Friday, February 25, 2005 Updated: February 27, 1:40 AM ET
Maybe some blame should rest on Calipari
By Pat Forde ESPN.com
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- John Calipari sounded the alarm once again. On his weekly radio show Monday, he identified yet another tormentor that is out to get him and his Memphis Tigers basketball program.
This time the villain is the RPI, the computer formula that plays a vital part in the selection process for the NCAA Tournament. Despite a recent stretch of inspired basketball that renewed hope in a wrecked season, the Tigers still own a triple-digit RPI -- well beyond normal bubble range.
Cal the Conspiracy-minded smelled a rat.
"We've got to get a Memphis guy putting the numbers into that computer," he told a live audience of about 50 and a radio audience in the thousands, no hint of humor in his voice. "Or at least somebody who isn't against Memphis."
There you have it. Even the computers are against Memphis.
You thought Nixon had an Enemies List? Check out Calipari's.
The media -- local, national, international and presumably intergalactic, too -- are out to get the Tigers. (You might recall the $25,000 fine Calipari got from the NBA as coach of the Nets for calling a New Jersey reporter "a Mexican idiot.") The legions of Tennessee and Mississippi fans living in Memphis are out to get the Tigers. There are always suspicions about the NCAA Tournament selection committee, the officials, opposing coaches and the league office. And now the most sinister computer since HAL is out to get them, too.
"Nobody will say it, because none of us are computer geeks and don't know how they put in the numbers," Calipari said the next day in his office, suspicion still raging unchecked. "Somebody needs to say, specifically, 'I want to see how you're putting in the numbers.' ...
"It comes back to that frickin' seed in the NCAA Tournament. Duke? Go be a seven seed. Carolina? Be a seven seed. See how they do."
He was into it now, pounding his fist into his palm. Bad RPI numbers mean low seeding, which means little chance to advance in the NCAA Tournament, he said. It didn't seem like the right time to point out that four of Calipari's seven NCAA trips have ended in losses to lower-seeded teams.
The facts are flexible in Cal's world, where agendas must be set and vigilance maintained. Trap-setters and saboteurs are everywhere, just waiting for their chance to take down the Tigers.
"He does a lot of nice things for a lot of people," said Memphis journalist George Lapides, who has spent four decades covering sports in the city for newspaper, radio and television. "He is also absolutely, without a doubt, the most paranoid coach I've ever dealt with in terms of the media.
We've got to get a Memphis guy putting the numbers into that computer. ”
— Calipari on the RPI
"There is no middle ground, that is for absolute sure. To some people, no matter what he says, no matter how far off base you say he is, you'd be wrong. To other people there is absolutely nothing real about that guy. He's an absolute phony. Like a lot of us, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.
"He's such a combative person. But that's also why he's successful."
Cal the Combative passes that temperament on to his teams, usually with great results. His best teams in a brilliant early-'90s run at UMass brimmed with competitive ferocity, taking him to the 1992 Sweet Sixteen, '95 Elite Eight and '96 Final Four. (The Final Four appearance was subsequently vacated after it was learned that star center Marcus Camby was rolling in money and gifts from agents.)
But when you go through life with your fists balled, it's far easier to make enemies than to shake hands.
This is Calipari's fifth year in the mid-South, where he arrived to huge fanfare as the guy who would reinvigorate once-great Memphis basketball. He's substantially improved the product on the court and in the classroom, but he's still spending more time spinning, rationalizing and finger-pointing than accepting congratulations. The unconditional civic embrace has yet to come.
"Cal in year five is not as popular as he should be," Memphis Commercial Appeal columnist Geoff Calkins said. "And I would say it's because of Cal. The fights he chooses to pick, he doesn't have to pick.
"I think Memphis fans thought this would be more fun."
Lately, it's been fun. Memphis has won six of its last eight, highlighted by a stunning blowout of Louisville in Freedom Hall (Editor's note: Memphis lost the rematch Saturday, 53-44). Calipari has coaxed leadership skills out of superb freshman point guard Darius Washington, to the extent that Washington demanded during practice Monday that the coach make the team run sprints after a sloppy stretch of play.
