Category Archives: College Athletics

Is Today the Day?

I remember exactly where I was when Dana Kirk was fired.

I cried when Larry Finch coached his last game.

I watched the John Calipari introductory press conference in giddy disbelief.

I was sitting in class when I got a Blackberry message that Memphis had struck a deal with Josh Pastner.

Memphis isn’t a school that changes basketball coaches all that often – essentially 4 transitions in the last 30 years.

The next transition appears to be happening today.

Be Thankful to Pastner

Memphis fans are grateful for a new start, and they should be. But they should also take a moment to be grateful to Pastner for what he did here.

No established coaches wanted to follow Calipari. Not only was his win loss record intimidating, but the school was facing NCAA probation (the fans didn’t know it, but I’m guessing those in the coaching community might have).

Additionally, don’t forget that Memphis was still rotting away in CUSA at the time – behind schools like Houston and UCF in terms of a workable exit strategy (i.e. a viable football program).

Pastner came in and piled up the recruiting victories. Though he never won at a level that satisfied Memphis fans, his 2nd and 3rd teams were on the cusp of post-season breakthroughs. A better draw in the NCAA tournament and maybe this whole conversation, this whole era, is different.

But that’s over now and Memphis fans should simply say thank you to a man that kept their program relevant and competitive in the immediate aftermath of Calipari.

And in the biggest understatement of the day, let’s also pause briefly to acknowledge that Josh Pastner has been a terrific part of the Memphis community. He’ll be missed on that front by thousands.

What’s Next?

Now, on to the fun part. If indeed Pastner is gone, to whom will Memphis turn?

Here are some ideas:

Everyone says start with Marshall and make him say no. Seems right to me. Marshall has a history of turning down great jobs for good jobs. He stayed at Winthrop for a while and then finally jumped to….Wichita State? He’s a weird guy – maybe he fits at Memphis. Some seem to think so. That would be a home run.

I have other ideas as well, and I’m not sure how I feel about all of them but they seem somewhat realistic.

Gravitas needed.

My list is heavy on older, more established coaches because I think that’s what Memphis needs in the aftermath of Pastner.

I don’t think hiring Penny makes sense unless he’s groomed. Maybe Jim Calhoun wants to work for 2 or 3 years. He seems to be in good health and is younger than Larry Brown. He’s the approximate age of Coach K, and Boeheim. People will make fun of me for pushing this one, but I don’t care. I like the idea even if it’s a long shot.

If you’re going to go with youth – Archie Miller seems like a great idea too, and perhaps realistic.

Steve Forbes is a reasonably safe backup. Completely do-able if everyone else falls through.

This Better Happen

Now that the news has broken, Pastner better get the Georgia Tech job. Memphis fans were apathetic before. If Pastner somehow doesn’t get the Tech job at this point, they’ll be apoplectic.

Charge your phones and get your Twitter ready – gonna be an exciting day (hopefully).

 

Prominent Big 12 Columnist: “Memphis is a non-starter”

Lots of rumors floating around Memphis the last few months that Memphis is a strong candidate for Big XII expansion, which is almost certain to take place in a few months.

I’m not getting my hopes up, and one of the prominent journalists in the heart of Big XII country gave me another reason to remain skeptical.

According to Berry Tramel of The Oklahoman, Memphis is a “non-starter” for the Big XII.

In his weekly online chat, I asked Tramel about fan speculation that BYU, Boise, Cincinnati and Memphis could be added in order to bring the conference membership to 14 before adding a conference championship game and conference network.

Tramel had some harsh words to describe Memphis’ chances:

“Way down the list.”

He was not as harsh regarding the other candidates:

“Now, Connecticut is a different story. You put UConn and BYU into a Big 12 Network, and you’ve got a lot of eyeballs. Cincy and Boise State would be fine, too. But not Memphis. No football fan base. None at all.”

Someone should let Tramel know Memphis averaged over 43,802 per home game at the Liberty Bowl last year – a 29% increase from 2014 and higher than at least a dozen so called “Power 5” programs.

Also more than BYU, Boise, and Cincinnati and at least one current Big XII member (Kansas). But who’s counting?

Nevertheless, it’s always advisable to understand that when it comes to expansion rumors – those of the homegrown variety should be taken with a grain of salt.

 

 

Josh Pastner is Going to be Just Fine (& Other Thoughts)

 

Diving right into my thoughts about Tiger basketball – including why people don’t need to feel bad for Josh Pastner, the program’s complex “issues” regarding the head coach position, and where to go from here…

Not as Sad as You Think

At this point, literally everyone I talk to about Tiger Basketball agrees that it would be best if the program had new leadership.

And almost everyone agrees that’s a sad conclusion to make – because they all like Josh Pastner.

But maybe we shouldn’t feel so bad, especially in light of the circumstances. First of all, Memphis has made Pastner a very wealthy man. Whenever his reign as head of the men’s program comes to an end, Pastner will have cashed in the neighborhood of $20 million in checks. The guy has a lot of mouths to feed, but that’s a lot of cheese so the Pastners should be ok.

He’s also had a chance to build his resume – and will be highly employable.

Regardless of the condition of the Tiger program currently, Pastner has accomplished a lot in Memphis. His reputation as a relentless recruiter is still in tact, which should put him in line to land an elite assistant job if he’s willing to take a step back. This happens all the time. See Jeff Capel at Duke for example.

And lets not forget that Pastner has had exclusively winning seasons, 6 of them heading into this year, all while playing by NCAA rules. Surely some lower profile schools will have interest in hiring him if and when Memphis parts ways.

Pastner might also be attractive to an NBA franchise looking for an assistant coach. NBA benches are often occupied with former college coaches with less success under their belts than Pastner. Jeff Bzdelik, for example, is currently cashing checks from the Memphis Grizzlies and he once had 6 losing seasons in a row as a college coach.

Bottom line – a lot of employers in the industry would be satisfied with a guy like Josh Pastner.

But Memphis fans are now hoping that David Rudd (President, UofM) and Tom Bowen (Athletic Director) are employers with a different mindset.

As Memphis fans await that decision, they should understand that Rudd and Bowen don’t have the historical context that they (Memphis fans) posses.

