Memphis Tigers: Something Special

Leroy Watson Jr.Senior Writer IFebruary 23, 2009

I am about to let all Division I basketball fans in on a dirty little secret.


Some of you are aware of what I am about to say. For you, my hope is for you to enjoy this article, as it will help you realize that you are not alone. For the rest of the audience, I want to open your eyes to a new viewpoint.


That is enough for the preliminaries. I have set the stage for what I am about to say:


Something very special, very rare, and very beautiful is going on in Memphis, Tennessee. It is the kind of heart-warming story that, if it were to happen in, oh, just about any place else, it would be championed by the national media and hyped to an absurd degree. Since it is Memphis, the accomplishments of the men’s basketball team are routinely berated, denigrated, and generally relegated to triviality by the mainstream media and the so-called experts.


I digress. This is not meant to be a bitter diatribe.  That would be to easy to write. Rather, this is a tribute to the vision, determination, and hard work of John Calipari as well a look at his accomplishments at Memphis.


If the story of the revival of the Memphis Tigers basketball program were a Hollywood movie script, it would probably never sell because who would really believe the plot? After all, the University of Memphis is an inner-city, urban public university, with a long, rich tradition but basically mediocre results.


Prior to 2006, the school only had two Final Four appearances. The 1985 NCAA appearance, however, was stricken from the record due to shoebox-toting Dana Kirk's improprieties. There was the 1973 Championship Game appearance, when then-Memphis State merely became another victim of UCLA.


Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway almost single-handedly carried the program to an Elite Eight appearance in 1992.



The team was somewhat a fixture in the NCAA tournament and was known to win 20 games on a regular enough basis, but it was far from a national power.


Additionally, all of the traditional rivals left, seeking the greener pastures of larger and richer conferences. Louisville, Cincinnati, and Marquette joined the Big East. Virginia Tech fled to the ACC. The rivals that remained were but a blip on the national radar.


If all of that were not enough, Memphis basketball fell into a woeful state of disrepair. The Tigers eagerly left the cozy confines of the legendary Mid-South Coliseum for the Great American Pyramid and regrettably lost their home-court advantage. Due to the Pyramid's configuration, the fans were farther from the floor, and the building's poor acoustics completely took the fans out of the game.


The seating was cramped (at best) and the upper level accommodations were on a steep incline since the arena was a pyramid. The view from the upper concourses, so clean at the Coliseum, were, in a word, horrible. The Tigers' locker rooms were even worse. There were rumors that the team would sometimes actually dress on campus and bus to the games prepared to play because the sparse quarters were so unpleasant. I am just reporting what I have heard; I can neither confirm nor deny the veracity of the statement, but it sure has a ring of truth to me.


Slowly, Memphis began to lose more and more blue-chip recruits to other schools. At first, it was just the University of Arkansas. They pilfered away premium roundball studs like Todd Day, Ron Huery, Corey Beck and Dwight Stewart (to name just a few) out of the Bluff City. After awhile, the torrent of talent rushing to other locales became so profligate that Memphis fans found themselves "guilting" such athletes as Hardaway and Elliot Perry into playing for Memphis.


If you did not live in Memphis at the time, you cannot fathom the pressure put on these two players to stay home and play for the Tigers.



In the end, however, the inability to keep enough top prospects from this hotbed of schoolboy talent cost Larry Finch, a local icon of mythical proportions, his job as head coach of the basketball team.


Attendance sank as the product on the floor continued to decline. It became harder and harder to get stud recruits to even consider Memphis.


In 1999, it all reached its nadir during a 15-16 season under young Johnny Jones, a man who was probably a couple of years away from being ready to lead a top-notch Division I team. The record could have just as easily been 8-23 or so. At least, to his credit, Jones did not disgrace the community with recruiting violations and an inability (or unwillingness?) to keep his kids in class (like Kirk) or a sex scandal with a co-ed (like his predecessor, Tic Price).