"That was a huge, huge thing for us," Calipari said. "An unbelievable statement. The coach's job is preparation and strategy. Their job is to come together and play. If they're not empowered by February, we haven't done our job as a staff."
Problem is, February empowerment was preceded by months of anarchy. Fun? None. The season's early stages were rife with underachievement, acrimony, violence and some squishy disciplinary stands by the coach.
Now, at 16-12 and owning a 111 RPI, Memphis is far from the top-25 team it was predicted to be. In fact, the Tigers are closer right now to a third NIT appearance than a third NCAA bid in Calipari's five years -- not exactly what the fan base had in mind five years ago.
Memphis is a healthy 109-50 under Calipari and earned its first NCAA Tournament victory since 1995 last year. But his Tigers haven't spent a minute in the top 10 or the Sweet Sixteen, haven't made a Conference USA tournament final and are 6-20 against ranked opponents.
Chuck House, a 1989 Memphis grad and local realtor, describes Memphis fan expectations thusly: "Realistically, they want to make the NCAA every year, and would probably accept five out of six. They want to make the Sweet Sixteen two out of five. And every 10 years be a serious contender for the Final Four."
Attendance has plummeted from more than 17,000 fans per game in Cal's first year at the Pyramid to an average of 9,058 fans per game this year, the Tigers' first year playing in the Grizzlies' FedEx Forum. Calipari blames the attendance drop on a poorly-marketed transition to the new arena, but the bleak crowds haven't been given much to come see.
Home losses to Mississippi (RPI 138), Louisiana Tech (141) and Providence (107) explain the Tigers' own low power ranking better than any microchip conspiracy theory. (In fairness, down years for Purdue, Providence, Austin Peay and East Tennessee State didn't help, nor did an assigned Coaches vs. Cancer opener against Savannah State, which ultimately finished at 0-28.)
Along the way there has been a cavalcade of crises. Three recruits were academically ineligible. In November, the apartment of four players was burglarized. According to a police report, the burglary resulted in the theft of $3,600 in fake fur coats belonging to the girlfriend of one player; $4,000 in custom-made shirts; $6,000 in shoes; $5,000 in pants; and $2,150 in throwback jerseys.
According to the Commercial Appeal, roughly half of the merchandise belonged to guard Clyde Wade, who was acquitted during the summer of identity theft charges. The tempest died quickly, but served as foreshadowing for the tumult to come.
Once the dribbling started, Calipari learned that he had massive attitude problems. The end result was another star player leaving early (or bypassing the program altogether), as Sean Banks joined Dajuan Wagner, Kendrick Perkins, Qyntel Woods and Amare Stoudemire on the list of maddening Memphis near-greats.
You're putting me on the stand? I never get to use any of my recruits!
Perkins, Woods and Stoudemire signed or committed to Memphis but instead went directly to the NBA. The celebrated Wagner, part of a package deal that included his best friend, center Arthur Barclay, and his father, former Louisville great Milt Wagner, played one year and was gone, with nothing more than an NIT title to show for it.
Banks arrived last year with slightly less stature but significantly more baggage, after two arrests in high school. Banks responded by becoming ESPN.com's national Freshman of the Year, averaging 17.4 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. But everything after that was a fiasco that fractured the team.
During the summer, Banks blew off a chance to try out for the USA Under-21 national team, even though the tryouts were close to his home in New Jersey. He returned to school in the fall with a poisonous attitude that manifested itself in shoddy practice habits and ball-hogging during games.
Calipari suspended him for one game in December, but that solved nothing. Finally, after a loss at Texas on Jan. 6, Barclay punched Banks in the locker room, leaving him with a black eye. The two flew home on separate flights.
"The crisis came to a head in the locker room in Texas," Calipari said. "After that, OK. You're either with us or not with us."
"He's a good friend of mine," guard Anthony Rice said of Banks, "but I will say the chemistry is a lot better without him."
Banks actually stuck around for three more games before flunking out. It was known during the fall semester that Banks was blowing off classes -- media reports said he routinely left class within minutes after being escorted there by a basketball staffer -- but Calipari never suspended him for academic reasons. Even when it was apparent that Banks was a goner academically, Calipari let him play two more games.