A History of Contradictions

After all, neither Rudd nor Bowen was at Memphis when John Calipari led the program to 4 consecutive 30-win seasons (and deep NCAA runs) in a row from 2005-2009. And neither was in the Bluff City in the immediate aftermath when Memphis basketball’s decades long “character problems” were again exposed.

Neither was around when Josh Pastner’s Good Samaritan persona first took the city by storm.

And that’s really what all this is about, isn’t it? What makes this situation so difficult is that Memphis basketball is built upon some troubling contradictions that have come to define the head coaching position at the school, if not the program itself.

These contradictions, or issues, go back further than I do.

In 1973 Memphians celebrated an NCAA finalist led by a local hero, Larry Finch, who went on to lead the program as head coach. The popular story is that the 1973 team helped heal a racially divided city – but keep in mind the story didn’t actually end until 25 years later when the program turned its back on the hero in a racially divisive manner.

Finch as head coach during my childhood (1986-1997) was in some ways a precursor to Josh Pastner. Well liked, did things the right way, but didn’t have a style pleasing to a majority of the fan base and ultimately didn’t win enough.

Sound familiar?

Finch won a lot (2 Sweet 16s / 1 Elite 8  / 8, 20 win seasons in 11 years) but he never got to the Final 4 and starting losing local recruits due to pervasive negativity and a perception that the program was languishing under his leadership.

Sound familiar?

It didn’t matter that Finch had cleaned up a program that under Kirk had tattered NCAA rules, broken federal laws, and had such little interest in educating its minority players that the NAACP called for the coach’s removal. The bottom line was that the fan base eroded greatly under Finch, so he was gone – unceremoniously asked to sign his buyout at a hot dog stand after a home game.

After hiring Tic Price, which was a complete debacle, Memphis was thoroughly desperate for a winner.

Enter John Calipari.

Enter 30-win seasons, night club fights, Sweet 16 appearances, allegations of fraudulent SAT tests, Final 4 appearances, failed drug tests, #1 rankings, domestic abuse arrests.

NCAA probation.

Enter Josh Pastner, and now everything has come full circle.

Again.

The Lesson

So what’s the lesson here? That Memphis basketball will settle for nothing less than Final 4 level success, even if it takes criminal activity or at the very least academic fraud to achieve it?

Yes, that’s exactly the lesson. That’s why the first name that folks throw out when they dream about Pastner’s replacement is Auburn Coach and famed cheater Bruce Pearl.

Let’s go get the dirtiest guy available!

But college basketball is different these days. Cheating in recruiting has become SOP. Everyone does it systematically, including probably Pastner’s Memphis program. Assistant coaches do the dirty work and take the fall. Head coaches skate.

Every other aspect of the industry has also become standard. Academic “support staffs” make the graduation rates look pretty. Basketball programs look more like departments in a Fortune 100 company.

This isn’t the 1980’s.

In 2016, the dividing line is less about cheating and more about resources. We’re talking ‘Power 5’ vs. ‘Group of 5’ distinctions.

So Pearl probably isn’t leaving Auburn for Memphis.

And Memphis, in the aftermath of Pastner, doesn’t necessarily have a clear direction to go.

What Next?

If money were no object, Memphis would go after Wichita State’s Greg Marshall or Dayton’s Archie Miller. These are the best coaches outside the “Power 5.” Everyone is going to want these guys. Both have “elite” written all over them and would almost certainly succeed at Memphis.

Would they come?

Hard to say, but probably not even though Marshall has historically preferred schools outside the limelight.

First off, the financial thing has to be figured out and I don’t have those answers. Secondly, does Memphis under Bowen and Rudd still consider itself a basketball school? Clearly football is a priority, as it should be with conference realignment in mind. Like it or not, life in the ‘Group of 5’ will probably prevent Memphis from hiring one of these guys.

Should Memphis try a proven coach who’s had success at a lower level? Guys like Brad Underwood (Stephen F. Austin), or Tim Cluess (Iona). Both are guys that got their first opportunity at an older age and might relish the Memphis job. There’s plenty of other guys out there at the mid-major level (Pearl’s former top assistant Steve Forbes is now coaching at ETSU), but hiring them is like taking a shot in the dark.

Hiring a mid-major is a shot in the dark. You could get Dana Kirk (came from VCU) or you could get Tic Price (came from New Orleans).

Or Memphis could turn within and look to guys with deep knowledge of the program. Some have suggested Penny Hardaway. Derek Kellogg at UMass would be a possibility and Damon Stoudamire is already on the payroll. The Pastner experiment has suppressed everyone’s appetite for guys with zero track record in the main chair.

Then there’s the retread option. Larry Eustachy, Tim Floyd. Maybe Mike Anderson, who has basically failed at Arkansas, could be persuaded to finally take the Memphis job. A dozen more guys like that are out there that would be intrigued by Memphis, but none of them get the blood pumping.

Here’s an idea that checks a lot of boxes:  Hire Manhattan’s Steve Masiello.

He’s won some games, learned under Rick Pitino, and already has an ethics fiasco under his belt. He lied on his resume a few years back – which cost him the South Florida job.

That seems to be the perfect mixture for the Memphis job at this point, and at any point over the past 40 years.

 

 

The Game of A Thousand Storylines

The National Championship Game Between Alabama and Clemson was a Sportswriter’s dream, a game of a thousand story lines.

The angles were everywhere, all you had to do is pick one.

There were the pre-game angles. Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney, the ‘Bama boy who played for Gene Stallings in 1992 as the Crimson Tide beat Miami in the Sugar Bowl to win a National Championship.

Swinney would now face off against his alma mater to try and win one as a coach. The Dabo backstory, of hardship, determination and triumph certainly got plenty of play in the lead up to the game.

So did the contrast in styles. Dabo the rah rah let’s dance after every win and B.Y.O.G. vs. the buttoned up, all business, ruthless football monster that is Nick Saban.

There was also potential symmetry.

Many people point to Bama’s 34-10 beat down of Clemson in 2008 as the beginning of the Saban dynasty. That game probably cost former Clemson coach Tommy Bowden his job and led to Dabo becoming interim, then full time head coach at Clemson. Would the Alabama dynasty end against the same team?

Once the game started, pre-game story lines faded to the background and the in game story lines and angles started to take shape.

