Closing Arguments

Today I was a guest on the Geoff Calkins show and asked to defend my recent columns criticizing Calkins and his fellow radio pal, Gary Parrish for their hit pieces on the Memphis basketball program run by head coach Tubby Smith.

If you’re interested, the audio can be found here.

The conversation ended up being a friendly debate, and we were essentially arguing separate points.

We stipulated a few points as the discussion progressed:

  • The Tubby Smith experiment can still theoretically go either way, and we’re hoping it goes well.
  • To win at Memphis in the past has usually (if not always) meant operating in the gray areas in terms of recruiting, NCAA compliance, etc.
  • Josh Pastner wasn’t capable of managing the high level players he was able to recruit to Memphis.

Calkins challenged me to argue why the Tubby Smith tenure hasn’t been a disaster thus far, and I basically responded by saying it’s just too early (1 year in) and too drastic to issue that judgement.

But that wasn’t what I set out to establish.

My basic argument was that the criticism of Smith often ignores or distorts the facts and the recent history of Memphis Basketball.

The obvious evidence of this distortion, which I set forth at the outset, was Parrish’s assertion that the mess at Memphis was
“created” by Tubby Smith.

This assertion simply ignores the fact that by the time Smith got the job, Memphis Basketball was already an undisputed (expect perhaps by Parrish) mess. Calkins wasn’t interested in defending Parrish so we moved on.

I regret not asking Calkins point blank to defend or explain his previous statement that not getting into the Big XII would begin a “decline into irrelevance” for Memphis athletics. Because if Calkins stands by the “decline into irrelevance” statement, than it’s a tacit acknowledgement that Tubby Smith is fighting against forces that his critics (including Calkins himself) now seem reluctant to acknowledge.

The argument now seems to be it’s as easy as it ever was to win big at Memphis.

Indeed, the evidence just doesn’t support the seemingly ubiquitous idea that programs at Memphis’ level (AAC / MWC)  can succeed at a top 25 level simultaneously in football and basketball.

It’s not that it can’t be done, it’s just that it hasn’t been done.

Therefore it’s hard and might take a while (which is all Tubby Smith is saying).

It’s not defeatist to point that out, it’s an acknowledgement of reality.

Yet nobody with a platform wants to acknowledge that. I’ll even concede that it’s not Tubby’s place to point it out, just like I didn’t like Pastner’s winning is hard schtick.

So Calkins and I really weren’t far off.

Given that this debate took place on Calkins’ turf, and that I was a bit awestruck to just be on that platform, I probably lost some points for lack of clarity.

Nevertheless I stand by the position that the criticism of Tubby is over the top, and that when it comes from Calkins and Parrish it cements a narrative that permeates the sports culture in the entire city (and in Parrish’s case – across the college basketball landscape).

Finally, I appreciate that Calkins admitted that he’s genuinely sensitive to the suggestion that he’s too hard on Tubby. I don’t believe Calkins is “out to get” Tubby just because the media doesn’t have great access to the program, though that fact is true.

I think if Tubby wins, Calkins will write nice things and everyone will be happy.

Except maybe Gary Parrish. He’ll probably still find a way to rile up the Memphis fans in order to sell used computers and vodka.