CRAWFORD | Memphis president erred twice in Calipari celebration mess
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — It’s a courtesy. Flip through the program each year for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Enshrinement ceremony and you’ll see congratulatory ads for the new Hall of Famers from everywhere they’ve ever played, coached, attended or even had dinner.
Maybe University of Memphis president David Rudd should’ve just taken out a nice ad.
To congratulate John Calipari, who coached at Memphis for nine years, Rudd announced, via Twitter, Memphis would hold an extended two-day celebration of Calipari’s tenure and accomplishments, to be held in late December.
It was a nice gesture. And you could tell it meant something to Calipari. It also meant something to quite a few Memphis fans. Something completely different.
As outlined by Memphis Commercial-Appeal columnist Geoff Caulkins, Calipari did great things at Memphis. He also left the program with a Final Four that was vacated, a banner it cannot hang, and, eventually, on probation.
And yes, this is where we can all acknowledge that Calipari did many good things for Memphis, and that the Calipari era was a blast, and that the man may be the best coach — in any sport — Memphis has ever had. All that is true. Just as it is true that Calipari left Memphis on probation. And that he inserted clauses in the letters of intent of his last set of recruits so they would be released if and when he skipped town. And that he stalled his exit from Memphis so he could talk to those recruits as the Memphis coach and persuade them to join him in Lexington. And that, as recently as four months ago, he compared coaching at Memphis to “sitting at the little table. You never got to carve the turkey. You had plastic forks and plates and that’s what it was."
Fans took to Twitter and vented, and on Thursday, Rudd relented, said he had heard the fans, and that there would be no honoring of Calipari.
“To see your level of upset and distress has deeply troubled me,” Rudd wrote to those fans who reached out. “I have read every email, listened to every phone message and returned all calls that I have received. Although I was surprised by the depth and intensity of conviction, passion and distress, it was my responsibility to understand and weigh this in advance. Clearly I did not do that effectively.”
A couple of thoughts here, with the main one being this: Rudd erred twice.
Surely he should have foreseen the anger this would awaken on the part of Memphis fans. I think his heart was in the right place. I think it’s a classy move to honor Calipari in some way. But this probably wasn’t the way. I’m not sure where it came from. Caulkins speculated that friends of Calipari in Amherst, Mass. (where a Calipari celebration at Massachusetts still will be held in December) and Memphis collaborated to set up the events. Nothing wrong with that. But you don’t see it often while a coach’s career is still going. Kentucky bought an ad for Rick Pitino when he went into the Hall of Fame. It didn’t have two days’ worth of events. Nobody expected it to do that.
But the second time Rudd erred was in rescinding this announcement so quickly. Having screwed up making the announcement prematurely in the first place, he should’ve just sat on it, taken the heat, and withdrawn this invitation sometime next week, or later, after Calipari’s Hall of Fame festivities are over.
None of this is about Memphis.
Frankly, it’s not about UMass either. Calipari wouldn’t be standing in Springfield today if it weren’t for Kentucky, and what he has done there. Period.
I know he’ll graciously mention all of the places he’s coached. And they certainly helped him get where he is.
But he is where he is because of Kentucky. He said as much.
“I’ve been at great schools. Kentucky changed everything for me,” Calipari said. “All coaches wait on that call from one of those schools. When I got the call, I looked and it became, ‘You’re on the biggest of stages now. You were always trying to build programs from scratch. You were trying to take programs and create relevance. You were trying to coach at places that never got their due or respect they deserved even though they were No. 1 in the country. They never did.’ Now you’re here at Kentucky and it all of a sudden becomes, ‘Can we be the gold standard? Can we be the school, program and athletic department that other places emulate? . . . That’s a difference at a place like this. I also come back to, just historically, you have to be on a path through one of these kinds of schools to be thought of as one of those guys, which I don’t see myself as one of those guys.”
Calipari becomes one of those guys, officially, this weekend.
The Memphis retraction of this invitation takes the spotlight off that.
Where is Digger Phelps when you need him? Memphis, this isn’t about you.
I guess it wouldn’t be a Calipari event without some outside controversy from somewhere. But at the end of the day Friday, he’ll still be a Hall of Famer. And he’ll still be smiling.
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