Ride on Coaching Carousel Offers Memphis Fans Perspective

Leroy Watson Jr.Senior Writer IApril 3, 2009

Nine years, in retrospect, is an awful long time.

Nine years equals 3,287 days (two leap years included). 

Nine years would cover two presidential elections and overlap three terms for the U.S. Commander-in-Chief. 

Nine years from now, a senior in the Class of 2009 will be completing the first full year of residency and paying off college loans, which will most likely exceed $200,000.

In nine years, there will be somewhere in the neighborhood of 99,000 Division I men’s college basketball games played.

John Calipari was the Memphis head coach for nine years—252 victories and a countless number of fantastic memories.

That’s about all Memphis has left from the Calipari era now—memories.

Perhaps, though, the Memphis fanbase has something else, too—perspective.

We rode a resplendent recruiting class, a coach who is unafraid to take chances, and a collective belief in Calipari’s pet phrase—“refuse to lose”—to an unprecedented 137 wins in four seasons.

Conference USA be damned; that’s impressive.

Memphis forced their way into the conversation of “the elite,” and along the way, I think we let it all go to our heads. We hiked halfway up Mount Olympus, and maybe we forgot what it was like on the way up.

The stability and prosperity of Calipari’s time here was intoxicating, and it allowed us to forget that the journey is never over until you reach the summit.

We forgot just how much can go wrong during the trek.

I say that because we as Memphis fans dared to think that Calipari would never leave us. 

He was winning here at an insane, historic rate; he was one of the very highest-paid coaches in the game; he had ultra-elite recruits beating down his doors.

We did not see the job as a stepping stone; suddenly, after nine years, we were a final destination.

We watched the coaching carousel every year, as the “haves” continually raided the “have nots” of their head coaches. 

UCLA snatched Ben Howland from Pittsburgh. Indiana came calling for Tom Crean, leaving Marquette to look elsewhere. This was after the Hoosiers had wooed Kelvin Sampson from Oklahoma, to disastrous results.

Kentucky itself famously hired Billy Gillispie away from Texas A&M two years ago.

Through it, we were able to hang onto Calipari. It was fun to watch the other schools scramble for coaches; we were seemingly immune.

Oh, sure, there were attempts to lure Coach Cal away—South Carolina in 2001, St. John’s in 2002, North Carolina State three years ago, a flirtation with Kentucky two years ago.

Still, we had Calipari.

One must remember, too, that Memphis has very rarely, through the years, seen larger, more prestigious schools come in and hire away their coaches.

In fact, the last time it happened was when UCLA’s John Wooden anointed Memphis State’s Gene Bartow as his successor in 1974.

Every single Memphis head coach since then has been fired or forced out by the University—Wayne Yates, Dana Kirk, Larry Finch, Tic Price, and Johnny Jones.

Combining those two facts, it has been 35 years since a Memphis coach voluntarily left the school to take another head coaching job.

In the same period of time, Tulsa groomed and subsequently lost Nolan Richardson, Tubby Smith, and Bill Self, all of whom went on to win a national title somewhere else.

Buzz Peterson left for Tennessee after a single, 26-win campaign at Tulsa in 2000-01. Florida State swooped in to take Steve Robinson from the Hurricane in 2002.

That’s five coaches who, to roughly paraphrase the theme song from The Jeffersons, “moved on up” the coaching ranks from Tulsa to greener pastures.

All the while, Memphis watched from a distance, unfamiliar with the bumps and bruises associated with the yearly coaching carousel.

Well, now we know. Hopefully, we won’t have to experience it again anytime too soon. Because it hurts, it literally pains the fans to see their coaches leave, often taking the hopes of a city, a state, or even a region with them.

The whole experience, though, should serve as a reminder to Memphis fans.

Never take success for granted. Don’t gloat in the failures of others. 

And never, ever think that a coach won’t leave you. No matter how good the program may seem to you, there’s always some place else that could come in, under the right circumstances, and take your savior.

John Calipari used to say of winning a national title: “It never comes when you think it will. It will happen when you least expect it.”

That is precisely how it happens with coaching changes, too. You don’t see them coming.

Do you really think Kansas expected to lose Roy Williams the way they did?

But it had always been Williams’ dream to coach his alma mater—North Carolina. When the chance came, he knew it might never happen again.

It’s the exact same thing with Calipari now. As Calipari said, “I told (Memphis Athletic Director R. C. Johnson), ‘Don’t give me anything else. It’s Kentucky.’”

Memphis is about to make some fine sideline manager very rich. It will probably be the head man at a school that has never been in the NCAA Championship Game, doesn’t have as many Final Fours, Elite Eights, or Sweet 16s as Memphis does.

It will be at the expense of a school that was just getting used to the guy, starting to believe that they are a couple of strong recruiting classes from moving "to the next level."

As Memphis basketball slides back down the mountain, how long the descent lasts will depend on the new hire. He’s not going to have much to work with in the way of players.

He will have first-class practice facilities but fewer than eight players to utilize them.

He will have the Finch Center to wow recruits with. Ditto the FedEx Forum.

He will have some rabid fans, eager to support him to the hilt. Ready to see him grow old and retire from here.

So hopefully, we as fans have learned something from this ride on the coaching carousel. Celebrate the new hire, but know that someone else will be hurting—just like we’re hurting right now.

The biggest reason we hurt, though, is because we had gotten too comfortable, dare I say complacent, about our place in the NCAA hierarchy. We haven’t reached the mountain top, by any stretch of the imagination. Yet.

Look forward to rebuilding a tradition and hopefully creating a new one.

But just remember: Your next ride on the coaching carousel is just one firing away. Be prepared, because the odds are good that it will happen again sometime.


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