House of Blues
Memphis coach John Calipari is paying the price for his quick-fix method of rebuilding
Memphis coach John Calipari has long been equal parts Tony Robbins and P.T. Barnum, but he has had to be especially reliant on his huckster's optimism lately Having failed to lead the Tigers to the NCAA tournament for the second straight year, Calipari suffered massive defections this spring: Two starters, freshman Dajuan Wagner and junior Chris Massie, left for the XBA draft, as did Calipari's top incoming recruit, Qyntel Woods of Northeast Mississippi Community College. In addition, starting guard Scooter McFadgon announced he was transferring to Tennessee. Yet despite losing 63.7% of his scoring and 57.3% of his rebounding, Calipari, who took over at Memphis in March 2000, insists that his program is on solid ground. "I'm telling you, I'm juiced about where we're heading," he says.
Calipari may yet build Memphis into a powerhouse, but for now he is paying the price for his get-rich-quick methods. He made an instant splash two years ago when he recruited Wagner out of Camden (N.J.) High, but it was widely known that Wagner was unlikely to play more than one season of college ball. Likewise, Woods was also expected to enter the draft. Undaunted, Calipari is still doggedly pursuing Kendrick Perkins, a 6'10" high school junior from Beaumont, Texas, who is already drawing intense interest from NBA scouts. "I'm going to recruit the best players," Calipari says. "Why should I let a guy [play] somewhere else just because he might only stay one year?"
Well, one reason might be that there are plenty of talented high school players in Memphis who might play four years for Calipari if he weren't in such a hurry all the time. Right after taking the Tigers job, Calipari passed on two-time city player of the year Earnest Shelton after Shelton took too long to make his college choice. ( Shelton has been a solid contributor at Alabama the last two years.) The coach similarly lost interest in the city's reigning player of the year, 6'7" Derrick Byars of Ridgeway High, because Byars refused to verbally commit to Memphis at the end of his junior season. Byars, who will attend Virginia this fall, had a 3.9 GPA, which means he might have given a much-needed boost to Memphis's woeful academic record—a zero graduation rate in the latest NCAA stats—something Calipari has promised to improve.
The loss of McFadgon to instate rival Tennessee is another bad sign. A popular Memphis native who was second on the team last season in minutes played, McFadgon will pay his own way in Knoxville for one year before going on scholarship for his remaining two years of eligibility.
To be sure, Calipari's courtship of city business leaders has enabled Memphis to dramatically upgrade its facilities, and he rightly points out that the Tigers will probably still be the preseason favorites to win Conference USA's National Division. "I had to do a lot of housecleaning when I took this job," he says. "Look at us after I've been here four or five years. Then you can make a judgment."
Having already seen Calipari make inquiries about the South Carolina job a year ago and heard him mention his desire to return to the NBA, Memphians have to wonder whether Calipari will be around that long, building the kind of strong foundation that leads to long-term success.
Discipline Lax For Scorer?
Terrell Taylor stole the spotlight on March 15, when he sank a three-pointer in the final second to give Creighton a double-overtime upset of Florida in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Since then, however, the 6'3" junior guard has come crashing to earth. On May 8 coach Dana Altman announced that Taylor would transfer, a move Altman described as "a mutual decision." But last week Taylor told SI that he failed a drug test after the tournament, his second positive test in eight months.
Taylor and the school were further embarrassed on May 11, when the Omaha World-Herald reported that the player had been convicted of 12 misdemeanors since January 2001 and had been briefly jailed four times. That raised a question as to whether Creighton overlooked Taylor's misdeeds while there were games to be played and then cut him loose after the season.