galloway to buy tickets, dodge raindrops and eat ribs.
And if last week's brawl at the Plush Club showed the program at its worst, Monday night's gathering at Calipari's showed the program at its best.
Open. Creative. Willing to try anything to help the team, the university or the town.
"I can tell you I never was invited to my coaches' homes," said former Tiger Hank McDowell, who played for Memphis under Dana Kirk and Wayne Yates. "And I was here last Saturday, too."
Turns out Calipari invited a bunch of former Memphis players to watch the team scrimmage last Saturday morning and then gather at his house.
Simultaneously -- and maybe this is the time to applaud John's wife, Ellen -- the Caliparis invited 200 or so members of the student group the Blue Crew to come over for a pool party.
That's three gatherings in three days. One of which deteriorated pretty quickly.
"We had the players throwing the Blue Crew guys in the pool," Calipari said. "And we had the Blue Crew guys throwing the players in the pool. It was hilarious. It was great. It was what the whole thing is supposed to be about."
And so the question, inevitably, becomes: How to square all this innocent merriment with the ugly scene on Beale Street a week ago? Is the program the pool party or the Plush Club?
The answer: It's both, of course.
There is no good Calipari or bad Calipari. There is only the Calipari who exhausts all his energy and creativity to make the program a success.
Sometimes that means recruiting players other schools wouldn't touch. Sometimes that means letting fans and boosters track mud all over his wood floors.
"He's the best coach in America," said Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson.
Or the most fascinating, anyway.
What other coach has political fund-raisers? What other coach would bother to get involved?
"If I'm convinced they're good for the city, I'll do it," said Calipari.
What other coach even talks like that?
But there he was Monday evening, shaking hands and posing for pictures with any and all.
At one point, he took the microphone to welcome the crowd.
"I know there's alcohol here," he said. "But I gave the players a pass."
That was a reference to the recent nastiness, see? The players are no longer allowed to go to clubs or bars.
"But there's still a curfew!" he said.
Everyone laughed at that. So then they could even feel good about the bad stuff. Calipari had made it safe to joke about.
The man isn't just a basketball coach. He's a force of nature, a genius with a common touch.
"Our house is open," he said, to the group. "But please, wipe your feet."
To reach Geoff Calkins, call him at 529-2364 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org