By Jerry Tipton | Lexington Herald Leader
Already a polarizing figure, John Calipari turns the love-hate to full volume with his return to Memphis this weekend.
Sportswriter Gary Parrish, a native Memphian, said Calipari was “the most popular man” in the city when he led the University of Memphis to basketball prominence in the first decade of this century. After becoming Kentucky coach in 2009, he became and remains “a mostly hated man” in Memphis, Parrish said.
How intensely hated? A hypothetical question: What if Calipari came to Memphis to coach Team USA against a team representing ISIS?
“They’d be selling ISIS T-shirts in Memphis,” Parrish said.
Geoff Calkins, a columnist for the Memphis Commercial Appeal, described the dislike of Calipari in his city as “pure bile.”
It was on display shortly after Selection Sunday showed that two Kentucky victories would bring Calipari to Memphis for the NCAA Tournament South Region semifinals. The hosts of the “Jason & John Show” on the Memphis ESPN radio station (92.9 FM) raised their own hypothetical question: If you paid $300 or $400 for a seat near the Kentucky bench in FedExForum, what would you say to Calipari?
“You should have bought us dinner before you (made love to) us,” one caller said.
Some callers said they would thank Calipari for what the Tigers achieved when he was coach.
One caller said he would be willing to swallow his pride and attempt to rekindle a once passionate love. “As much as I want to be mean to the man… I’d lock eyes with him and say, ‘Baby, come back’ and ‘It’s all on me,’” he said. “I’d be willing to take the blame for him to come back.
“Obviously, it’s not going to happen. I’m living in a fool’s paradise.”
The show’s hosts encouraged raw feelings. They got it, as evidenced by profanity being muted more than once. “What we’ve learned,” Jason said, “is that for a lot of people still, when you talk about Cal, it’s going to involve the F word. And that’s just the facts of the thing. People are still in pain.”
When Calipari became Memphis coach in 2000, the attraction was strong, the love fulfilling and enriching. His rebuilding project blossomed with Elite Eight appearances in 2006 and 2007, advancement to the 2008 championship game and a trip to the Sweet 16 in 2009. This was heady stuff for a program that had played in Elite Eight games only three times prior to Calipari’s arrival.
“He gave us nine great years, nine great years,” said Don DeWeese, who owns Gibson’s Donuts, a favorite off-campus hangout for Calipari. “Those people, they would have voted him mayor or governor.”
Everything changed in 2009 when Calipari accepted the offer to become Kentucky coach.
“These people who thought John Calipari was a god for nine years now think he is the devil,” Parrish said.
As the old saying goes, the devil is in the details.
For starters, the Memphis fans bonded with Calipari in those nine years. The success made Calipari more than merely a coach.
“He delivered on his promise to put us on the map,” said Ken Bennett, the founder of a Memphis charity, Streets Ministries, that Calipari continues to support. “But he walked out on that family. That’s a little different than ‘I just don’t like the dude.’”
But, of course, there’s plenty of just plain dislike.
“There are some people who like the idea of not liking him,” Bennett said. “They won’t like him till the world comes to an end.”
Twisting the knife of Calipari’s departure came when prized recruits John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins followed him to Lexington. (A third star recruit, Xavier Henry, went to Kansas.)
Calkins said a clause was added to the letters of intent releasing them to go to another school if Calipari was no longer the Memphis coach.
“Which suggested a certain malice aforethought that people objected to,” Calkins said.
Calipari friends say Wall and Cousins merely verbally committed to Memphis, but never signed letters of intent. And that Calipari, not Memphis, was the attraction.
That Kentucky’s hiring of Calipari took time to unfold also raised suspicions.
“There’s also the perception, maybe apocryphal or not, that John was in the house — quote-unquote — ‘deciding’ whether to stay or not to stay,” Calkins said. “Memphians were camped out on his lawn with signs saying, ‘Please, John, stay.’
“And there’s always been the perception that he was remaining Memphis coach as long as he could so he could talk to recruits and persuade them to go with him.”
