Monday, June 01, 2009

Talking Ourselves Off The Ledge From The Calipari Exit

We have seen the underbelly of college sports and it is our own.

Weeks have passed since our messy divorce from University of Memphis basketball coach John Calipari, and he got players, secretaries, assistant coaches, Chinese coaches, and most of all, our idealism.

We have no one to blame but ourselves. We were too cynical and too well-versed in the realities of college athletics to ever doubt that it was anything but big business. We couched it in noble terms - the spirit of competition, the thrill of teamwork and the magic of a unified community – but now we're just not feeling so noble.

We allowed ourselves to be fooled. We allowed ourselves to be seduced by a combination of a civic lack of self-worth and the belief that success at a national level could cure it. That there was never much respect and admiration across the U.S. as we recorded this success should have been the most blatant tip-off that we were blinded by the light of our own ambition and deaf to criticisms that now seem so blatant.

It's 20-20

Worst of all, it seems obvious from the kind of clarity that comes with the benefit of distance that the Calipari basketball program just may become the hammer that others can now use to beat up the university that it was supposed to serve. In the absence of a prevailing narrative for University of Memphis, the NCAA charges now become the narrative. We can afford to take some blows to get our basketball program righted, but it's unfair that by extension, our academic programs and professors must take them too.

No, we are not the only university that seems to have lost its sense of proportion, but it is cold comfort that coaches making multi-million salaries own the headlines while the university research programs and outreach programs get the footnotes. Perhaps, it's the nature of the media these days - Kate and Jon make the front page while the facts about Vice-President Cheney's latest stretching of the truth gets buried inside the paper (if mentioned at all).

At any rate, we're now like the alcoholic at his first AA meeting. We're still shell-shocked from hitting bottom and we're determined to fight our way back, but still, we sure did like the sweet taste of success.

Tell-Tale Signs

That taste allowed us to ignore the fact that something about the hovering specter of "Worldwide Wes" over our teams just didn't feel right.

We justified away the "one and done" syndrome that was supposed to give high school seniors a chance to decompress before entering the NBA, but does little more than treat these superior athletes as commodities.

We savored record-breaking seasons so deeply that we looked the other way when the road between Lauringberg Prep and U of M seemed questionable, as well as the possibility that it was a diploma mill.

Success tasted so sweet that we refused to see the off-the-court problems as a pattern and the inside-the-program trade-offs that told our student athletes that the latter always mattered more than the former.

Most of all, we were so busy tasting sweet victory that we ignored the aroma of something else, an aroma of self-aggrandizement that pervaded a program where it seemed that even our university president had to fall in line with whatever the coach wanted.

Earth To SCM

OK, perhaps, we're overdoing all this, but you know how it is: group therapy can be hard.

We're on the ledge, and it's pretty crowded up here.

It's because of all of this that Josh Pastner was the perfect pick as Mr. Calipari's replacement. He reminds us of the wide-eyed joy that should accompany college sports. He reminds us of the enthusiasm and the optimism that should emanate from successful programs. He reminds of the vocabulary that truly uplifts our ambitions instead of playing to our insecurities.

Most of all, he reminds us that it's the school that matters. Our players and our sports teams are not here to represent themselves. It's not the Calipari program. It's not the Pastner program. It's the University of Memphis program. That's why Coach Pastner has said that he is here to represent the university, its values and its principles, not the other way around.

Even those of us who sat on the edges of our seats for every game of a Calipari-coached team really never lost sight that we had allowed the tail to wag the dog. We were just enjoying it so much.

Metaphors That Matter

We knew it's supposed to be about the quality of the university, not the quality of its sports teams, but sports has always been such a strong metaphor for our city. For once, we had bragging rights.

Blessed with the clarity that comes from the stretching out between us and the last days of the Calipari rejection, some of the people who offered him the big salary to stay are now saying the change has been good. In hindsight, they say it had become like being in a dysfunctional relationship, a co-dependency. Enough was never enough. The chosen one always wanted more, bigger, higher and more expensive. And now they even admit that although they still like the former coach, looking back, it had just become too much.

They say now that things got too much out of balance, and that we may not be Final Four caliber year after year, but we will have a healthier, more stable and more respected program.

If sports have always been a ready metaphor for our city, Coach Pastner is an apt symbol for our city's transition to a newer generation of leaders. If we can trust a 31-year-old with a team whose success galvanizes our city like nothing else and whose budget undergirds our university's entire sports program, surely we can start looking for similarly aged people – and no, they don't have to have lived here their whole lives – to lead our governments and to strengthen our civic bench.

Life Lessons

If there is any consolation for us, it is that we are not alone. Even the mighty can become addicts, willing to ignore their core values to chase "W's" and wrapping their blind ambition in the vocabulary of civic boosterism and high-flown athletic ideals.

After all, if the University of Kentucky – a program with a pride justified by its history – is willing to blink, it acknowledges that in the end, all of us are alike – willing to ignore the obvious as long as the wins keep coming. That's why it wasn't ashamed to buy the UM program lock, stock, barrel and Chinese coach.

Already, Coach Calipari has worked his magic in Lexington, convincing school officials that he is persecuted and surrounded by detractors jealous of his success. Sports columnists already are becoming his cheerleaders, branding his critics as misguided and misinformed. The co-dependency begins in earnest.

But it's the coach that creates the culture for his program, and it's the coach that should take responsibility for its problems, something else our former coach had difficulty doing. More and more, however, we're willing to do it for him.


Zippy the giver said...

The sucker: The guy trying to look good at all cost by trying not to look like or be a sucker, a remover of all obstacle to success by unsavory methods which cost others everything in the long run.
Short sighted and morally vapid culture, steeped in 50 year old backwater ways.

Just one more thing to bottom out on lead by our Memphis stagnant water leadership.

I think I like the new guy better.

Anonymous said...

What's this about the MSU basketball coach leaving?

are my student fees gonna go up again? will my classes even make this fall?

will I ever have a job even if I can afford to graduate?

and who sets the priorities around here?

Anonymous said...

I do agree with a lot of this article, in particular the statement that you are overdoing it. So there's a scandal brewing. There's been lots of scandals with lots of schools and this one seems to be like the one we had in the 80's with Dana Kirk and Keith Lee. We'll get past it.

As another commenter said somewhere, we all knew Calipari was a scumbag but at least he was OUR scumbag. In another sense, there were other positives. The graduation rate of players went up. We could always start a "How 'bout them Tigers" conversation with a fellow Memphian, even someone with whom we had little in common, and end up feeling a common bond.

In a perfect world, we would have more intellectual things to bind us but this is Memphis, land of BBQ, blues, rock and roll, humid summers, a busy nighttime airport, and hoops.

We will get past this but basketball will still be a revered sport on the college level and maybe even moreso on the pro level. We will go elsewhere, tell people where we're from and a fair percentage will comment on basketball.

Anonymous said...

good grief, the NBA needs to get rid of the age requirement and a lot of this garbage will not happen anymore. There is no logical reason an 18 year old basketball player should not be able to turn pro, but a 18 tennis player can. Or a 15 year old tennis player for that matter.

Tom Guleff said...

Tom Jones, you are so Memphis.


Smart City Consulting said...


And it's just no use denying it.

As someone susceptible of dysfunction, I hope to recognize it better next time. :)