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New Rivals: Memphis-Tennessee

Competition between coaches fuels intense hatred

Posted: Tuesday November 20, 2007 1:07PM; Updated: Tuesday November 20, 2007 3:32PM
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Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl allegedly made calls to Willie Kemp after he committed to Memphis, deepening the rivalry between the two schools.
Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl allegedly made calls to Willie Kemp after he committed to Memphis, deepening the rivalry between the two schools.
John Biever/SI
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PROTAGONISTS: John Calipari, Bruce Pearl, Dane Bradshaw

HOW WE GOT HERE: In Robert Greene's 48 Laws of Power, the author explains his sixth law (Court Attention at All Costs) by saying it is "better to be slandered and attacked than ignored." The wisdom of promoter P.T. Barnum inspired the rule, which could double as gospel to Memphis' Calipari and Tennessee's Pearl, a pair of program-builders who combine coaching acumen with hucksterism. They are loved by their fans and reviled by outsiders, a formula that makes them great foes. Says Pearl, "We like annoying each other enough to make this fun."

The series was renewed in 2006 after a four-year hiatus; Tennessee had threatened to stop playing Memphis in football if the Tigers didn't schedule a hoops series. Since then, they've split a pair of games while trading verbal jabs. Calipari said that playing the Vols wasn't beneficial to the Tigers' "national schedule." Pearl said that "there isn't a program in the country that respects us less than Memphis." And Calipari recently told SI, "I'm [playing Tennessee] because I'm being asked to do it by the powers that be on this campus, and I'm trying to be a team player." (The points of contention have strayed away from the games, too; two seasons ago, Memphis-born Vol Dane Bradshaw ignited a mini-scandal by saying he was less scared of rowdy frat kids at LSU than he was "a gang-banger in Memphis in the stands." Bradshaw apologized to Calipari and explained he was referring to an incident during high school, not the Tigers' crowds ... but it certainly heightened the stakes of Tennessee's '05 visit to FedEx Forum.)

Both coaches downplay the notion of it as a rivalry. Pearl says the SEC is still priority No. 1. Calipari says he doesn't care about the SEC, and that playing in talent-devoid Knoxville doesn't help his recruiting. Pearl admits that talent-rich Memphis "is crucial to us in recruiting" -- a statement backed up by his controversial 2005 pursuit of Bolivar, Tenn., guard Willie Kemp, who was already committed to the Tigers. In truth, there are mutual benefits to the series: Pearl gets recruiting inroads, while the Tigers, who play in the depleted Conference USA, get a late-season boost to their RPI, enhancing their case for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. And this year, both teams get on ESPN, with added hype from the network's GameDay sideshow. Even more attention. Barnum would approve.

TALKING THE TALK: "We play Florida, not Central Florida [as Memphis does]. We play Ole Miss, not Southern Miss. But I can't beat [Calipari] in recruiting, and I can't beat him on TV [appearances]." -- a jab from Pearl

WHEN THEY MEET: Feb. 23 in Memphis

HEAT LEVEL: Blistering

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