Enter John Calipari. The same coach who had been at the helm of the University of Massachusetts when it was rocked by the Marcus Camby scandal, who admitted after his graduation that he had accepted money and other perks from an NBA agent.


Calipari was cleared of any wrongdoing by the NCAA.


The same John Calipari who, after winning NBA Coach of the Year honors with the New Jersey Nets, was run out of town when he could not get his millionaire athletes to buy into his coaching philosophies. To show how far the Tigers basketball program had fallen by the year 2000, Tiger fans did not believe Calipri would ever agree to come to Memphis. Many clamored to give Jones, who had done a yeoman’s job in almost finishing .500 with a dearth of talent, at least a year or two to grow into the head coaching position. How do I know what Memphis fans were saying back then?


I know because I was one of them.



At length, the disgraced coach and the beleaguered program joined in a most unlikely union. Calipari, the slick salesman from Pennsylvania, landed on the banks of the Mighty Mississippi doing what he always does: making grand promises. Memphis would no longer be a local or even regional outfit; it would become a national program, competing on an equal footing with the North Carolinas and UCLAs of the world.


Long-time rivals Ole Miss and Arkansas were unceremoniously dropped from the schedule, even as Tiger fans howled in derision. Calipari was going to change the face of the program, raise expectations dramatically, and drag the complacent fan base, kicking and screaming, to heights never seen in this city. He promised to do so while running a clean program, graduating his players and reaching out to past Tiger greats.


Coach Calipari recruited relentlessly from coast to coast, landing his first big-name stud in 2001 with Dajuan Wagner (whom he rode to an NIT title) and gradually stanching the loss of homegrown talent with increasingly high-level prospects from all over the country. Yet, home town fans were becoming increasingly disenchanted. They were not satisfied with NIT appearances and first-round NCAA Tournament losses.



In 2005, Calipari landed his best recruiting class. The famed Laurinburg Preparatory School had finished the previous prep campaign 40-0 and was widely acclaimed as the greatest high school basketball team of all-time. Calipari was tight with the Laurinburg Head Coach, Chris Chaney, after his recruitment of Joey Dorsey the year before. Cal landed four seniors from that 40-0 squad: big men Kareem Cooper, Robert Dozier, Shawne Williams, and wing player Antonio Anderson.


After a  bittersweet 22-16 campaign during the 2004-05 season, the Tigers ripped off a fully-unexpected 33-4 record that carried them through to the Elite Eight.


The national media wrote it off as a fluke. The Tigers were expected to wither away into obscurity, as so many one-season wonders before them had done.


Rodney Carney, the human jumping bean with a deadly 3-point shot, graduated and was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers. Shawne Williams turned professional, which caught Memphis fans by surprise. Sophomore guard Darius Washington, Jr. left for the NBA as well.  That was not a surprise, but it was a mistake for Washington. Not many pundits gave the Tigers much chance of success.


Memphis proved them wrong, going 33-4 and making the Elite Eight once more, losing to eventual runner-up Ohio State. Once again, their accomplishments were written off as a fluke, and the team, despite returning nearly everyone who had contributed to their overwhelming success, was once again expected to slip.


Calipari had other plans.



He landed the top unsigned prospect in the high school class of 2007, point guard Derrick Rose. The quicksilver guard, with size, strength, and an uncanny finishing ability, was the missing link for the Tiger squad. Along with junior All-American Chris Douglas-Roberts and senior defensive ace Joey Dorsey, Rose led the Tigers to an NCAA Division I record 38 victories.


Memphis came within three seconds of winning their first National Title before succumbing to the Kansas Jayhawks, 75-68 in overtime. Rose became the first overall pick of the 2008 NBA Draft, and both Dorsey and Douglas-Roberts were drafted, too.


Surely, the Tigers would take a significant step back in 2008-09, right? Now was their time to disappear from the national scene after losing so much talent and leadership.


