Farewell, Coach: An Ode to John Calipari
First and foremost, let me begin by saying that John Calipari has not accepted the Kentucky job yet.
But in my heart of hearts, I know he's all but gone.
And with him, he's taking recruits, current players, his staff, and the FedEx Forum PA announcer (Not really, but he might as well).
Packaging up all that and heading to Kentucky, one would be inclined to ask: What is he leaving Memphis?
He's leaving behind a legacy, whether Tiger fans want to admit it or not.
This program, when he unpacked his bags in 2000, had essentially fallen off the map. Plagued by the Tic Price scandal, the Tigers were forced to hire interim coach Johnny Jones, who, God bless him, couldn't coach his way out of a paper bag.
The University of Memphis was desperate for someone who would take this program from an underachieving, careless entourage of misfits and shape them into a perennial power.
Meanwhile, John Calipari had recently been fired from the New Jersey Nets after just one playoff appearance and was given a pity job to be an assistant under Larry Brown for the Philadelphia 76ers.
While Calipari was indeed employed, he wasn't happy. He wanted to coach somewhere. He wanted to be the man somewhere again. He was desperate for a return to prominence, as was Memphis.
The two sides collided and eventually agreed to a deal worth $500,000 a year.
Little did the two sides know that, while indeed cut short, this would be a match made in heaven.
His first season at Memphis was unprecedented. The team won 20 games, something no one in this vicinity (daresay the nation) thought possible.
Calipari wouldn't stop there. He began flexing his recruiting muscle and signed premier players like DeJuan Wagner, Rodney Carney, Darius Washington, Antonio Burks, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Joey Dorsey, Derrick Rose, and Tyreke Evans.
He's won Conference USA Coach of the Year three times. He's taken the Memphis Tigers to four straight Sweet Sixteens, three Elite Eights, a Final Four, and was a prayer away from a National Championship.
He has rejuvenated the Memphis Tigers' basketball program and renewed the city's love for this team.
And it looks as if he has accomplished all he is going to accomplish here at the University of Memphis.
There came a mild scare in 2006 when Calipari entertained offers from North Carolina State. At the end of the day, it seemed as if this was only a ploy to vacuum more money out of the Memphis brass. It worked, and Calipari stayed put.
Fast forward to now.
Calipari has been in the championship game with the Tigers. It didn't come to fruition, but it seems more and more likely by the hour that Calipari bolting for Kentucky will.
I'm going to analyze this both objectively and subjectively.
Objectively, how can you blame the guy for taking the Kentucky job?
The guy rebuilt two programs in mid-major conferences.
He's been a big fish in a small pond his whole career, and now he gets the opportunity to excel on the big stage.
And if you know Cal, you know he revels in that type of stuff. He is as egotistical as they come, and he is beckoning the challenge.
Sure, N.C. State called, but let's call a spade a spade: N.C. State in no way, shape, or form is anywhere near as prestigious as Kentucky.
Kentucky doesn't call very often. When it does, you'd better answer on the first ring.
And Calipari did.
On the other hand, subjectively, I am reeling. I'm 17 and Calipari was a major factor in my decision of where to attend college. I got accepted into Memphis, and now, I feel relatively betrayed.
I looked up to Calipari.
This city rallied around him and his players. He unified this city like no one else could. Seriously.
If he wanted to, he could've run for mayor...and won.
This program will be taking a substantial step back, especially now that Cal is taking existing players with him.
It doesn't seem fair.
But, as the old Calipari-ism goes, "it is what it is." Loyalty is non-existent in this sport. Calipari couldn't resist the temptation of coaching in the SEC and leaving little ol' Memphis and Conference USA behind.
Kentucky is getting the guy they need. Coach Calipari will succeed at Kentucky and won't look back.
And that's okay, because we won't either.
This city will rally around this, just like they rallied around Calipari when he arrived. No one is going to stop attending Memphis Tiger games. Tickets will even go down as a result of this, so maybe it will be a good thing.
At the end of the day, we are the Memphis Tigers; not the Memphis Caliparis. He simply reminded us that Memphis Tigers basketball is not dead yet. Not yet.
I am hurt. Mildly shocked, but not stunned. Upset.
But I have faith in the program and, although I know there will be eyes full of tears and Kleenex sales will see an unprecedented spike in sales here in Memphis when that plane destined for Lexington leaves with Calipari on board, everything happens for a reason.
What that reason is? Time will only tell.
Calipari restored the love and unity in this city.
We've just got to find the right guy to maintain it.
And I'm completely behind whatever move the university makes, because I am a Memphis Tiger.
I wish Calipari the best of luck wherever he lands, and I admit that I will root for him at Kentucky.
But I, along with this city, am ready to meet and root for a brand new coach who can prove to pundits that Memphis is no pushover.
It won't be easy for my heart to look over at the Memphis sidelines in November and see a different guy yelling at a brand new Memphis team, but as a true fan would do, I will still be screaming my lungs out and feverishly cheering on the new coach and team.
Because I am a Memphis Tiger.
Not a Memphis Calipari.