- College Basketball - What Calipari wants, Memphis provides ... that includes stability

NCB Preview
M College BB
Message board
Weekly lineup
NCAA StatSearch
 Saturday, November 4
Calipari brings big-time attitude to Memphis
 By Andy Katz

MEMPHIS -- Memphis basketball under John Calipari begins with a whirlwind professional tour.

The only thing missing was a ticket. You'll see every attraction, hear every stump speech and leave sold on the project.

You don't stop. Not from the moment you walk into the Finch Center gym. Not until it's time to leave. Everything seems planned and runs on clockwork.

Keeping up with Calipari
  • Here is a look at John Calipari's career coaching records in college and the NBA.
  • '88-89: UMass 10-18
    No postseason.
    '89-90: UMass 17-14
    Reached NIT.
    '90-91: UMass 20-13
    Reached NIT Final Four.
    '91-92: UMass 30-5
    Reached NCAA Sweet 16.
    '92-93: UMass 24-7
    Reached NCAA Tournament.
    '93-94: UMass 28-7
    Reached NCAA Tournament.
    '94-95: UMass 29-5
    Reached NCAA Elite Eight.
    '95-96: UMass 35-2
    Reached NCAA Final Four.
    '96-97: N.J. Nets 26-56
    Missed NBA Playoffs.
    '97-98: N.J. Nets 43-39
    Lost first round of playoffs.
    '98-99: N.J. Nets 3-17
    Missed NBA Playoffs.
    UMass Totals: 193-71
    N.J. Nets totals: 72-112

    You start out with Steve Smith, Calipari's trusted personal assistant. He's technically a volunteer, not employed by the university. But he's fully compensated by Calipari (making it a non-NCAA issue). The former Springfield, Mass., travel consultant is dressed in Memphis royal blue sweats and a white Memphis T-shirt. He looks like a coach. He acts like he's the ultimate insider.

    He's actually both. He teaches what Calipari is trying to do as if he had been schooled on Calipari's mission. He essentially was when the two spent weeks playing golf after Calipari was fired from the Nets two years ago.

    Smith, who will be on the bench during games and will deflect a lot of the requests directed for Calipari like tickets and travel, has the Northeast accent working in this southern city, sharply pointing out and abruptly saying what has and hasn't been finished yet. But, trust him, everything will get done.

    You've got to visualize with him. First stop is the gym.

    The Finch Center opened last March, but former interim coach Johnny Jones barely got to dribble a ball in the facility. The courts, all three of them, are all for the men. That's right, in this age of Title IX, Calipari has a men's facility. The women are on the other side of campus. But they're apparently not complaining and will be getting air conditioning soon.

    The weight room, just for men, is finished after Calipari said he needed weights on a local radio program the first week on the job. The weights arrived the next day. The training room is done, too. That's for men, unless a women's basketball player needs some special assistance.

    The locker room will be state-of-the art when it's finished for the Nov. 17 opener against Calipari's former Atlantic 10 nemesis Temple and John Chaney. In fact, the lockers will be re-modeled to match those in the Pyramid, so psychologically the players don't feel like they're in two different places when they're practicing or playing games. The team room will have a big-screen TV, spaces for laptop computers, which were also provided when Calipari said he needed them and it was "raining"' computers the next week.

    "I didn't think he would take this city by storm," said Memphis junior John Grice, who grew up in the city. "I was amazed. He got everything he wanted."

    Next stop, the balcony overlooking the courts.

    This area is reserved for selected media and boosters to watch practice. The room adjacent to the balcony has two purposes -- one for the team's training table and meeting room, and the other?

    "If one of the guys (boosters) gets a cell phone call he can go back here and talk and not disturb practice," Smith said.

    When the tour is over, Smith reminds us that Calipari moved the students into the end zones at the Pyramid, displacing some season-ticket holders who obviously weren't attending because of the empty seats late in the year. The season tickets are nearly sold out, which is true after a woman earlier in the day informed that if we were looking for tickets, don't bother, because there aren't any left.

    Oh, and one other thing. It's something Smith said about the community. Federal Express, whose home offices are located in Memphis, offered real internships to the players this summer. Not just carting boxes, but white-collar jobs that might be tough to get for a college student.