Early on it was Derrick Henry, Alabama’s Heisman winner, bursting through the Clemson line on 3rd and short for a 50 yard TD run. The ‘Bama ground game dominates story line started to take shape. But it was quickly erased after Clemson QB Deshaun Watson promptly lead two TD drives capped off by incredible passes thrown into super tight windows.

New story: Electric mobile quarterback, Alabama’s kryptonite, takes over in biggest game. (Did you know that Nick Saban struggles with great mobile QB’s? Unlike other teams, which apparently just shut down great college quarterbacks like Cam Newton, Johnny Manziel and Deshaun Watson.)

Or maybe the story was going to be that former Clemson walk on WR Hunter Renfrow dominated his match-up with 5 star, all-everything freshman Minkah Fitzpatrick.

I don’t see color so I’m not sure what race Renfrow is but let’s just say he has a ton of grit, is heady, plucky and has sneaky athleticism (might remind you of Wes Welker or Steve Largent).

As the game progressed the story line seemed to be that Alabama, who has built a dynasty chiefly on dominating the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, is not dominating on either side of the ball.

The Tide defense wasn’t exactly playing bad, but the Clemson O-line held up reasonably well and Deshaun Watson covered up for any mistakes with breathtaking play making that hearkened back to Texas QB Vince Young vs Southern Cal – a comparison that was only made a few hundred times during the night. Nevertheless, the similarities were definitely there.

Side note:  If you don’t remember the 2005 National Championship Game between Texas and Southern Cal, it’s literally the only thing that is ever broadcast on the Longhorn Network. Check it out sometime, they just show it over there on a continual, never ending loop.

Anyway, Watson seemed to glide out of trouble and had a great sense for when to take off and run and when to scramble and throw – eerily reminiscent of Vince, whose team was also an underdog to a dynastic College Football team.

Furthermore, the ‘Bama offensive line was getting destroyed by the Clemson D-line, especially on the right side. The Tide running game was completely ineffective in the second half.

Just when the narrative was taking shape in your mind, something new happened. Nick Saban happened. The old school, traditional conservative football man called for an on-sides kick in the 4th quarter of a National Championship game with the score tied.

Most importantly, it worked.

A legendary gamble that will be talked about forever, it was the perfect on-sides kick.

‘Bama cashed in immediately. A long TD pass to O.J.Howard, his second of the game. Howard was yet another potential story line: a ballyhooed (have always wanted to work ballyhooed into a column) 5-star recruit disappoints for three years then has the game of his life in the biggest game of his life.

The story lines refused to stop there.

Back down the field comes Watson, this time settling for a field goal. It was now a 4-point Alabama lead.

Kenyan Drake then took the ensuing kick off 95-yards for a touchdown.

Ahhh, the redemption story line is here. Yes! Kenyan Drake broke his leg last year, came back this year then broke his arm two months ago. Due to the injuries, his career never got on track the way many thought it would. Then he makes the biggest play of the game and of his life. That’s a great story.

But the game still wasn’t done yet.

Watson and Gallman, the Clemson running back, lead a quick drive back down the field for a touchdown. At this point, the ‘Bama defense seemed basically helpless against the Clemson offense.

The vaunted depth of the ‘Bama defense didn’t seem to be helping. The Tide defenders were gassed and started missing tackles you rarely see missed from a Saban coached unit.

‘Bama got the ball back with about 4 minutes left needing to secure a few first downs to put the game away. On first down, Henry lost two yards.

Every ‘Bama fan in the world was cursing – because they know that the Tide doesn’t convert first downs after a negative play. Alabama was near the bottom in the country on 3rd and long conversions. So this second down call would be the biggest of Lane Kiffin’s tenure at Alabama.

This was the same Lane Kiffin who, at Southern Cal, called the 4th and 1 run to Lendale White in the 2006 BCS game versus Texas (and Vince Young). The score of that game was 41-38. The score of this game was 38-33 and if ‘Bama didn’t convert they’d have to punt it back to Deshaun Watson.

You see where this is going?

Kiffin had been quoted saying he’s been waiting ten years for a shot at redemption. And here it was, in eerily similar circumstances.

Kiffin called a play I’m certain was not run all year: a Tight End screen that initially looked doomed, but that was perfectly blocked on the edge allowing O.J. Howard to get around the corner and take off for a huge gain. It set Alabama up in the Clemson Red Zone.

Lane Kiffin came up huge in the biggest moment of his tenure at Alabama.

The game wasn’t over yet though, Jake Coker wanted his story line too.

This game was a mirror of Coker’s entire year at Alabama. Early in the game he was shaky and fairly awful. He doesn’t have a great clock in his head or innate feel for the rush the way someone like Watson does and he ends up taking sacks when he could throw the ball away. His throws were off target early.

Coker eventually settled in after a huge third and long pick up on a pass down the sideline to Ardarius Stewart. That seemed to get his confidence up. He made several great reads and throws after that. On 3rd and 3 near the goal line, with Clemson desperate to hold ‘Bama to a field goal to keep it a one score game, Coker came up with one of his now trademark ugly, improbable, man on a segway scrambles. He somehow juked the defensive end, Dodd, who had harassed him all day and dove for the first down.

Maligned Quarterback proves haters wrong and comes up big when his team needs him the most!

The game finally ended, but not before another Watson TD and an on-sides kick attempt that could have led to a Hail Mary for the win. Hey, stranger things have happened.

Alabama wins another title, and now the post game story lines started. Is Nick Saban the greatest College Football Coach of all time?

So there were a myriad of stories and they’ve probably all been written. Yet the real, true story of the night was the game itself. How great, how unpredictable, how tense, how spectacular the performances, how legendary it was.

Story lines are great, but the game, the game’s the thing.

And when the game rises to that level, it transcends everything. And that’s what we want out of sports, that’s what sports gives us that nothing else can. Real, live, unpredictable ecstatic drama, and no sport does it better than College Football.

 

The Saban Gambit

Nick Saban has built one of the greatest dynasties in college football history, the main tenets of which are a suffocating defense and a ball control offense that relies heavily on the run. Even casual fans of college football could probably tell you that.

Saban will always talk about being balanced but when push comes to shove his teams generally rely on a strong run game and quarterback who “manages” the game with timely throws and few errors. Yet in some of the biggest games of Saban’s tenure, Alabama has outflanked their opponent by coming out with a pass first attack, and it’s worked every time.

Just look at the history.

