For Coach Cal it's all come together
By Dan Wolken
Sunday, November 4, 2007
The airplane took off from Tuscaloosa, Ala., late on the night of Nov. 17, 2005. The University of Memphis had just beaten -- no, pummeled -- Alabama in a game that wasn't nearly as close as the 87-76 final score. As John Calipari relaxed with assistant coaches and boosters, his mind raced backward in time, to the Final Four power he had built at UMass in the 1990s, to his brief NBA coaching career, to his regal arrival in Memphis.
It had been five years since Calipari was introduced to a city starving for a basketball savior, five years since his promise to resuscitate a program that had fallen to depths even he did not fully understand, five years filled with lots of bad breaks and not enough breakthroughs.
So as Calipari was leaving the scene of what had been his greatest victory as Tigers coach, four words came out of his mouth, four words he had wanted to say since the day he stormed into that Pyramid and pointed toward the stars.
"Boys, this is on."
Did you feel it, too? Did you see what Calipari saw?
Did you see the 66 victories in two years? Did you see the back-to-back Elite Eights? Did you see the top point guard recruit in the country, the No. 1 preseason ranking, the hopes of a national championship?
"I saw my team, and playing the style we were playing and looking at who I had," Calipari said, "I've been around long enough to know what a good team looks like and what good guys look like. That's when I knew."
It was a short, joyous flight home that night. For the first time in his tenure, Calipari could see all the potential in his program being realized. He landed back in Memphis, knowing one part of the journey was over. But this ride, as it turned out, was just beginning.
Winning over the community
It's Oct. 25, 2007, and there's barely room to move in the Finch Center. The season is just days away, and the Rebounders club is watching practice on a Thursday afternoon. Athletic director R.C. Johnson is there, as is FedEx chief executive officer David Bronczek, former Tiger great Andre Turner and perhaps a future Tiger great in White Station's Joe Jackson, possibly the best high school player in the city.
They were all brought together by a team which, hours later, would be ranked No. 3 in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches' Poll, just a few points behind North Carolina and UCLA, two of the greatest programs in college basketball history.
Previous to that, if there was any question about whether Memphis had indeed arrived in the big time, one would only need to look at the schedule of media relations director Lamar Chance, who had spent much of his week accommodating photo shoots and interviews for Sports Illustrated, ESPN The Magazine, The Sporting News and Slam.
"To have this program mentioned with all the other top level programs, it's pretty remarkable," assistant coach John Robic said.
But the road to this season and this place has been volatile and unpredictable. But even before the Conference USA breakup, the off-court issues, the job offer from N.C. State -- all watershed moments that have been chronicled time and again -- Calipari encountered challenges he did not anticipate, adding difficulty to a rebuilding job that was already monumental in the wake of the scandal-ridden Tic Price era and the latter years of Larry Finch, which were marked by an exodus of local talent and deterioration of the once-solid fan base.
When he took the job, Calipari knew about the zero percent graduation rate, the sub-standard facilities, the pitiful student housing. But he didn't know how deep the problems ran, from lack of funding to the general culture that had turned off large segments of the local population.
"You found out that you have to get the community engaged or you've got no shot. None," Calipari said. "If the community isn't engaged, you're not going to have the wherewithal to get it done. This has got to be this community's team, and I figured that out about two weeks into the job.
"There were things that were crazy, but I also knew, as long as we had the support of the city, that you could engage people who really understood the importance."
Rallying that support wasn't always easy, especially for a brash Italian-American coming from places like Pittsburgh, Massachusetts and New Jersey.
"When John came, I think he had it a lot tougher than he thought he was going to have it," said longtime television, newspaper and sports radio personality George Lapides. "I think it took him awhile to adjust to Memphis, to the slower pace, to maybe some of our own provincialism even. And it took the fans awhile to adjust to John. And they expected, because of his name, he would immediately transform this into the glory years of Gene Bartow, and it was an impossible expectation."
Growing through the years
Those expectations began to surface when Calipari's first team reached the NIT semifinals in 2001 and his first recruiting class included Dajuan Wagner, whose legendary high school performances made him arguably the top recruit in the country. But as the primary scorer on a flawed roster, Wagner did not hit his stride until late in the 2001-02 season, too late for the Tigers to make the NCAA Tournament.
Though some fans may have considered the 2002 NIT championship a disappointment, Calipari said he does not.
"What Dajuan Wager did for us, all positive," he said. "Early on, we weren't good enough to have him play shaky early. We just weren't. And he played shaky. Why? Because he was a freshman. We probably should have been in the NCAA Tournament, and we probably would have advanced. We were one of the top 30 teams in the country. They just left us out."
After Wagner left for the NBA, Calipari pursued more top recruits and signed them. But in between his jobs at UMass and Memphis, the basketball culture began to change. More highly rated prospects were skipping college altogether, including Qyntel Woods and Kendrick Perkins, both Memphis signees who never showed up on campus.
Meanwhile, the Tigers were stuck in the unofficial junior varsity division of Conference USA, which gave them fewer opportunities to beat the league's top teams like Louisville, Cincinnati, Marquette and Charlotte.
By his third year, Calipari broke into the NCAA Tournament, but it was a quick exit at the hands of Arizona State. The following year, as a No. 7 seed in 2004, the Tigers beat South Carolina but were overwhelmed by Oklahoma State in the second round, 70-53, showing how far the program had to go.