Although he was found not to be personally involved, Calipari also left Memphis with an NCAA case to handle. It involved Derrick Rose’s college transcript. Memphis ultimately had to vacate its 2008 Final Four appearance.
The kids’ table
That Memphis has struggled (never winning more than one game in an NCAA Tournament) while Kentucky flourished (25-5 NCAA Tournament record) since 2009 hasn’t helped heal hurt feelings.
Nor did Calipari’s induction in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Upon learning that he would be in the 2015 class, Calipari credited being Kentucky coach as the prime reason for being a Hall of Famer. He also thanked Memphis and UMass for giving him coaching opportunities.
“I loved those jobs,” he said at the time. “But you were at the little table. You weren’t at the big table. You never got to carve the turkey. You had the plastic forks and plates.”
Memphians haven’t forgotten. As Calkins said, “The jokes this week will be (based on) it’ll be interesting to have him back at the kids’ table.’”
In recognition of the Hall of Fame induction, the University of Memphis planned to honor Calipari at a dinner. School president David Rudd called it a “great homecoming” for Calipari. UMass held such a dinner.
But an avalanche of negative feedback led Rudd to cancel the Memphis dinner and acknowledge his surprise at the “depth and intensity of conviction, passion and distress.”
Memphis fans’ feelings about Calipari are gradually softening, said Calkins, who expects such a dinner at some point in the future.
“He may be in a wheelchair when that happens,” Calkins said.
Kentucky’s trip to the South Region will not be Calipari’s first time back to Memphis. He returned to attend the funeral of Memphis journalism icon George Lapides last year. He also came for former Memphis Athletic Director R.C. Johnson’s 75th birthday.
He’s been back on other occasions. When in Memphis, he has gone to Gibson’s Donuts to see old friends.
“He’s a first-class individual that has a great big old heart,” DeWeese said. “And he made this town happy for nine years. The people don’t know how to appreciate that.”
More than once, Bennett has invited Calipari to be the guest speaker at functions in Memphis. The UK coach has declined.
“He said, ‘I don’t know if I’m ready to do that or Memphis is ready to do this,’” Bennett said.
DeWeese and Bennett say Memphis fans — and perhaps critics elsewhere — might regard Calipari more highly if they got to know the man.
“He’s a fairly unassuming guy,” Bennett said. “You hear terms like carpet bagger and snake-oil salesman. But he’s generally a pretty common dude.”
Calipari apparently is also a soft touch. Since leaving Memphis, the UK coach has donated more than $1.2 million to Streets Ministries, Bennett said. The Christian-based charity tries to help inner-city families.
Bennett recalled asking Calipari’s wife, Ellen, about whether she or her husband managed the family’s money.
“And she said, ‘Oh, I do. He’d give it all away,’” said Bennett, who recalled a piece of advice he gives charities who seek Calipari’s financial help: “If you need a dime, just ask him for a nickel because he’ll give you a dime.
“He’s a sweet guy, a faithful guy,” Bennett added, “and was good to the city of Memphis.”
Maybe it says something about sports fans that Calipari will go to Memphis with some trepidation.
“I’m sure he does …” Bennett said. “If you held a rally for people who hate Calipari, there would be people there tonight. That’s the reality of it.”
Most of those people will not be in FedExForum. Fans of the four participating schools are expected to fill most of the seats.
Many Memphians will be elsewhere, no doubt rooting — passionately — for UCLA.
“I don’t think there’s any scenario where Memphis fans would pull for John Calipari,” Parrish said early last week. “The best thing that could happen for the common Memphis fan is for Memphis to win a national championship.
“The second best thing that could happen for Memphis basketball fans would be for Kentucky to be the first high-seed eliminated from this NCAA Tournament. And then the NCAA to launch an investigation into the Wildcats’ program. That’s, like, what Memphis basketball fans still dream about. I don’t know if it’s ever happening, but they still yearn for that day, still hold onto it very, very tight.”