In 2009, the year of the first championship of the Saban era, the Tide were breaking in a new QB in Greg McElroy. McElroy was pretty much the template for game manager. He ended the year with only 4 interceptions by routinely taking sacks instead of forcing the ball into coverage. Alabama ended up running the ball 526 times that year and throwing it 343 times. During one stretch of the season, in the meat of SEC play, McElroy threw for 148, 154, 92, and 120 yards in successive weeks. In the second half of the South Carolina game the offense went entirely to RB Mark Ingram in the Wildcat formation and he closed out the game. McElroy watched from the sideline.

McElroy started to pick it up near the end of the 2009 season, leading a game winning drive against Auburn to advance to the SEC Championship Game. In that game they would face Florida for the second straight year and contend with the juggernaut that Urban Meyer and Tim Tebow had built. The rhetoric entering the game was clear. Can Alabama stop Tebow? Can Florida shut down the ‘Bama run game and force McElroy to beat them?

‘Bama came out in the first series in a 3 receiver set, and Mcelroy hit Julio Jones for about 15 yards. The Tide ended up throwing it 5 times on the first drive which resulted in a field goal. On the next drive McElroy hit Colin Peek for a 30 yard gain on first down. After that, the play calling became more of a 50-50 split until the Tide took control of the game at which point the attack went back to more of their traditional run heavy style, but a seed was planted that night.

In 2011, Alabama was once again breaking in a new starter, A.J. McCarron.  McCarron appeared to have more natural talent than McElroy but, true to form, Saban held the reigns pretty tight on him. Saban preferred to rely on his superstar running back Trent Richardson (you might remember him as disastrous NFL flop Trent Richardson but I assure you he was actually awesome in college). Of course, Saban also relied on one of the best defenses in the modern era of college football.

Over the course of that 2011 season Alabama ran it 456 times and threw it 346 times. In their regular season meeting with LSU, the only loss of the year, Mccarron threw it 29 times, completing 16 of those attempts for 96 yards. The next game against MIssissippi State he was 14 of 24 for 223 yards. Going into the National Championship game, a rematch against LSU, the Tide had thrown it more than 30 times on just three occasions and two of those were vs. Kent State and Vanderbilt. They didn’t rush it less than 30 times in any game the entire season.

Entering the epic rematch vs. LSU, the narrative was familiar. Can LSU stop the ‘Bama rushing attack and force A.J. Mccarron to beat them? With the kind of NFL talent LSU had on defense  – 14 (!) LSU defenders who played that day were eventually drafted – if the Tigers wanted to commit extra players in run support they were most likely going to be successful stopping the run.

On the first drive ‘Bama started with a play action bootleg pass, easy for McCarron. Next play, another easy play action pass. The next play was an inside hand off, and then it was back to the pass, two in a row before the drive stalled. Next drive, deep in LSU territory, started the same way, a play action pass. The whole game played out in similar fashion, with McCarron making all the big plays on offense. The running game only took over once the game was in hand.

McCarron ended up throwing 34 passes, completing 23 for 234 yards. They ran it 35 times for 150 yards. Once again, Saban and his offensive coaches anticipated the defensive plan, conceded that the defense would be able to stop the run if they wanted to and switched the game plan to a pass heavy attack.

Cut to 2015. Once again Saban is breaking in a new quarterback, this time 5th year transfer Jacob Coker. During the season Coker has proven even less useful than McElroy and McCarron. Consequently, the offense has leaned even more heavily on Heisman tailback Derrick Henry.

This year, prior to the Michigan State game, the Tide ran it 481 times, and threw it 389 times. Towards the end of the season the balance really shifted towards the running game. The last 4 real games Coker threw it for 184, 144, 179,  and 204 yards while the team ran it for 250, 235, 286 and 233.

Going into last week’s Semifinal the narrative was (and stop me if you’ve heard this) Can Michigan State stop the run and force Jacob Coker to beat them?

Once again, Alabama and Coker come out throwing the football. Coker threw it the first five plays. He threw again on first down the next drive, and after Alabama ran the ball twice, Coker then threw or dropped back on the next two plays. On the Tide’s first touchdown drive Coker threw it 4 of the first 5 plays.  On and on this went, until the game was well in hand. Coker ended up throwing it 30 times, completing 25 for 286 yards.  Alabama ran the ball 35 times for just 154 yards but won the game 38-0.

Over and over, in the biggest games, Alabama under Nick Saban has broken trend and become a pass first offense. Saban and his Offensive Coordinators slowly build the confidence and work load for their QBs throughout the season and then eventually put it on their shoulders to win in the biggest games.

I’m not trying to overstate this strategy, it’s not revolutionary. It’s basically second level thinking. You think I’m going to do X so I do Y. Nevertheless it’s been an effective strategy that no defense has really adjusted to. Perhaps it’s hard to adjust to as it would be pretty easy for ‘Bama to switch course if they started to see good looks to run into, but it is curious that no team has come out anticipating this adjustment from the Crimson Tide.

Clemson would be well advised to pay attention to history as they game plan for the Championship Game.

 

For Memphis Football, Time to Get to Work

Justin Fuente and Paxton Lynch were all smiles on Thursday as Lynch announced his early departure for the NFL draft.

Easy for them to smile, they’re leaving.

For fans of the program, fans that have suffered through years of misfortune and inept football, the feeling was significantly less buoyant.

After all, less than 24 hours had passed since the shell of the program Fuente left behind was humiliated at the Birmingham Bowl. Humiliated by the 3 touchdown loss to an underachieving Auburn team, and humiliated by the headline grabbing shenanigans of Senior Reggis Ball – who wrestled an Auburn equipment manager after the game to steal a football.

Ball was later dismissed from the team, but proceeded to display the autographed ball on Instagram.

Let’s be real about what Reggis Ball did – nobody cares. He’s a 20 year old kid doing what 20 year old kids do.

But let’s also be real about what the last 24 hours reveal about the Memphis football program – all isn’t necessarily well.

Could new coach Mike Norvell be just the type of leader, recruiter and football coach that the program needs in order to take the next step forward?

Sure, I guess.

Could he also be a man hired to take over a program that drastically over-achieved with Lynch (potential top NFL pick) but that lacks the structural moxie to replicate even similar success going forward.

Kind of seemed like that in Birmingham, didn’t it?

