The Memphis Coaching Search: When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth

chris jonesContributor IApril 7, 2009

The 31-year old wunderkind strode to the mike and talked about the power of positive thinking. He talked about playing for and coaching under one the legends of the game.

He talked about the coaching opportunity given to him by another one of the greats. He won over the crowd with his good looks (think the Jonas Brother that decided to play sports instead of music) and good copy (on the difference between him and the man he's replacing "I'm Josh Pastner, He's John Calipari").

He talked about winning championships and keeping it rolling (rock'n'rolling actually). He thanked the city, his finance, his athletic director, and all the people in the crowd. Then, as the 31-year-old wunderkind smiled and walked away he shook hands with the 65-year-old dinosaur. It never should have come to this.

R.C. Johnson was named athletic director at the University of Memphis on December 29, 1995 after serving in the same capacity at various schools in his native midwest (Temple, Miami of Ohio, Eastern Illinois).

His first major hire came on March 27, 1997 when he forced out Memphis legend Larry Finch and handed the the keys to the Tiger Basketball program to up-and-coming University of New Orleans coach George "Tic" Price. Two years later Price was forced to resign after admitting to a sexual relationship with a Memphis co-ed. His record was 30-25 (Finch's was 220-130).

A year later Johnson hit the jackpot when he lured John Calipari to Memphis. Calipari was still smarting from his unceremonious exit from the New Jersey Nets and hungry to get back into coaching.

Nobody had an ego like Cal and he was chomping at the bit to remind the world what he was capable of having previously built the UMass program into a Final Four team (which was roughly the equivalent of turning the Washington Generals into the 1996 Bulls).

Two years into Cal's tenure in Memphis the school caught the break it needed when the ACC raided the Big East and stole Boston College, Virginia Tech, and Miami. The Big East was looking to Conference USA to rebuild itself and the University of Memphis seemed in great position to move up to the big time.

Johnson and Co. swung into action, ever determined to better the athletic fortunes of the school. A few months, and a whole lot of campaigning later, the Big East announced it was inviting Conference USA members Louisville, Cincinnati, Marquette, DePaul, and...South Florida (?!) to join its ranks. 

The University of Memphis was left behind in a Conference USA that would soon include such athletic luminaries as Rice and Central Florida. Geography, said Johnson, was the reason the Big East didn't want Memphis. "We'll be fine" said Calipari.

Memphis WAS fine. In fact, the basketball program flourished in the new C-USA. The Tigers went to two straight Elite 8's, the National Championship, and the Sweet Sixteen.

The Tigers signed McDonalds All-Americans and repopulated the NBA on a yearly basis. Calipari, ever the salesman, told anybody who would listen that Memphis was a national program; that kids could do everything they could do at a UCLA or Kentucky at Memphis. People laughed at Cal's brazenness till he beat their heads in on the basketball court. Eventually everybody had to listen.

Everybody included Mitch Barnhart, and less than 48 hours after Memphis lost to Mizzou in the 2009 NCAA tournament, Barnhart was gaging Cal's interest in the Kentucky job. A salesman is always looking for an easier sell, and on Mar. 31 Calipari ditched Memphis for the Cadillac that is Kentucky Basketball.

Again, Johnson swung into action. You will not believe the people we're talking to, said Johnson, we're going to make a "wow" hire. 

Six days later the 65-year-old dinosaur had been turned down by somewhere in the neighborhood of 871 coaches and a 14-year-old girl. To listen to media covering the coaching search it would seem R.C. went from college to college carrying a big sack with a dollar sign on it. Coaches would take a picture of the dinosaur and his dollar sack, show it to their ADs, and get a nice raise. 

Out of desperation (quite literally) the dinosaur offered the job to the 31-year-old wunderkind. This took the wunderkind by complete surprise (I was coming to clean out my desk and head to Kentucky he said) but the wunderkind could not turn down such an opportunity. 

Which brings us back to the news conference. To listen to the wunderkind lay out his plans it is impossible not to be struck by his poise, his intelligence, and his vision. It is also impossible not to turn to the dinosaur and realize that he left each of those qualities behind a long, long time ago.