Cry me an Old Man River

Balls, Pucks, and Monster Trucks
By RICK WORMWOOD  |  June 17, 2009

Readers of this column over the past two years (my mom and my Aunt Theresa, mostly) know that I rabidly support my alma mater's basketball team, the University of Memphis Tigers. This past April, our head coach John Calipari relinquished the Tiger reins to take over at Kentucky. I didn't blame Calipari. The Kentucky job is perhaps the best in college basketball, and Calipari had given UMemphis nine years of unprecedented hardwood success. It hurt to see him go, but if I was able to step outside of myself and look at the situation objectively, Coach Cal did what was best for his family, his career, and his bank account. Who can blame him?

In 2000, when UMemphis hired Calipari, I knew the Tigers would win. Of course, I also knew that, in terms of running a clean program, Calipari was slick and slippery. At the University of Massachusetts, Calipari's teams went 189-70 over eight seasons, including a Final Four appearance in 1996. Later it was determined that Calipari's star player, Marcus Camby, received $28,000 from sports agents while still in college. As a result, the NCAA voided the UMass 1996 Final Four run. Officially, on the books, those games never happened.

UMemphis knew that, but our team was so bad that we didn't care. Sure, he's slick. Calipari's basketball programs were never cleaner than Caesar's proverbial wife. Plenty of times I laughed and said, "Coach Cal is as crooked as the river that Memphis sits next to, but I could give a rat's ass as long as we win games."

And win we did. The Tigers dominated for a decade, going 252-69. In the 2005-2009 seasons, UMemphis won 134 games, more than any college team in history over four campaigns. In 2007-2008, which included a Final Four appearance where the Tigers lost the final to Kansas, UMemphis won a single-season NCAA record 38 games. Those were the glory days. It was beyond great; it was rapturous. Derrick Rose, the star of that team, was subsequently drafted number 1 by the Chicago Bulls, eventually becoming this past season's NBA Rookie of the Year. Boston fans no doubt remember Rose from the recent playoffs, when he nearly sent the Celtics home in the first round single-handedly. The kid can play.

But like Mark Twain said, "History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme." The NCAA has alleged that Rose paid someone to take his SAT prior to enrolling at UMemphis. Calipari is not directly accused of any wrongdoing (he's too slick for that), but if the allegations are substantiated, the entire 38-win season — including the championship game appearance — will be voided. Officially, it will be like they never happened, with the Tigers stricken from the record books the same way Trotsky was removed from pictures of the Russian Revolution, or, more to the point, the same way Calipari's 1996 Minuteman team was stripped of post-season glory.

That prospect has me all bent, but you know what? I am a total hypocrite. My umbrage is emptier than the Portland Public Market building. I joked about Calipari being crooked for years, so being angry over the situation now makes me pretty well full of crap. My school paid big money for a slippery coach who wins, but who blurs important lines in the process. We got exactly what we paid for, and now that the bill has come due, I (and every other alum who cheered Calipari) need to stand up and deal, a prospect that is not enticing.

Rick Wormwood can be reached at rickwormwood@gmail.com.

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