In the dreadful aftermath of his team losing the national championship last April by self-inflicted wound, a text message showed up on the phone of Memphis basketball coach John Calipari.
The sender was Gonzaga’s Mark Few. The message, boiled down, was something along the lines of, “Hey, you won that game.”
Calipari did not rush back into the Alamodome and demand a recount, but he did appreciate the sentiment.
“My point was, you can beat yourself up, but basically they won the game,” Few shrugged. “From a coaching standpoint, they did what he had to do – they just didn’t make a free throw. Make one and they’re national champions. Imagine carrying that burden with you forever.”
As it happened, Calipari was on precisely the same wavelength. His first thought, he insisted, was “to make sure none of those players feel responsible for losing.” Just the day before the Tigers fell to Kansas in an overtime that shouldn’t have happened, he had despaired of coaching legacies having to be validated by NCAA titles and Final Four appearances – invoking names like John Cheney and Gene Keady to illustrate the absurdity, and insisting the best coaching is done by those in improbable circumstances and not “at a school that recruits itself.”
“History,” Calipari said, “is not a snapshot.”
As it is, more than the usual number of pixels is required for the proper focus on Calipari, who brings the Tigers to Spokane for round four of their ongoing series with Gonzaga – a game which sold out the Arena months ago.
Imagine the demand had Memphis actually won the national championship.
Whatever the basketball fan’s notion of what Calipari is or isn’t, it should at least be acknowledged here that he’s the proprietor of a perennial Top 25 program who’s volunteered to play the Zags in Spokane – and twice, at that. No other coach in that tribe seems to be raising his hand.
It’s a matter of mutual benefit for two programs often maligned nationally for the quality of the conference company they keep, but in that same respect it’s almost a mutual relief.
“I know Mark understands it, and I’m sure Bobby McKillop at Davidson understands it and Roy Williams and Ben Howland and the coach at Butler – that every game they play is absolutely the biggest game on the other team’s schedule,” Calipari said.
“We played Tennessee after they played Kentucky – I think they still have a program, Kentucky – and their players were saying publicly that Memphis was their biggest game of the year. It’s the case with every team in our league, and I know Mark faces that.”
Sometimes out of the league, too. Ask Arizona how amped it was for the Zags.
So here’s one game they can at least approach on the same emotional plane – and one in which a loss won’t be the end of the world, to segue into one of Calipari’s pet rants. He likes to think that Conference USA – like the West Coast Conference a year ago – is a league worthy of multiple NCAA bids, but he has a selfish reason.
“You want your league to be good because you want to be able to lose a game,” he said. “Here’s what happens: Michigan State – and Tommy Izzo and I are friends – loses at home to Northwestern and they don’t move in the polls. What if Gonzaga loses to Santa Clara? All of a sudden, they’re out of the Top 25 again.
“Why is that a worse loss? You know if you’re following that team that every game is someone’s Super Bowl. These kids aren’t robots – they can’t be up every game. But it’s aggravating for teams like us that we’re not allowed to lose. A Big East team lost five straight and was still in the Top 25.”
Of course, not all of the disdain is directed at Memphis’ conference affiliation.
There are times when Calipari and the Tigers seem as good a fit on Springer as they do on SportsCenter. He is the coach who reaches for the stars with a little dirt under his fingernails. As good as the 2008 Tigers were, they also made the news for a night-club riot, an alleged assault and a failed drug test – and Calipari routinely gets demerits for his loose interpretation of discipline, for which he does not apologize.
“They’re not coming all the time from families and cultures where they’re on third base,” he said at the Final Four. “They’re starting in the dugout, and they’re going to make some mistakes.”
Likewise, his many recruiting successes have been sandpaper to the backsides of many of his brethren, and the usual hushed plaints are issued. Calipari’s frosty relationships with rivals – Jim Calhoun and Bruce Pearl among them – have become almost sitcom-ish.
Few is more inclined to admire the chutzpah.
“When he got that job, he walked in and said, ‘OK, Memphis is automatically in on the No. 1 player in America, and the No. 2 and on and on,’ ” Few said. “Wait a second. It’s supposed to be Carolina, Duke, UCLA … and Memphis? And then they started getting them. That’s the beauty of him – to crash the party and say, ‘We’re going to do it.’ ”
He is, in fact, a born underdog and it’s made him a perfect match for Memphis.
A national championship might have even spoiled that.
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