    But, back to the Finch Center, where down below in Calipari central the former magic man of UMass, and the ex-coach of the New Jersey Nets, is getting his players ready to stretch. He's not only leading them in stretching, but he has grabbed a medicine ball like his players. He's doing the crunches, calling out the numbers and straining like every other player on the floor.

    "He's always moving, he never slows down," said Memphis assistant Derek Kellogg, who played for Calipari at UMass from 1991-95. "You're falling asleep some times and he's plowing through."

    Smith returns to his chair courtside, next to Ray Oliver, the team's director of performance enhancement (don't call him a strength coach) and Milt Wagner, the director of basketball operations. Those three are sitting, within reach of head manager Daryn Freedman, who has a law degree.

    Oliver was Calipari's first hire after he spent time getting NFL players in shape in South Carolina during the offseason. He worked at Kentucky under Rick Pitino and, of course, one year with the Nets with Calipari. Calipari got to know Wagner through his time in the NBA, and coincidentally is the father of the Tigers' top commitment, Camden's DaJuan Wagner. Freedman, who heads 10 managers, was with him in Philadelphia, during Calipari's one year with the Sixers.

    "It feels like a pro team," said Memphis freshman Scooter McFadgon on Wednesday during's preseason tour. "I'm not used to having like 10 managers and 10 trainers. Everything here is first class. He's treating us like a pro team."

    Imagine what it was like before.

    Jones, now an assistant at Alabama, didn't have access to any of this. Maybe Jones, nor former head coach Tic Price, or even the coach whose name is on the building, Larry Finch, didn't ask. While the building was planned for years, and the construction started two years ago, the amenities of late are all Calipari.

    "It makes sense," Memphis senior guard Marcus Moody said of having everything on campus.

    I enjoy coaching and competing for national titles. ... I stayed at UMass eight years, I would have stayed at New Jersey for eight years. I plan on staying here for that or longer.
    John Calipari

    "The last few years, we would go eat lunch, catch the bus and ride 30 minutes to the Pyramid. Get down there, practice on one floor and get back on the bus. If you were at class, you might be late. Our time is much better used."

    While Calipari hasn't asked for one, a pool table is probably on the way -- anything to keep the guys around the facility, enticing them to keep shooting on their own. Shooting prior to practice wouldn't happen in the past. Now they can come down here at midnight if they want and get on the gym. No one will stop them. No other team has the right to get on the floor.

    "Coach Cal has everything planned out," Memphis junior forward Kelly Wise said. "It's NBA style. We've got a top-flight room to shoot in. It's our building. It's our space. I didn't look at how easy it is to come here from class, rather than ride the bus an hour or so a day. We can take shots anytime and work on our game. In the past, you would have passed it over because it took too much time."

    The players move like pawns on the court, as Calipari reminds them where to be on the break, how to get spaced and which angle to take on a cut. But in the end, he keeps them loose, largely because he treats them like pros.

    "I've always been a believer in college, or in the NBA, that if you go baseline, you've got to shoot it," Calipari said after stopping play in practice. "It's too tight a pass down here. I want a 7-footer right there."

    The players don't stand around. They're always moving, whether or not they're doing transition work or in halfcourt sets. And Calipari is always talking. Assistants Tony Barbee and Kellogg get a few words in but Calipari dominates the conversation. The only coach missing was assistant Steve Roccaforte, who had to tend to some on-campus affairs during practice Wednesday.

    "Don't fight it," Calipari said. "Tell me, in 21 practices, have I been teaching you plays? We're not running plays. We need to make sure we have spacing. Timing, synergy. I'm not teaching you plays, I'm teaching you how to play."

    And he's doing it like a pro.

    When Calipari was in the NBA, he was deemed a college guy. Now that he's back in college, he's a pro guy. He's probably a little bit of both.

    But, whatever the case, it's working.

    Calipari names drops Allen Iverson or Kerry Kittles. He doesn't do it often, just enough to show them what they can become. But Moody said the players don't mind. They all want to be like those two, and if Calipari has the secret, then they'll listen.

    "Individually I can really tell I'm getting better," Memphis senior guard Syrone Chatman said. "I'm more confident then I was in other years, and as far as the team, we're clicking better than we were around this time. We see the NBA stuff now with the pick and rolls. That's all NBA. Being more aggressive and the way we run floor. He knows it because he's been there."

