Calipari and Pearl are different everywhere but in the standings
Posted: February 21, 2008
Two species, one result.
Don't look now, but suddenly John Calipari is coaching his eighth season at Memphis. This is the same Calipari who coming into the job from the NBA had the look of a careerist rogue on the make for the next paycheck, the next glamour job.
Calipari is not entirely to blame for this early and unfair suspicion: Any coach with gelled hair and a fondness for Armani suits is suspected of this. It's called The Pitino Syndrome, a form of profiling that, unfairly or fairly, targets coaches who don NBA-type duds on the college sideline.
The polar opposite of the Pitino Syndrome Guy is Loud Coat Guy -- the prototypical college basketball coach who will, dignity be damned, wear a sport coat the precise shade of the school's colors on the sideline. Loud Coat Guy is a lifer, a program builder, a guy who shows up for all the school functions and plays the classic role of head coach in for the long haul.
Loud Coat Guy meets Pitino Syndrome Guy on Saturday night. It's kind of a big deal, in case you didn't know: StubHub has tickets for only $10,000 right now. Go pick up a few and begin to educate your children on the wonders of student loans when they ask where their college fund went.
Loud Coat Guy extraordinaire Bruce Pearl will wear -- on special occasions, of course -- the Cheetos orange coat visible from space. He also painted himself orange last year and sat shirtless in the stands for a Tennessee women's basketball game; and he dared you to just try and say something about the pink shirt he wore to back up the all-pink jersey night the women's team held to promote breast cancer awareness. Pearl is the modern Loud Coat Guy, a man who goes to every effort to show he bleeds orange and white.
Lauding Pearl's rah-rah intensity does not discount Calipari's gel-haired birth of the smooth persona at Memphis, nor should it. Two coaches more perfectly-suited for their jobs could not be found in the same state, but they are vastly different jobs both by environment and history.
Here's all the contrast you need: Attend a game in Knoxville, and your ears will ring with choruses of "Rocky Top." Two years ago in Memphis, the dance team incorporated moves from the movie Hustle and Flow -- the Terence Howard vehicle about a pimp who struggles to become a rapper -- into the halftime dance routine.
Pearl faced the challenge familiar to all SEC schools, save Vanderbilt and Kentucky: Getting a football-mad fanbeast to eat different feed in the "offseason" and show up for basketball games. Pearl had some advantages, though, such as a built-in fanbase that supported women's basketball players like they would rock stars, as well as established brand complete with theme song and facilities.
Calipari confronted an entirely different problem: Building a brand. The University of Memphis has had that name since 1994, changing from Memphis State University. The basketball team has some history, including Final Fours in 1973 and 1985, but had fallen into malaise and scandal under departing coach Tic Price. ("Departing" because he was forced to resign. Read: Fired for allegedly having an affair with a student)
Calipari retooled Memphis from the wheels up, recruiting nationally and wooing a community down to the FedEx Forum. The audition for the one-man show "Pimp My Program" continues: Calipari instituted an entirely new and successful offense in 2006, the AASAA -- Attack Attack Skip Attack Attack -- which in case you don't quite get from the name, is an extremely aggressive scheme Calipari calls "the Princeton offense on steroids."
And eight years after Calipari breezed into town, the Pitino Syndrome Guy looks suspiciously comfortable in Memphis. Practically anchored, in fact.
At the other end of the parallelogram-shaped state, Pearl has built the Vols from largely local talent and used his abundant personality to make the basketball program more visible. At a recent press conference, Pearl wore a Rocky Top Rowdies T-shirt with a picture of himself on it. A joke yes, but another skillful way of grabbing the spotlight in gridiron country.
Memphis and Tennessee are extraordinarily different programs, sure. But somewhere between the country-fried hip-hop and bluegrass sing-a-long anthems, you'll find ground zero this week in college basketball, not in Kansas or Kentucky or North Carolina, but in Tennessee. And despite the two different species of coach presiding over the two programs, the results posted by Loud Coat Guy and Pitino Syndrome Guy look remarkably similar: Rousing, unqualified successes.
Spencer Hall, a.k.a. Orson Swindle, writes and edits the college football blog Every Day Should Be Saturday and is a frequent contributor to Sporting News.