My main issue is the unrealistic expectations of media and fans that look at the past through rose colored glasses, which I believe is detrimental to the goal of having a quality basketball team, that Tiger fans can be proud of, to put on the floor. I started this article back in March 2016 and never posted it because it comes off as a bit too negative on my favorite team, but today I felt it was time.
I realize that there will be a lot of disagreement with my assessments. That is part of the risk when going against public sentiment.
The National Image
To put things in perspective, there was an article written by Geoff Calkins for the Commercial Appeal that year with the title “For Pastner, loss to ECU was the beginning of the end”.
There was also a statement in the article that makes me wonder if anyone remembers the REAL Memphis history:
“Beyond that, Memphis basketball helps shape the local and national image of the university"
Given the sentence above, lets take a look at the Dana Kirk era:
Coach Kirk was the head coach of Memphis State University from 1979-1986. His record was an amazing 158-58 and it included an appearance in the 1985 Final Four. This is the lofty record that local media and fans remember so well.
They apparently don’t remember the damage that was done to the “national image” of the university. Dana Kirk only graduated six players in seven years. Take a look at the history of some of these players if you have the stomach for it.
In comparison, Josh Pastner graduates players. There was an article by Insidehighered.com that put Memphis in the “Final Four" if games were decided by classroom performance.
As I said, the Kirk era had several trips to the NCAA tournament and a Final Four Appearance, but at what cost to the university’s national and local image? According to Wiki, all of those NCAA games were vacated:
"In 1986, the NCAA forced Memphis State to vacate all of their NCAA tournament appearances from 1982 until 1985. Kirk was indicted by a federal Grand Jury on 11 counts of tax evasion, filing false income tax returns, mail fraud and obstruction of justice. At his trial, witnesses testified that he scalped tickets for as much as five times face value, took money from boosters to give to players and actively solicited kickbacks from tournament promoters. He served four months in a federal minimum-security prison in Montgomery, Alabama."
In other words, it can be argued that he cheated to win those games, which is why they were vacated by the NCAA. The team was also placed on a two year probation and was asked to pay nearly a million dollars to the NCAA. Is this better or worse for national reputation than not making the tournament a couple of years?
So, when I hear how successful the Dana Kirk era was, I have to ask that person if it was really all that successful when it ended with all the tournament games and banners being thrown away, especially when one of your main measurements is how "Memphis basketball helps shape the local and national image of the university”?
Of course, Calipari already had a Final Four that was vacated, but Memphis didn’t really care. You could argue that Memphis should have never taken him if they were concerned about repairing their “national image”. However, Coach Cal spent a few years in the NBA, so I would argue that the past issues were far enough behind him to at least give him a shot.
It is hard to argue that John Calipari wasn’t successful at Memphis, he would have won the most games of any coach in NCAA history in a season if it wasn’t for the often occurring asterisks that makes its way into so many great season at Memphis.
Unfortunately, after they won 38 games in 2007-2008, the NCAA started an investigation of Derrick Rose’s SAT scores (in the summer of 2009). In short, the ETS concluded the Rose did not take the test and Memphis was required to vacate all 38 wins, including the trip to the Final Four:
That summer, Calipari left Memphis with his best recruiting class of his tenure (most of them left for Kentucky), an NCAA investigation, and more bad news for the national reputation. It should be noted that Calipari is the only coach in NCAA history with vacated Final Fours from two separate schools. Of course, it didn’t hurt him as much as the university. He went on to get the best gig in college basketball and left behind a coaching job that no one in the country wanted. Memphis went on a nation wide search for a coach, and instead of hiring a big name, they had to settle for Josh Pastner, who was a relatively unknown recruiter on Calipari's team.
"For Memphis, the search to find Calipari’s successor was tough because nobody wanted the job. It’s impossible to replace an icon, and eventually the school turned its sights on Pastner, Cal’s top assistant."
The Unknown Recruiter
Anyway, no one on earth (outside of Memphis, anyway) could have expected Pastner to compete with the last four years of Calipari's record here in Memphis. After all, he had never been a head coach before his job in Memphis, so expectations should have been adjusted accordingly, especially given the fact that Calipari took all of the talent to Kentucky with him. However, it is fair to point out that the best years of basketball from 1982 through today were mostly vacated for rules violations. Of course, the NCAA can’t erase our memories of those games, but it can put a deep scar on the national reputation. Josh Pastner, as far as we know, ran a super-clean program and at the end of the day, I think the University might prefer that to scandal if they are simply concerned with their image.
Note: For full disclosure Josh Pastner’s record was 167-63 (nearly a 70 percent average), he had been to the NCAA tournament 4 times and the NIT once in the seven years he spent in Memphis, he was the C-USA Coach of the year in 2013, but never made it to the Sweet 16. His last two years were his worst, but it could be argued one season’s disappointment was related to his best player getting injured toward the end of the season and then his final year’s disappointment was related to that same player* transferring unexpectedly in July with no hopes of getting a replacement that late in the summer.
*That player transferred to Virginia and was released from the team for undisclosed reasons, so it could be concluded that there were issues beyond Pastner's control.