Doesn’t it now seem likely that Fuente wasn’t all that impressed about what he was leaving behind?

After all, this was a team that lost 4 of its final 5 games with Lynch under center. And again, without crucifying Ball for acting like a kid, surely we can all agree that his behavior didn’t exactly display a program oozing with mature Senior leadership.

I was struck by what Fuente said just moments before hopping a plane to Blacksburg last month:

“I hope that the next coach comes in – and I hope that (the Memphis program) will be in better shape than when we got it, but it’s not perfect either.” 

If you watch the video it’s almost as if Fuente was going out of his way to emphasize that there are some issues here. The vapor trail he left behind him isn’t reassuring either.

Like ‘not perfect’ in the indoor practice facility still hasn’t been built or ‘not perfect’ in that the leadership and / or talent in the program isn’t at a level to compete for conference championships?

Or both?

Oh look, there’s conference divisional mate Houston winning the Peach Bowl over Florida State with a coach signed to a $3m per year long term contract.

Oh look, there’s a story about how BYU and Cincinnati are favorites for Big XII expansion and how the football program at Memphis “isn’t developed enough.”

Wonder where they got that impression?  Maybe they listened to that Fuente interview.

So welcome to the job Mike Norvell. Pay no attention to those guys in the lobby smiling ear to ear for the cameras. They’re even richer than you are and they’re not sticking around.

Grab a hard hat, time to get to work.

 

Definitely Not a ‘Best of’ List

Best of lists are everywhere this time of year, for obvious reasons.

One, it’s a logical time to talk about what happened during the calendar year. Two, and more importantly, it makes for an easy column.

Hell, now we have whole websites that do nothing but listicles. I, of course, would never be so unoriginal.

So without further ado I bring you my Favorite Things of 2015!

(Way different than a best of list).

My favorite sports moments of 2015:

RJ Hunter three pointer to beat Baylor.  This shot was March Madness at it’s best. Underdog Georgia State pulls off a miracle, beating Baylor in the opening round of the tourney after being down 12 with 3 minutes to play. Georgia State goes on a 13-0 run, capped off by a deeeep three from RJ Hunter while his dad, the head coach, is on the sideline. His dad had injured himself in the conference tourney celebrating, so he was sitting on a stool during the game due to a torn achilles. As the shot went in his dad literally fell off the stool. A perfect sports moment.

I’m not much of a baseball fan but the Bautista bat flip was awesome. A player coming up clutch in the biggest moment of the season and defiantly flipping his bat. It actually made me care about baseball for a few minutes. Plus it pissed off baseball curmudgeons who hate any expressions of joy on a baseball field.

The Arkansas 4th and 25 miracle. This one holds a special place in my heart as it led to Alabama getting a berth in the SEC Championship Game and subsequently the College Football Playoff. Though this play stands on it’s own, it is a play I have never seen in 30-something years of watching football. It’s indescribable. Even watching it for the 100th time I can’t really believe it happened. Just watch.

My favorite albums of 2015:

I don’t consume a ton of music during the year, maybe two albums a month or so. I prefer to find things I really like and wear them out as opposed to mowing through a ton of albums. My favorite album, the one I was the most obsessed with for the longest time was definitely Courtney Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. Many of these songs could have existed just as great short stories. Incredible, hilarious, insightful and odd lyrics all pulled off with a deadpan delivery that will scratch itself into your soul. Great classic rock-y hooks and punk energy. I love every track on the album though the first one is probably my favorite.

My other favorite album of 2015 is Vince Staples, Summertime 06. The title makes it sound like a fun record of summer beach jams. Not so much. Vince is pretty dark. I like how he’s just as interested in setting a mood as he is showing you how great of a rapper he is. It’s several tracks in before Staples really lets loose on some lyrics. I still probably slightly prefer his 2014 release Hell Can Wait but this album continued to grow on me the past few months. Here’s my favorite track.

Favorite TV shows of 2015:

There’s an insane amount of good tv these days so I’m bound to forget ten or so shows I loved, but these are the ones that came to the top of my head.

Fargo: This show is on virtually every best-of-2015 list, and for good reason. It was damn near perfect. The first season of this show was really good but this season just hit every mark. Incredible ensemble cast, pristine writing and servicing of the whole cast, great plotting and pacing. The whole thing could be taught as a masterclass on television.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: I will watch pretty much anything that Tina Fey is involved in. This show is both reminiscent of 30 Rock but also totally original. The reminiscent part is the joke density and absurdity. I always thought 30 Rock had the best joke writers in the world and they appear to now all be working on Kimmy Schmidt.  Ellie Kemper as Kimmy brought a different energy than 30 Rock, a relentlessly, foolishly positive attitude that was infectious. Also, I had the Pinot Noir song stuck in my head for a solid month.

Broad City: This show isn’t for everyone but it cracked me up. I love that the main characters actually like each other and their friendship is the main relationship of the show. I also love that they are sex positive and talk about things you generally think of as the domain of men on tv, e.g., bathroom, sex and drug humor. It’s kind of the anti-Sex and the City. It seems like these could actually be real people really living in New York.

Rick and Morty: I love pretty much everything Dan Harmon does. This show is no exception, hilarious sci-fi adventures led by a filthy irresponsible genius sociopath and his kinda dim grandson. The show can pretty much do whatever it wants in a given episode, which is great because it can borrow from every great sci fi idea ever. But much like Harmon did with Community, he grounds the absurd scenarios with an emotional center so that you actually care about the characters. My favorite episode was ‘Get Schwifty’, about an intergalactic American Idol type competition.

Favorite Book of 2015:

People read? I guess so. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel was one my favorite book of the year. A flu like virus wipes out 90 percent of the world’s population, then the story jumps forward 20 years and follows a group of survivors who have formed a traveling Shakespeare troupe. The story yo yos between their story and the story of an actor who died on stage the night the epidemic broke out. The book is low on apocalypse terror but there’s a great mystery to keep you turning pages. It’s well plotted and it’s filled with little ruminations and insights about civilization, culture, nostalgia and performance.

Favorite Movie of 2015:

I didn’t see a ton of movies in 2015 but my favorite was Sicario. It’s really a theater experience though, not sure it would translate on the small screen. The intensity, the score, the subverting of expectations, the incredible performances by the three leads, the tense atmosphere, incredible cinematography and the way it was shot made it really tense and enjoyable.

