The same week that John Calipari left the empire he built in Memphis for the Camelot that is Kentucky, my softball team has its first practice for the upcoming season.
What does one have to do with the other? Simple.
They both serve as a reminder that sports, for better or for worse, have evolved into a business, and big sports have evolved into big business.
This will be my first season playing softball. A handful of my friends have been playing now for a few years.
The league is co-ed and games are every Sunday from mid-April until mid-August. That’s followed by the playoffs, if our team qualifies.
I have no idea how we’ll do, nor do I care.
We could lose a lot more than we win and that will be fine with me.
One thing I’m fairly certain of is at some point during the season, we’ll cross paths with that one guy who takes it way too seriously.
He’ll no doubt get hacked off when a play at the plate doesn’t go his way. And then he’ll talk smack and continue to act like a clown for the rest of the game. Maybe he’ll skip the postgame handshake too?
So why am I bothering to even play, you wonder?
Because, in their simplest form, sports are supposed to be fun.
That brings us back to John Calipari and the fanbases at Memphis and Kentucky.
For nine seasons, Coach Cal was a king in the city of Memphis. High praise considering another “king”—Elvis Presley—spent a fair amount of time there. Perhaps you’ve heard of Graceland?
Calipari resurrected Memphis from a program stuck in the mud to the elite-of-the-elite.
He won 252 games as coach of the Tigers. In the previous nine years, Memphis recorded all of 130 victories.
Over the past four seasons, Calipari really pushed the Tigers into high gear.
His teams set an NCAA record with 137 wins during that four-year stretch.
Memphis reached the Elite Eight twice, lost in the title game last season, and only made it to the Sweet 16 this year. Nothing to be ashamed of considering such programs as Kansas, Duke, and Syracuse also exited this year’s tournament in the round of 16.
For Tigers fans though, the last four seasons have been bliss.
Each time their hoops heroes took the court, a win seemed inevitable.
The confidence exuded by the fans and the players was exceeded by only that of their coach.
The Memphis Tigers, and their larger-than-life coach, had united a city.
The sport of college basketball in Memphis was exactly what it should be. Fun. It was a lot of fun.
On the other hand, 423 miles to the northeast of Memphis sits Lexington, KY, home of the Kentucky Wildcats.
Throughout the country, there are several states where college basketball is more than just a sport that starts in late fall and continues through, hopefully, the end of March.
Make no mistake. The Commonwealth of Kentucky is at the top of that list.
In this state, Indiana and North Carolina to name two others, college basketball is a religion. The offseason doesn’t exist. Not when there’s recruiting and transfers and scheduling to follow.
For the past decade, Kentucky has been caught in a slow descent from the top of the hill.
In 1998, Tubby Smith coached the ‘Cats to their second national championship in three years. The victory was also the third straight year Kentucky played for college hoops’ top prize. Only a loss to Arizona in 1997 prevented the Wildcats from pulling off the three-peat.
But that was then and this is now.
And since that time, the Wildcat faithful haven’t enjoyed the “now” all that much.
It’s probably fair to say that some Kentucky fans have been as blue as the Wildcats’ away uniforms.
Now before you get the wrong idea, Kentucky’s program hasn’t been in shambles by any stretch of the imagination.
Since the national championship in 1998, the Wildcats have advanced to the Sweet 16 five times and the Elite Eight three times.
They’ve won four regular season SEC championships and four SEC tournament championships.
During that stretch, the following Kentucky players have earned NBA paychecks: Kelenna Azubuike, Keith Bogans, Joe Crawford, Chuck Hayes, Jamal Magloire. Randolph Morris, Tayshaun Prince, and Rajon Rondo. Current players like Patrick Patterson and Jodie Meeks are certain to be taken when they eventually declare for the draft.
OK, so with results like that, where’s the slow decline?
Well that’s just it. A lot, if not most programs, would be satisfied with success like that.
But this is Kentucky and Kentucky measures success by Final Four visits and national championships.
So after 10 seasons, Tubby Smith departed for Minnesota.
Enter Billy Gillispie.
No mention of Gillispie’s tenure is warranted based on the fact that it only lasted two seasons. That should tell you how his job performance was gauged.
Desperate to "hit a grand slam" with a coaching hire that would restore Kentucky basketball to its rightful perch, athletic director Mitch Barnhart set his gaze upon John Calipari.
Memphis fans, confronted with the possibility of losing their coach, had to ponder why Cal would leave a program that has dominated the college basketball landscape for the past four seasons?
It made no sense.
Cal had money, prestige, success, and he was the biggest fish in the pond.
And, with a recruiting class that would make most coaches lick their lips set to arrive at the start of the next school year, Memphis’ reign was sure to continue.
No way Cal leaves for Kentucky. No way.
But just then, to the chagrin of one fanbase and the elation of another, the business of sports reared its ugly head.
This was Kentucky calling. The job Cal referred to as the "Notre Dame” of college basketball.
Kentucky is one of five jobs—North Carolina, Duke, UCLA, and Kansas being the others—that a coach just doesn’t say no to.
Calipari is one of the most polarizing figures in college basketball.
In a way, he’s just like Notre Dame Football. People either love him or hate him. Middle ground is not an option when it comes to an opinion of Coach Cal.
But this isn’t about trashing or defending Calipari.
When objectively looking at the option dropped square in his lap, how was he supposed to say no?
Put yourself in Calipari’s position, but within your current profession.
You aren’t just great at your job, you excel at it. Your company reaps the benefits of having you as one of its top employees.
And you are rewarded for your efforts. Handsomely.
But then, one of the giants of your industry approaches you with an offer. They ask you to perform the exact same job with the exact same results. Except do it at their offices and for their employees.
Name your price. Pick your benefits. Done and done.
By taking that offer, you’ll reach the top of your profession.
Don’t you almost have to say yes?
Sure, you’ll be leaving an already highly successful business. You currently have a very comfortable life. You don’t want for anything financially.
And maybe best of all, you’re viewed by the people around you as a savior who can do no wrong.
But alas, there’s no replacement for climbing the mountain and reaching the top of your industry.
That’s all Calipari did despite what Memphis fans wanted.
Like that, the nine years of college hoops fun stopped being fun and started being a business. Just like it always is.
And it’s not just college hoops, but all sports.
Johnny Damon and Roger Clemens, heroes to Red Sox fans everywhere, donned the laundry of the hated New York Yankees. And now they’re loathed. Forever.
Jerry Rice traveled across the bay to suit up for the Raiders. Is he no longer the San Francisco Treat?
Jason Giambi, while with Oakland, couldn’t beat the Yankees. So he joined them. Traitor.
Bill Parcels, former New York Giants coach, later held the same title for their arch rival, the Dallas Cowboys. Like Parcells said, you are what you are.
Fans of teams and members of those organizations all crave the same on-field success. But one group pays to see that success while the other group cashes a check because of it.
And therein lays the difference. The business of sports.
Some fans can’t understand the difference while some fans choose to ignore it.
Memphis fans will hopefully move on and embrace the new coach, whenever he’s hired.
And I’m sure I’ll run into that one jerk on the softball field.
At some point, I’m certain that I and all the Memphis fans will share the same thought. “This isn’t as much fun as it should be.”
Calipari’s Kentucky press conference took place on Wednesday, Apr. 1. No fooling.
The weather forecast in Memphis for that day called for sunny skies.
You’ll have to forgive Tigers’ fans if they only saw clouds on the horizon.