Pearls of Wisdom
So now that he was gone, who would they replace him with? As we found out when Coach Cal went to Kentucky, successful coaches don’t want this job unless you pay them a fortune. Also, the job is much harder now than when Pastner took over. Coach Cal’s main success came after Memphis joined Conference USA and hosted nearly every tournament on its home floor. Coach Pastner’s best seasons also came in Conference USA.
The new coach would start his career in the much harder AAC. Winning nearly 70 percent of your games in that conference, which would only put you on equal footing with Pastner, would not be good enough.
The funny thing is that the same media that declared Pastner should be fired were actually saying that Bruce Pearl “would be fabulous”, but unfortunately he was tied into a contract at Auburn.
Note: Pearl’s record at Auburn that year was 11-20 at the time of that article. Pearl has now been at Auburn for 3 years and has not taken them to the NCAA tournament and has a record of 44-54 during that time.
Also, Pearl is the guy that was fired from Tennesee:
"The NCAA Committee on Infractions announced Wednesday it is imposing a three-year show-cause penalty against former Tennessee men's basketball coach Bruce Pearl for major rules violations, essentially making him unemployable in the college ranks during the three-year period."
With suggestions like this, do we really think the media cares about the national reputation of the University of Memphis? I don’t think they do. I think it is a win at all costs mentality that has been in Memphis since the Dana Kirk era and if it all gets taken away, at least we have memories to hold onto. It is fine to have that viewpoint, but please don’t try to sell that as being good for the national reputation.
(As a side note, I often linked articles from one writer at the local newspaper. However, he wasn't writing these articles in a bubble. Many of his sentiments are the same as you would hear on local sports talk shows and at the water cooler at work. I am mainly using him as a source because his articles are so easy to find, and for better or worse, he is one of the most respected, influential voices in this area.)
Memphis convinced Tubby Smith to take a 5 year contract averaging over $3 million a year. That is over a million more a year than he was reportedly receiving at Texas Tech. So when you add that to the extra compensation they are paying Pastner, you would think Memphis could have put money in the program while Pastner was here rather than cutting it back so dramatically that his players were flying coach...not exactly the situation you want when recruiting:
"There’s been efficiencies and adjustments. A large part of our expenses are tied to travel, and certainly if you travel outside the city of Memphis, you know that airline prices are expensive. The same can be said with chartering flights. So we’ve tried to create a hybrid where we’ll fly commercial and charter back. And fly commercial one way and charter one way."
In hindsight, Tubby Smith was the obvious choice. He is the polar opposite of Josh Pastner. They heard complaints about the lack of experience and few have more experience than Tubby. They heard that Josh wasn't a good "floor coach" and Tubby has a reputation as being a great "floor coach". Josh is known as being a relentless recruiter and Tubby...well, not so much. The idea was that he simply needed to put a recruiting wall around Memphis and his lack of recruiting prowess could be minimized.
Also, Tubby has a national championship, has lead 5 teams to the tournament, and many consider him to have Hall of Fame credentials. Josh can't make any of those claims at this point. Also, Tubby was 65 years old, so he could weather any storm brought on by the Memphis media and fans if he did not meet their expectations. Even if his career in Memphis ends like the Hindenburg disaster, it isn't like it will be more than a blip on his resume. For all we know, he is just cashing in before a much deserved retirement.
Tubby, on the other hand, started with a team that had two players that were considered top 50ish (depending on the source) recruits with the Lawson brothers. Dedric was the rookie of the year in the conference in the prior year, and KJ was hurt (another plausible excuse for Pastner's record in his final year), so we did not get a chance to see his full potential in the prior season.
The sad thing is that the team got worse as the year went on. At one point, Tubby lost four games in a row and experienced the losing end of one of the biggest losses in Memphis history with a 41 point loss to SMU. Pastner never lost even 3 games in a row. Also, keep in mind that Memphis would have had Charlie Moore (another top 50ish recruit) on that roster if they kept Pastner. They may have also had Nick Marshall, who left Memphis after Pastner went to Georgia Tech. In other words, there is little doubt that Memphis would have been better with Pastner at the helm.
Well, lets cut Tubby some slack since it was his first year, right? Well, this week, the Lawson brothers have announced that they are transferring to another program. Dedric was a first teamer and KJ was rookie of the year in conference. Keon Clergeot has also announced he is leaving and most reports are expecting Markel Crawford to leave, as well.
To quote Gary Parrish of CBS:
"Assuming Markel Crawford also transfers, Memphis will return Jeremiah Martin and Jimario Rivers - and have its worst roster of my lifetime."
The Moral of the Story
I think we are stuck with Tubby for good or bad unless he is so desperate to get out of here that he takes less money from another university to leave. I don't see that happening, so lets hope that he can perform a miracle and figure out how to turn the team's fortunes around.
Not sure how this is better for the national reputation, but it is the reality of ignoring the real history of Memphis and creating expectations so lofty that a top 40 job (some say it is a top 25 job - though the caveats in the article are why I consider it a top 40 job) starts looking like a bad deal for anyone on the upswing of their career to even consider. Maybe if Tubby drives the program straight into the ditch, a young and promising coach may decide to take the risk on a rebuild, but I would still advise anyone in that position to be aware of the myth of Memphis basketball and the ghosts of Cal and Kirk.