Memphis Basketball Devastated by Loss of John Calipari

Leroy Watson Jr.Senior Writer IMarch 31, 2009

The University of Memphis has lost 810 basketball games in the school’s history, dating to the 1920-'21 season when the program began.

In 1973, Memphis lost to UCLA, 87-66, in the National Championship game, falling victim to the single most amazing individual performance in title game history, when Bill Walton famously went off for 44 points on 21-of-22 shooting.

A year ago, Memphis lost to Kansas, 75-68 in overtime, to fall short of a national title, yet again.

There were several Elite 8 and Sweet 16 losses in between, and Missouri just ended Memphis’ 2008-’09 season.

Ladies and gentlemen, never has the Memphis Tiger basketball program suffered a loss like this one.

Never. Ever. Not even close.

John Calipari’s leaving the University of Memphis to become the head coach of the iconic Kentucky Wildcats will simply devastate the Tiger’s program.

Oh, sure, right now only Calipari is leaving. That, we could deal with. In and of itself, the loss is not the end of the world. 

However, even if Memphis lands a top-notch replacement—the name Mike Anderson keeps buzzing around, even though there is no evidence that Memphis has actually begun the process of contacting him—the die has been cast.

When Calipari leaves, expect him to take most, if not all, of his top-notch coaching staff with him. John Robic, Orlando Antigua, and Josh Pastner would all tell Memphis “Vaya con dios.”

Rod Strickland would probably tag along, too.

About the only staff member Memphis would have a good shot at retaining is Richard Hogans, Director of Performance Enhancement. He actually graduated from Memphis in 1999, played a little pro football until injuries ended his career, and came back to the school to work with Calipari’s staff in 2004. 

Now, let’s further examine how this hiring guts the Memphis program.

Memphis famously gives basketball recruits the equivalent of an “escape clause," promising to grant them a release if John Calipari leaves to coach elsewhere. 

R. C. Johnson, Memphis Athletic Director, has confirmed that all receive that addendum to the National Letter of Intent, promising them the option to leave should the head coach not be at the school for any reason.

Nolan Dennis of Texas has already said that he would seriously consider exercising that option.

That means that Dennis, Will Coleman, Darnell Dodson, and Xavier Henry could all be free to follow Coach Calipari to Kentucky, or to re-open their recruitment over the summer.

Coleman and Dodson did not even have Memphis on their radar until Calipari hired Orlando Antigua. Assuming that Antigua heads north with Coach Cal, what would that mean, relative to Coleman and Dodson?

Memphis would have next to no chance of retaining their services, that’s what it means.

The devastation isn’t finished yet, not by a long shot.

DeMarcus Cousins from Alabama will never see the Memphis campus. He has not yet signed an NLI, as NCAA rules prohibit his signing one until April 15. So his verbal commitment means next-to-nothing.

He, too, would either follow Calipari to UK or else re-open his recruitment yet again. North Carolina State, Rice, and Washington were on his short list when he announced for Memphis.

Don’t think we’re finished yet—the bad news piles on.

Wesley Witherspoon, an insanely talented freshman from Georgia, was asked on-camera on Monday if he had come to Memphis to play for Coach Calipari.

“Well yeah, basically,” was the reply.

Would he be willing to sit out a season in order to play for Cal at Kentucky?

Don’t make me answer that one. I think you know as well as I do that he would.

Roburt Sallie, who recently completed his sophomore campaign with Memphis, has been rumored to want to follow Calipari, as well. That one makes little sense, as he has already lost three years due to his bizarre travails (see this article for more details). Maybe we can keep him in Memphis.

That brings us, finally, to the Henrys, C. J. and Xavier.

C. J. Henry plays baseball for the New York Yankees. His contract with the Yankees obligates the team to pay for his schooling. This year, he cashed in on that provision.

He was injured and did not play, but he remains a part of the Memphis team. Tiger fans were looking forward to him suiting up next fall.

C. J.’s presence on the team, in turn, attracted his younger brother Xavier to Memphis. Henry, the younger, wanted one last chance to play with his older brother before heading off into the sunset of the NBA.

With John Calipari gone, what are the odds that the Henrys stay with a gutted Memphis program?


I would speculate that they would head off to Kansas, as C. J. was expected to head to Kansas, anyway (both his mother & father are alumni) before he shocked everyone (including his parents) by coming to Memphis.

Kansas was a finalist for his younger brother, Xavier. Xavier, in Miami for the McDonald's All-American game, is said to have already begun the process of re-opening his recruitment.

Shawn Taggart, a fourth-year junior post player who transferred from Iowa State, is set to graduate in May. Calipari advised him months ago to test the waters of the NBA draft. Taggart stated in an interview on Monday, "I'll see y'all next year, man."

However, what if he impresses NBA GMs and is told he will be a first round pick?

He'd be a fool to return under those circumstances. So we should count him as a "maybe".

Realistically, there are only three players that could be considered locks to return to Memphis: Pierre Henderson-Niles, Willie Kemp, and Doneal Mack, who will all be seniors.

Sallie, who would be a junior, is a fairly decent bet, as I suspect that he does not want to lose yet another year sitting out.

Freshman Angel Garcia, who was ruled ineligible but enrolled at Memphis anyway, appears well on the way to qualifying to play next fall. He has said that he expects to play at Memphis.

That’s it, folks. Five players, only one of whom (Mack) was a full-time starter for the Tigers last year.

A sixth (Taggart) is a "maybe". At least he, too, was a starter.

On top of it all, Memphis is still in Conference USA. 

The Tigers are still signed to face Cincinnati, Duke, Gonzaga, Kansas, Louisville, Syracuse, and Tennessee next season.

Now, none of this is said in an attempt to engender sympathy. Memphis will move on and attempt to pick up the pieces, just like anyone else would.

However, I have seen far too many people soft-selling the effect that losing Calipari will have on the Memphis program, at least in the short term.

It will be difficult to get a marquee coach in here, and very difficult to find enough talent to fill out the roster.

Once some of these game contracts run out, Memphis will no longer be able to sign games with the premier basketball programs, either.

C-USA is unanimously a wasteland now. At least Big Brother Memphis won’t be pounding them into submission any longer.

In short, do not underestimate the magnitude of the loss of Coach Calipari to the University of Memphis. 

The cupboard is not only bare; it is decrepit, rotting, and moth ridden.

It could literally take years for the program to recover. Barring some future miracle, it will most likely never again be close to what is has been in the past four years.


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