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Sunday, May 18, 2008

CA's Geoff Caulkins - Johnson is joining in chase for Big East

Johnson is joining in chase for Big East

By Geoff Calkins
Sunday, May 18, 2008

There was Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson, working away in Destin, Fla., attending Conference USA's spring meetings, when his phone started to ring and ring and ring.

Everyone wanted to know about a local television report that Memphis officials are in "serious talks" to join the Big East.

Not true, Johnson said.

"I have had no meetings with the Big East," he said.

So that was that. End of story, right?

Except Johnson was almost certainly fudging when he gave that quote. And, let me just say for the record, I couldn't be prouder of the guy.


R.C. Johnson has done some truly impressive things during his 12-year tenure with the school.

He's upgraded the facilities. He's revolutionized fund-raising. He's made some incredibly smart, ambitious hires.

In many decades, that would have been enough to solidify Johnson's legacy as a first-class athletics director.

Not this decade, though.

Now the single most important job of an athletics director is to make certain his or her school is in the right conference. At that critical task, Johnson has failed.

Louisville, Cincinnati and South Florida all have left Conference USA for the Big East since Johnson arrived in Memphis. Memphis sent out some really snappy pamphlets, but, stunningly, the Big East was not impressed.

"It was totally a geographic issue," Johnson said in the wake of the decision, and it's likely he was right.

But it didn't feel like Memphis had done everything possible to be included in the Big East, or had even made a particularly forceful case for itself.

I wrote that the Memphis leadership had blown it on this one. Influential boosters felt the same way.

It was maddening, really. Why was Johnson being so stubborn and/or shortsighted?

Asked to name the most important challenge facing Memphis in the coming years, Johnson said, simply, "finances."

Didn't he understand that getting into a BCS conference would change the athletic department's financial outlook instantly? Or did he think the task was just too hard?

"I don't want to raise false hopes," said Johnson.

If in doubt, aim low?

As recently as last August, the university held a press conference to announce a $3 million gift by FedEx to build a new baseball stadium.

I used the occasion to ask FedEx CFO Alan Graf about the Big East.

"I have told both Shirley (Raines) and R.C. -- who needs to lead this effort -- that FedEx thinks we should do something more formal," said Graf.

That column irritated Johnson to no end. He objected to both the timing and the tone.

But here we are, nine months later, and it couldn't be more clear that Johnson has come around.

That's the significance of the Fox 13 report. It's further affirmation that Johnson is taking a very different approach to Big East membership this time.

No, Memphis and the Big East are not in "serious talks." Serious talks take place when both sides have agreed on a certain course and are working on the terms of a deal. Nothing like that is happening between Memphis and the Big East.

The Big East has too many basketball schools (16), for one thing. It isn't about to add one more.

But is it possible that the eight all-sports schools might ultimately decide to split off from the basketball-only schools? Sure. They'd then have to add at least one school (to set up an eight-game football schedule) and as many as four (to set up a Big East championship game).

That kind of split could open a spot for Memphis. If and when it happens, Johnson is making certain the university is prepared.

Which brings us back to Johnson's denial this past week, and to his quote, and to how he almost certainly fudged.

"I have had no meetings with the Big East," said Johnson, and that's probably true.

But what's a "meeting" anyway? Do telephone calls count? How about discussions at a cocktail party?

Let's say that FedEx officials -- and this is purely hypothetical -- chatted up Big East officials at the Final Four. That wouldn't be a meeting, would it?

This much is true: Big East officials are keenly aware that Memphis wants to be a part of the league's future. They also know what Memphis is prepared to do to join the conference and how FedEx could help.

Does that mean Memphis has been in "serious talks" with the Big East?


Lobbying the Big East?


Discussing possibilities with the Big East?

Oh, call it what you will.

I call it evidence that Johnson is doing everything he can to get Memphis into a conference that is worthy of the program. What more can anyone ask?

To reach Geoff Calkins, call him at 529-2364 or e-mail calkins@commercialappeal .com. You can hear his radio show, "The Geoff & Gary Show," from 7 to 9 a.m. Monday through Friday on ESPN 730.

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