    And Calipari is better at teaching it. But he doesn't buy that it's a pro environment just yet. In the NBA, he got the players for two hours a day. Here he gets to plan their whole day. It'll seem like a pro environment during Christmas break. But that's it.

    "On the court, I hope they think it's a pro environment because we're teaching advanced stuff," Calipari said. "We're teaching them how to play instead of running plays and that's pro basketball. We're doing in a month what the NBA does in a week. There is teaching in the NBA but not from this level down here to up here. You also don't teach in the NBA because you don't have time."

    Calipari said he still doesn't know how Finch averaged 22 wins a year by practicing at the Pyramid, Churches and any gym with two rims.

    "I would have struggled," Calipari said.

    But that's why he chose to come to Memphis. He said he wouldn't have taken the job had he not seen the commitment to build, literally, with seven new buildings rising up on campus. He could have gone harder after Georgia Tech, but didn't want to be fighting in the bottom of the ACC, at a school that didn't have the same resources. Memphis can shoot to the top of Conference USA and will compete with any team in the conference for facilities, let alone the country. Calipari has a team that can compete for a top-four finish in the league behind Wise. And with recruiting in the area usually fertile, he's got a chance to sustain it. He's scheduling nationally, exhibited by the Temple game, and said he's giving four games to ESPN next year to do with what they want.

    Junior forward Kelly Wise says his new coach has made the Memphis team's job easier.

    "The university hasn't spent any money on basketballs, shoes equipment, or a locker room, or my travel with private planes," Calipari said. "That's all outside. We raised more dollars with tickets, too. I haven't hit them for this and that."

    But the expectations are in place.

    Grice said the team knows he's not a miracle worker. But the pieces are in place for a decent run. Wise is learning to be more assertive inside and the arrival of 6-foot-10 freshman Modibo Diarra gives the Tigers a shot-blocker next to Wise.

    Moody said the players are already trying to get Wise his touches inside, hoping that will open up more outside shots.

    "I feel I'm ready for it to let the game come to me," Wise said. "Our guards should be able to take more chances defensively with me and Modibo back there."

    Calipari can go small on the perimeter with McFadgon, recruited by Price, and point Courtney Trask and Moody. Calipari has options with Grice at big guard, or Chatman. He can also rotate Shannon Forman, who is out with a shin injury this week, 6-11 Earl Barron, 6-8 Paris London or 6-9 Shamel Jones inside. He could easily rotate 10 to 11 players.

    "There's definitely more talent (than at UMass)," said Memphis assistant Tony Barbee, who played for Calipari at UMass from 1989-93. "We've got players who could play for him at the next level."

    But that will take time and the schedule early in the year might make the Tigers look like they're not ready for prime time. Games against Temple, Arkansas, Tennessee, and possible games against Stanford and Utah in Puerto Rico, could send the Tigers to a 2-5 start.

    "Historically my teams play well in March," Calipari said. "When you build a program, you bust your tail from weight training to going to class. It's more important that I set the tone for the program now than winning games, but never at the expense of working hard."

    Calipari hasn't slowed down recruiting to build this program. He has three players on campus who aren't eligible -- Arthur Barclay, Antonio Burks of Hiwassee (Tenn.) JC, and Rashid Dunbar, a Miami signee who is a partial qualifier and can practice. The Tigers have four commitments, too: Wagner, 6-4 Anthony Rice (North Glayton, Ga.), 6-8 Chris Massie, 6-8, (Oxnard JC, Calif.) and 6-9 Duane Erwin (Huntsville, Ala.).

    "If I ever do the NBA again, it won't be until my girls are out of high school and they're 11 and 13," Calipari said. "My problem with the NBA is they were all 2-3 jobs that I was looking at. I can't do that to my girls. I may never do the pros again. I won't do it for the money like a lot of coaches are doing. I've already done that. I want to be happy.

    "I enjoy coaching and competing for national titles. If in seven or eight years I had a chance to coach a team to an NBA championship then I would consider it. I'm not going back to the Nets or an organization like that. Why? For the money? I don't have to. I make enough money. I have enough money. I want to be somewhere to raise a family.

    "I stayed at UMass eight years, I would have stayed at New Jersey for eight years. I plan on staying here for that or longer."

    Andy Katz is a senior writer at


    Katz postcard from Memphis

    Coaches try to succeed where so many haven't ... the NBA Preseason Top 25