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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Calipari put Tigers in national spotlight

Calipari put Tigers in national spotlight

Adam Sparks, 615-278-5167

John Calipari might as well have accepted the Memphis basketball coaching job in 2000 from Wall Street.

After all, he's taken the once-localized Memphis program public in the last eight seasons with a national perspective on recruiting, scheduling and exposure. As a result, the Tigers' stock has risen to among the top programs in college basketball.

"I wanted this to be a national program," said Calipari, who has a 188-63 record in his eighth season at Memphis. "We took our recruiting from the city (of Memphis) to national. ... And then we made our schedule challenging on a national scale, and that led to national exposure. We risk a lot with our schedule, but I want this program to be national and you're not going to get on national TV playing Popcorn State every night."

Calipari's No. 2-ranked Tigers will play MTSU Saturday night at Sommet Center in the Sun Belt Classic on ESPN2, the Tigers' sixth nationally-televised game this season.

Much of that exposure stems from Calipari's master plan for Memphis.

"We play on national TV as much as any team in the country, and we've had more national TV games in one year than the last five years before (I was hired in 2000)," Calipari said. "Now, I've got good relationships with those guys, ESPN, ABC, CBS. When they say, 'Can you play on this date?,' I always say yes.

"But that doesn't happen because of me. I hope it's about the entire program. People aren't going to turn on a game to watch the coach on the bench for two hours. It all goes back to what kind of players you recruit and the schedule you play.

"You're not going to be highly-ranked unless you take on the champs."

Despite breezing to back-to-back Conference USA titles, the Tigers have benefited from playing a tough non-league slate. Memphis has gone 33-4 and advanced to the NCAA tournament Elite Eight each of the last two seasons.

Calipari's recruiting has also reached well beyond the Memphis area, which previously stocked the Tigers' roster.

"What's happened in the city the last five years is that the local players aren't just comparing themselves to the best at Ridgeway, White Station and Whitehaven," Calipari said. "They're comparing themselves to the kids at (the nation's best high school like) St. Benedict, Oak Hill and Mater Dei.

"It's elevated these kids to a national way of looking at themselves."

And Calipari has led the charge, signing players from Memphis to Massachusetts and Detroit to Florida.

Calipari's appeal, like his program, is nationwide.

"Coach Calipari has an aura about him," said Jerry Meyer, a college basketball recruiting analyst. "His players play hard for him. He's got that same up-tempo system. His recruiting has been ultra-successful because they have a message that's clear: They want to get players as good as they can get them, as fast as they can get them good. That sells to players today. They love that idea of getting better quickly, getting to the NBA as soon as possible, getting coached up, getting better and playing in an up-tempo system."

Name: John Calipari

Age: 48

Hometown: Moon, Pa.

Career stops: Memphis, head coach (2000-present); Philadelphia 76ers, assistant (1999-2000); New Jersey Nets, head coach (1996-99); Massachusetts, head coach (1988-96); Pittsburgh, assistant (1985-88); Kansas, assistant (1982-85).

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