Favorite Meals of 2015:

I could probably name a top 50 or so here but I’ll just mention two. One was at Lotus of Siam in Vegas.  I had lunch there in June and this is probably my favorite restaurant in the country. It’s gotten pretty popular these days but it still delivers the goods. Incredible Thai food, and pretty much everything here is great.  We had Papaya salad, Northern larb, Thai red chili dip, Issan style beef jerky, and Tom Yum. If you like Thai food and are ever in Vegas, Lotus is a must.  http://lotusofsiamlv.com/

The other was at Bayona in New Orleans. There’s no beating the food in New Orleans and Bayona is a standout in a city full of great dining options. I had the crispy smoked quail salad and the veal sweetbreads. If you’re a little iffy on sweetbreads this would be the ideal spot to give ’em a try. Crispy on the outside and tender on the inside.  Every bite at this place is perfection, and it’s in a great location in the quarter.

Memphis Needs to Identify a Candidate Who Will Take the Job

There’s a key factor in talent recruitment that can be overlooked if the recruiter falls in love with a particular resume or qualification and thus becomes fixated on a certain set of candidates. For lack of a more succinct term, let’s call it the can we actually get this person to take the job? factor.

It’s important.

Memphis doesn’t necessarily appear to be understanding the can we actually get this person to take the job? factor as it searches for a head football coach to replace Justin Fuente.

Maybe they do and maybe they’re close to making a great hire that fans and supporters can all be proud of. For purposes of analyzing the Memphis search I’m making a lot of assumptions based on media reports and internet speculation.

That said, it appears Memphis has done some swinging and missing thus far. At least with one candidate and maybe with others.

For the better part of the last 5 years I’ve been a talent recruiter. I place professional candidates with corporations and business clients. In that role I’ve learned that the ideal candidate on paper is almost never the candidate that ends up getting placed.

The candidate that ends up getting placed is ideally the best candidate that you can get to take the job. 

Seems obvious right?

I say ideally because you could always end up with less than the best candidate that you can get to take the job.

That’s not a good thing. You want to avoid that.

Take for example Larry Porter. Certainly there were better candidates who would have taken the job.

For example Hugh Freeze. Hugh Freeze wanted the Memphis job when Porter was hired.

That would have been better.

But that’s about judgement and vision and intuition and other things. I’m not talking about that here.

That’s not my point.

My point is that Memphis needs to identify a coach who will actually take their job.

Barry Odom seems to be a terrific candidate for a few reasons. He’s familiar with the Memphis program, having worked there for 3 years. He’s popular with boosters, players, administration – and offers continuity.

The problem, which by now everyone knows is that Barry Odom really wants and might get the Missouri job. In fact, Odom wants the Missouri job so much that he isn’t willing to take the Memphis job.

At least not yet.

Oklahoma Sooners Offensive Coordinator Lincoln Riley’s name emerged on Tuesday night in connection with Memphis. He’s considered to be a rising young star in the coaching profession.

Problem: It was reported about an hour later that South Carolina, it of the mighty SEC, is also interested in Riley.

Translation: Riley probably isn’t coming to Memphis. Or at least not until he makes sure, like Odom, that he can’t get that coveted SEC job.

Make no mistake though, if Riley can get the South Carolina job he doesn’t want the Memphis job.

In fact, if Riley can even get serious consideration for the South Carolina job it probably means he isn’t coming to Memphis. After all, South Carolina could be the best P5 job left out there and his candidacy for it is an indicator he’s going to get a P5 job somewhere.

So my guess is that Riley wants the Memphis job less than Odom does.

I could be wrong. But if I’m right it means Memphis may be in the habit of targeting candidates they can’t get.

That’s a bad habit.

There are currently 7 “Power 5” jobs open. Missouri, South Carolina, Rutgers, Syracuse, Miami, Maryland and Virginia.

What this essentially means is that there are at least 7 jobs better than the Memphis job. Better facilities, better money, better access to the playoff.

So what should Memphis do?

Memphis should probably rank the available candidates 1 to, say, 10 or 15. Count down the list to about 8, and start calling.

Think of it as a draft board.

The further down you go, the more genuine the interest in the Memphis job. After 7 or 8 you’ll start encountering people that will actually take the job.

It’s a crucial component.

Memphis needs to line up somebody they can get. Someone that isn’t going to then turn around and use Memphis’ interest to get involved or re-involved in another search at one of the aforementioned P5 schools.

Once that guy is lined up, if Memphis wants to spend half a day calling their top candidates (Odom, Riley, etc…) and offering them a take it right now or leave it forever proposition, fine.

If they take it, great.

If they don’t, hire that other dude you lined up.

Maybe Memphis is doing this. Based on the media reports however, it doesn’t seem like it.

It seems like they’re wasting valuable time on people that don’t want to take their job.

 

I Love the New Coach. Who is the New Coach?

I love the new Tigers coach. I am optimistic about his ability to continue building on what Justin Fuente created over the past 4 years. He’s likely going to recruit well. He’ll maintain and further grow a culture of winning. He’ll position Memphis for a “Power 5” conference invitation. He’ll likely lead the program to prestigious bowl wins. He’ll be the coach that goes down in history as the one that established Memphis in the upper echelon of the sport of College Football.

Who is the new coach?

I have no idea.

But I’ll believe these things. I’ll imagine these things. I’ll argue about why these things are true – and I’ll convince myself that it’s a blessing in disguise that Justin Fuente left.

I’ll do this if the Tigers hire Barry Odom.

I’ll do this if the Tigers hire Lincoln Riley.

I’ll do this if the Tigers hire some coordinator I’ve never heard of.

I’ll do this if the Tigers bring back Larry Porter, sign him to a lifetime contract – and immediately buy $10m worth of air time to run the “Join the Revolution” television spots on a continual loop.

Yep, I’ll do it.

I’m a fan.  That’s what I’ll do.

I’ll get excited about LITERALLY WHATEVER THE ADMINISTRATION DECIDES TO DO.

It’s why I was on the local news from a sports bar in 1994, as a 17 year old, when Memphis hired Rip Scherer – telling the reporter how excited I was about the “new era” in Tiger football. Finally, someone with some youthful energy.