Yet again, John Calipari had other plans.


Reloading by inking (once more) the most heralded unsigned senior in America, Tyreke Evans, Calipari and the Tigers stumbled out of the gates with a 6-3 mark, including a loss to Syracuse at FedEx Forum, the beautiful replacement for The Pyramid.


This led to one of the most fateful decisions of John Calipari’s college coaching career. He inserted Evans into the starting lineup as his point guard, and Memphis responded with  an 18-game winning streak.


The team is currently ranked No. 5 in the AP poll, No. 6 in the Coaches’ Poll, No. 1 in the esteemed Ken Pomeroy statistical ratings, and No.5 in the Sports Illustrated Power rankings, and they are likely to move up after this weekend's upsets.



So why are the Memphis Tigers not media darlings? The entire nation seems to love the underdog who makes good such as Gonzaga, Xavier and Davidson. All three of these programs, instead of being insulted due to their small-conference affiliation, are hailed as unlikely conquerors.


Memphis, however, is seen as an unwelcome interloper. It is fashionable to root against Memphis, for whatever obscure reason, instead of rejoicing their numerous triumphs. No other team in the history of NCAA Division I men’s basketball has ever won 38 games in a single season; yet, the national media and so-called pundits continue to deride the Tigers’ perceived lack of competition in Conference USA as if this somehow negates the astounding numbers that Memphis is rolling up.


They recorded a record 38 wins and were runner-ups last year, they have 54 consecutive conference wins. They started the 2007-2008 season with a 26-0 record. Now, they have a nation-leading (at the time of this article) 18-game winning streak in 2008-09.


Perhaps the Memphis program is hated because of Calipari, who, for all of his allies and good will, has collected his fair share of enemies since he began coaching around 2 decades ago. Maybe Memphis basketball is devalued because of the city that they represent.


It is possible that many feel threatened because the Tigers have won so much and have amassed almost cartoonish numbers. Seniors Anderson, Dozier, and Chance McGrady will shatter the record of 131 wins in 4 years; they already have 128 victories.  That is hard to accept for non-Memphis fans.


A combination of those factors (and probably others) is most likely the cause. In the final analysis, it is simply easier to dismiss this run of success and look over the horizon for the next flash-in-the-pan mid-major.




I hate to disappoint you. Actually, to be brutally honest, I am happy, ecstatic and overjoyed to disappoint you. The Memphis Tigers are not going to disappear and go quietly into the night. The incoming recruiting class, consisting of consensus top three selection Xavier Henry, silky smooth Nolan Dennis, and junior college beasts Will Coleman and Darnell Dodson, will mesh perfectly with returning talent such as Doneal Mack, Roburt Sallie, Shawn Taggart and Wesley Witherspoon.


If Tyreke Evans heads to the NBA Lottery, explosive point guard prospect John Wall, whom many consider the overall No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2009, is his possible replacement. Plus, DeMarcus Cousins, one of the three best big men in the class of 2009, has said that Memphis is his most likely destination. Michael Gilchrist, arguably the top target of the class of 2011, has declared unabashed interest in Memphis. The list goes on.


So there is the dirty little secret. The Memphis Tigers, like it or not, have established themselves as precisely what John Calipari promised that they would be: a national power. The program, despite the normal hiccups associated with teenage boys, is clean, and the kids graduate. Former Tigers by the boatload are returning for their degrees and, in some cases, to pursue an entry into the college coaching ranks.


All signs indicate that this will remain the case for the foreseeable future. In all fairness, it would be appreciated if others, particularly in the national media, would take notice and (at a minimum) stop trying to find reasons to cheapen what should be a stirring story.


Whatever happens from this point on during the 2008-09 season, at least anyone who is still reading this can say that they have been put on notice: something very special is happening in Memphis. A new power has arrived. What you do with that knowledge – whether you choose to believe it, dismiss it, or anything else – is strictly up to you.