"If anybody says, 'You were only playing him so you'd win more games,' you have no idea about a basketball team," Calipari said. "He was hurting our team at that point. I was playing him for him, so he has a big game going out the door.
"If I had to do it over again, would I play him those two games? Because of how I look at things, yes. Because that kid's life is in the balance. Our season, at that point, wasn't in the balance."
At the same time, Cal the Compassionate was dealing with another four-alarm problem. Guard Jeremy Hunt, who after Washington is Memphis' only reliable ballhandler, was arrested and charged with assault after an altercation with his former girlfriend, Tamika Rogers.
According to the police report, which cited Rogers' version of events, Hunt arrived outside Rogers' apartment in the early hours of Jan. 10 and "pushed, shoved, punched and grabbed" Rogers. When she ran away, he allegedly chased her, threw her down, grabbed her around the waist and threw her down again.
Rogers ran inside her apartment, according to the report, and a witness cited in the report said she heard Rogers calling for help and saw Hunt pin her down on the bed. Hunt was charged with assault.
A neighbor of Rogers' told reporters a different version of events that included Rogers standing outside with knives in her hands. Rogers told the Commercial Appeal that that was only after she had been assaulted. Rogers also gave police a threatening message Hunt allegedly left on her phone hours before the altercation.
A Commercial Appeal reporter who saw Rogers two days after the incident described her as having a blackened left eye, a swollen right eye, a cut on her nose and another cut near her left eye, and bruises on her neck and right arm.
Hunt practiced the next day. When Calipari was asked about the incident, he said he knew nothing about it.
Asked whether Hunt might play against Marquette, Calipari's answer was a flippant, "sure." The coach then said, "I want to talk about Marquette. I mean, do you have any questions about [Travis] Diener?"
Despite those comments, Calipari said this week that his first impulse was to suspend Hunt. He ultimately was benched for the Marquette game and one other, then reinstated. The university said it had received "additional information" about the incident that led to Hunt's reinstatement, although he's still charged with the crime and facing an April court date.
"There's a lot more to it than has been on the record," athletic director R.C. Johnson said. "We have access to it and knowledge of it, and based our decision on it. But we can't comment on it. I hate to say that, it sounds like a copout, but it's a legal situation."
Suspensions have been highly flexible for Calipari before. When two of his players came off the bench to punch and kick opponents from Arkansas-Pine Bluff during the 2002-03 season, they were suspended for the next game and the school issued a release.
But Calipari changed the suspension to the first league game (against doormat Tulane, as it turned out), ostensibly to increase the impact. Then, because of injuries in the backcourt, he suspended the suspensions and used both players in the game.
This time, Calipari said reinstating Hunt was largely a call made over his head.
"As it was looked into further, and as our president, our legal counsel, the police, looked into it, they didn't think that was the right thing," Calipari said. "The decision was all of us together. That decision was [by the president, Shirley Raines]. But I concurred.
"It's easy for ADs and coaches who are up against it to throw this kid under the bus. ... The easy thing is, he's suspended because I'm a self-righteous guy. I'm not worried about popular decisions. I'm worried about being right."
Calipari paints the decision as a sink-or-swim judgment on the rest of Hunt's life. There is a difference between "throwing him under the bus" and keeping Hunt on scholarship with the team and simply sitting him out until the situation has been resolved legally.
"We've kind of moved beyond that," Calipari said of the Hunt situation. "We don't deal with it anymore. The emphasis is off that, and it's where it should be."
The emphasis now in Memphis is on putting a big GameDay crowd in front of the FedEx Forum Saturday morning. A football-style tailgate party is planned outside, and a sellout is hoped for inside. Calipari spent part of his radio show drumming up enthusiasm and encouraging fans to come down and be part of the event.
The rest of the show he spent accepting congratulations for the team's turnaround, and railing about the RPI. When Calipari limped out on an artificial hip he got last May, applause followed him out the door and into the night -- where more threats to Memphis basketball undoubtedly lurked.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.