It’s why I attended Larry Porter’s introductory press conference some years ago and believed he was “the answer” for the Tiger program. Finally someone with recruiting chops.

It’s why Tennessee fans got excited about Derek Dooley – even though he was a below average coach at a Sun Belt school. Finally someone with reverence for the traditions of UT and the SEC. 

The coaching carousel affords insanity.

The coaching carousel affords hope. It affords justification and rationalization. It affords blind faith. It affords staying up until 2am, incessantly checking Twitter and the accounts of blog writers from Colombia, Missouri and other such remote locales.

Did you know Sonny Cumbie is potentially a candidate for the Texas offensive coordinator position? I’ve read 29 articles about that. In the last 3 hours.

It affords watching YouTube videos of candidates for the purpose of building the psychological structure articulated above.

The coaching carousel is a bumpy ride. It may carry on for days, it may be over in minutes.

But when it does end, it ends hopefully.

Always.

 

If Fuente is Gone, Pardon Me For Not Feeling Grateful

Geoff Calkins just came forth with his take on Justin Fuente’s seemingly imminent move to Virginia Tech. Calkins essentially calls on Tiger fans to express gratitude for all that’s been accomplished and wish Fuente well as he (likely) moves on to the next step in his career.

It’s an entirely rational, mature, gracious response. And he’s probably right.

I’ve always praised Calkins for being balanced. He ripped John Calipari for his ethical shortcomings, but praised him as a coach. He ripped RC Johnson’s failures as an athletic director, but has generally promoted the University and openly roots for its athletic success.

And yet, I’m still not entirely with Calkins on this one.

Even though I want to, I’m not feeling as gracious as he seems to think I should. Perhaps I’ll get there as the emotions subside – but there’s a troubling timeline to Fuente’s departure that Calkins didn’t fully address in his column.

The Memphis football team was undefeated until 3 weeks ago, which presumably (I certainly don’t know this for a fact) was around the time Fuente was considering Virginia Tech’s offer to replace Frank Beamer as head coach.

Again, rumors are that Fuente to Virginia Tech is a “done deal.” So if that’s the case it had to be negotiated in the past few weeks – at the latest.

The few weeks in which Memphis lost 3 straight games to Navy, Houston and Temple.

Was Memphis distracted against Navy? They didn’t look distracted, but they didn’t look good, either. Navy is really good though, so no big deal there.

Was Memphis distracted against Houston? They didn’t look distracted, but they certainly collapsed at the end. I guess you could say that kind of stuff happens.

Was Memphis distracted against Temple? I’ll let you answer that for yourself. But I’d say distracted is a kind word for what Memphis was at Temple.

If Memphis lays an egg against SMU, it will mark the 2nd time in 4 years as head coach that Fuente’s team totally collapsed at the end of the season – or to use his term – dropped the rope.

It’s a steep fall from 8-0, dark horse playoff contender to 8-3, going nowhere fast.

And now to learn that the coach was planning his exit during the fall. It stings.

The logical and sane response to all this is to say:

That’s just the way of the world.

That’s just how the coaching industry works.

Coaches negotiate during the season because they have to.

Why should coaches be held to a different standard than normal employees at normal jobs?

Let me be clear – all of that is absolutely, 100% true.

But I don’t have to celebrate it. And I don’t have to glorify it.

If I left my employer before the job was finished, they might thank me for the good work I had done – and might even wish me well. But they might be a little upset that the job wasn’t, ya know, finished.

I appreciate the job that Justin Fuente has done. It may be the best rebuilding job done in college football in several decades.

I thank him for that, and I do wish him luck at Virginia Tech.

But I’m not about to glorify a guy that’s leaving after 1.8 winning seasons – before the job was really finished.

And pardon me if I don’t feel particularly grateful at the moment.

 

 

 

13 Thoughts on Friday the 13th

  • Well, Tiger Basketball season is about to tip off – and this blog is still here. So now I’m going to type some words.
  • Just got word that Missouri coach Gary Pinkel is out at the end of the year. There are already a lot of great openings that perhaps don’t make sense for Memphis’ head football coach, Justin Fuente. Miami’s culture just doesn’t seem like a fit with Fuente’s style. Southern Cal is considered too good to pass up and while there’s probably truth to that, Fuente isn’t a west coast kind of guy. Does he really want to follow Spurrier at South Carolina or Beamer at VT? For one reason or another, I’m just not sure these, albeit attractive openings, make complete sense for Fuente.
  • On the other hand, Missouri makes sense. Former Memphis Defensive Coordinator Barry Odom is on staff and former Associate AD Wren Baker is part of the administration. Missouri is an SEC job now, and right in the heart of Fuente’s known geographic footprint. Though the SEC is tough, Missouri did win the east in 2 of its first 3 years. I think this is a good job and I think it would probably interest Fuente.
  • I haven’t written much since last basketball season ended. A day job and other responsibilities / distractions got in the way.  This blog is still a nebulous enterprise, but the recent addition of Scott Hirsch as a contributing writer has me reinvigorated – for at least the present moment.  Check out Scott’s piece on why you are stupid.
  • I’m glad I wasn’t trying to write about the Tigers’ 8-1 (so far) football season – because I’m at a loss for words about it. I’m obviously enjoying the hell out of it and though it would have been great to keep the undefeated season going, having been a Tiger football fan for 30 years instills some perspective.
  • So the proper perspective is this: no matter how the next month unfolds, this season has been a clear turning point season for the Memphis football program. Memphis is now (perhaps along with a few others) a clear leader among so called “Group of 5” athletic programs. That’s worth something in the world of conference realignment.
  • On the other hand, Memphis has always seemed a little late to the party and perhaps this is no different. Conference realignment will surely happen again – but in light of recent events at the University of Missouri and in light of the overall instability of the amateur model and in light of the potential downfall of the sports TV model – the future of college athletics has never been murkier.
  • Despite all the uncertainty and upheaval anticipated in college athletics – Memphis is well positioned for future success based on the fact that they finally have a well put-together, successful football program. That wasn’t the case 4 years ago – and it wasn’t clear that it would ever be.
  • The ultimate optimism is that even if Fuente leaves, he’ll leave behind a program that will continue moving forward – a la Boise State after Dan Hawkins (the first coach to have major success there) left.