"I said, look, where this thing is, with a zero percent graduation rate, no weight room, no academic support, this is going to take some time," Calipari said. "But I didn't expect guys to not show and leave like they did, and it kind of put us where you're scrambling.
"We won 23 games a year, and in some quarters that wasn't enough. We were in the NIT finals, NIT championship or NCAA Tournament and that wasn't enough and you're like, wait a minute. But it wasn't for me either. We wanted to crack through."
In retrospect, the foundation for that breakthrough was being cemented at the same time Memphis reached its lowest point under Calipari. In January of 2005, Calipari was forced to dismiss Sean Banks, who, after a brilliant freshman season, had been a nightmare as a sophomore. Banks, whose recruitment to Memphis was controversial because of his troubled past, had stopped going to class and was the epicenter of a team victimized by dysfunction.
Though the Tigers played better after Banks left, they still missed the NCAA Tournament for the third time in Calipari's five years. But Calipari said he never wavered on the plan, and athletic director R.C. Johnson said he never questioned whether Calipari would be able to fulfill his initial promises.
"He said to me in one of our visits he felt like he was really getting the type of person he wanted in the program," Johnson said. "I think that was the first inkling that I felt like he was really comfortable."
Indeed, as the Banks drama was unfolding, a recruiting class primarily of Antonio Anderson, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Robert Dozier and Shawne Williams was waiting in the wings. Though Williams only stayed one year, the other three have become the face and personality of Memphis basketball and will almost certainly become the winningest players in school history should they stay all four years.
"I thought it was just a matter of time," assistant coach Derek Kellogg said. "Quite honestly, we kept getting almost to where we really were going to bust through, and it just didn't happen. A guy left early or a player didn't show up or something just kept us from breaking through. And the real breaking through was getting that recruiting class."
Putting the pieces together
Added to a roster that already included talents like Rodney Carney and Darius Washington Jr., the Tigers began 2005-06 ranked No. 12. It didn't take them long to prove they were severely underrated. With a new, fast-paced offense, they opened the season beating Wisconsin-Milwaukee, a Sweet 16 team from the year before, by 27 points. They went on the road and smacked Alabama, a top-15 team. Then they went to New York and knocked off UCLA in Madison Square Garden.
"With those guys being so young and with the way recruiting was going at that point, we had a chance to really take this thing to the next level, which is where it is now," Kellogg said.
Calipari couldn't help but feel that all the bad breaks that had gone against Memphis early in his tenure were suddenly rolling in a different direction.
The Tigers won close games. They out-lasted Tennessee in a nasty recruiting battle for star point guard Willie Kemp out of Bolivar. In the summer of 2006, sharpshooter Doneal Mack fell into their lap after Florida's admissions department wouldn't admit him. Jeremy Hunt, who was suspended for the first Elite Eight run, was reinstated to the team. Just like that, the pieces were in place for another Elite Eight run.
Then, instead of an exodus, every key underclassman returned, meaning the Tigers would enter 2007-08 with no obvious holes on their roster.
"Do you understand some of the games we lost my first four years? I could tell you 10 games like, I can't believe that happened," Calipari said. "But now we come back to the last couple years and we say, I can't believe that happened for us. It's just what sports is about. But if you believe in what you're doing, in how you're going about business, if you have faith in the people around you, you just keep marching forward."
And now, they'll march forward with perhaps the final piece to their puzzle, Derrick Rose, the most celebrated freshman to play for Memphis since Wagner. Had the NBA not instituted a rule in 2006 prohibiting high school players from entering the draft until one year after their graduation, Rose probably would never have made it to campus.
Next year, power forward Angel Garcia will arrive on campus, and more elite recruits will likely follow him. In the 2009 high school class, Memphis is in strong position with the top five players in the country and several more ranked in the top 50. For the first time, Memphis is not only thought of as an elite college basketball program but is positioned to remain one.
For all the work it took for Calipari to get Memphis to its current level, he does not allow himself to let up. Even after back-to-back Elite Eights, Calipari did not take his a vacation over the summer. Between his nonstop efforts to promote the program, designing billboards, formulating a campaign to be preseason No. 1, his hectic recruiting schedule and the deal he engineered that could drastically alter basketball relations between China and the U.S., he simply ran out of time. While on a recruiting trip in early October, he called his wife Ellen to fly up to New Jersey with children Bradley and Megan and had his oldest daughter, Erin, drive down from UMass. That was his respite, just days before Midnight Madness and the long run to March.
"It's my own fault," Calipari said. "I'm not boo-hooing, but what you have to do to stay on this, to recruit, it's a never-ending struggle to stay on top of it and create an environment kids want to be a part of and their families want to be a part of. What I've found out early in my career, the better my players are, it's amazing the better I coach."
Still, there are no guarantees. College basketball is not a safe business. All anybody knows is that for the third straight year, the Tigers will have a legitimate chance to win the school's first national championship. With this particular mixture of experience, talent and unselfishness, Calipari has never had so many pieces fit together so well.
"Be up at bat six times in a row, and you're going to knock one out," he said. "We've been up at bat, this is our third year. Now let's go two more and make it five, six, seven."
-- Dan Wolken: 529-2365