Now, on to basketball:

  • This is kind of a fun scenario: coach on the hot seat, low expectations, fly under the radar type of stuff. Of course, it only stays fun if the team surpasses said expectations, the coach re-emerges as a legitimate entity and the team shows up on various radars. Obviously, that’s the scenario Josh Pastner seems to be counting on.
  • If I’m looking for a reason to be optimistic (I am), I recall the stretch of basketball at the end of last season without Austin Nichols. Even without their leading scorer (Nichols) the Tigers played some inspired basketball at times- including during a late season win at Gampel Pavillion (UConn). Add McDonalds All American Dedric Lawson to the mix and maybe you’ve got something.
  • I don’t, on the other hand, take much from the quotes about how team chemistry has improved. This is a story that gets sold every year and I simply won’t believe it until I see it. Memphis basketball teams under Josh Pastner have never appeared to have terrific chemistry, even though some of his teams have won alot of games. I attribute this to over-coaching, so we’ll see if this group can play a loose yet determined brand of basketball. It would be a surprise.
  • If I’m looking for reasons to be pessimistic – I look no further than the fact that more than 1/2 of the roster has never played major college basketball before – and several of those pieces were after thoughts in recruiting. Add to that the fact that the returnees are a group that missed the post-season entirely and there’s just not great reason to believe that this is an NCAA tournament team.

 

Sports are Dumb

As we enter the 2015-16 season, remember this: being a fan is silly and sports are dumb.

Now, if you’ve found your way to this site you’re probably a sports fan, and you’re likely a Memphis Tigers fan, so you may find these statements offensive. That’s not my intent. I’m a sports fan, I’m a Memphis Tigers fan. But lets level with each other. Sports are absurd, the rules are arbitrary, and the stakes are made up.

You might counter with an argument about fostering teamwork and learning leadership and becoming part of something greater than yourself, blah blah blah. Sports are distraction, they are entertainment, they are here to make you forget about the daily realities. Being a fan is even crazier, you invest time, emotion and money into people you dont know playing a made up game against other people you dont know. The only real excuse for being a fan of a team is that you were brainwashed into being one at a young age. I hate Tennessee because i was born to people who hated Tennessee.(good, clear thinking people).

Fandom offers you membership into a tribe, a society of people united in a common cause.  But if you’ve been a fan long enough, a real fan, one who invests in a team with no guarantee of reaping dividends, then you’ve no doubt been in a situation where you’ve been devastated by a loss your team incurred. Real emotional devastation.

In a car after the 2008 championship game someone remarked to the rest of us that it felt like a family member had just died, and we all solemnly nodded our heads in assent. What?? What lunacy is this, it’s just a damn game, played by people who dont care about you. Mickey Mantle don’t care about you, Derrick Rose dont care about you.  So why do we do it? For the high of winning? Perhaps. It’s a great feeling when you invest and are rewarded for your investment, you stand tall and puff your chest out, you’re part of the thing, you revel in the glory.  Maybe it’s cause we love to gamble, the ball is tipped and for the next two hours you don’t know if you’re gonna end up happy or sad, there’s a thrill in that limbo not often found in the drudgery of every day life.

A lot of people have checked out emotionally on the Tigers for this year, and who can blame em? Morale is low, players are jumping ship, recruiting is in the tank, the coach has lost the city, the team is overshadowed by the successful pro franchise, the college game is largely unsightly until the three weeks of March Madness.

But if you’re still out there, living and dying with every win and loss this season, remember this: sports are dumb, being a fan is silly. But thats ok, not everything you do has to make sense, and maybe sports operates outside of the logical universe, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll be rewarded with a magical season. (but you probably wont:))

Bowen Finalist For AD Position at Cal

According to industry sources, Tom Bowen is a finalist for the Athletic Director job at the University of California and could be named to the position soon. The Cal search committee has said they would make a decision by late April.

The other finalist is interim AD Michael Williams, who has said he wants the job.

Bowen became the University of Memphis AD in 2012, following RC Johnson’s retirement. He has been credited with helping lead the turnaround of the Memphis football program, though he was not involved in the hiring of head coach Justin Fuente.

Bowen was previously the athletic director at San Jose State – and has spent most of his professional career in the Bay Area. One could hardly fault him for wanting the job.

Tom Bowen appears to be planning a return to the Bay Area.
Tom Bowen appears to be planning a return to the Bay Area.

This move, assuming it happens, comes at a precarious time for the University of Memphis. Head basketball coach Josh Pastner could be a candidate for the Arizona State coaching position, and Justin Fuente will presumably be highly sought after again after the upcoming football season.

Additionally, the UofM has been moving towards breaking ground on capital improvements to its athletic training facilities at South Campus – in particular new facilities for basketball and football.

Most importantly, the program is always trying to position itself for future conference realignment. The Tigers are currently members of the American Athletic Conference.

If and when Memphis administrators and boosters look to select a new AD, perhaps it would be wise to hire someone with deep connections in the Big 12 conference.

I wonder if Deloss Dodds (former Texas AD) is looking to get back into the game?

That’s a joke (Dodds is 75 years old), but you get the point.

Stream of Consciousness 1st Round Picks – NCAA Tournament

My fascination with Bob Huggins and his physical transformation causes me to pick his team every year in the NCAA tournament.
My fascination with Bob Huggins and his physical transformation causes me to pick his team every year in the NCAA tournament.

If you’re looking for a link to a printable bracket, here you go. 

I’ve decided to publish my picks for the 1st round NCAA games using my tried and true strategy of looking at the teams, spending 10 seconds remembering whatever useless knowledge I have stored up about their programs (95% of the time that knowledge is outdated but somehow relates to Memphis), and then choosing a team based on no sound reasoning whatsoever.

This is a totally unresearched column. All this information is from the deep recesses of my mind.

I have never won a bracket in my life.

The picks:

MW No.14 Northeastern vs. MW No.3 Notre Dame Memphis has virtually no memorable history with either program. However, when then Memphis State was making its magical 1992 Elite 8 run with Penny Hardaway, a young head coach named Mike Brey was getting his start at Deleware. Why do I remember this? I have no idea. Brey is now the longtime coach at Notre Dame, so I’ll go with the Irish. Thursday, March 19 12:15 pm CBS
S No.14 UAB vs. S No.3 Iowa St. Memphis has a long history with UAB, from their shared heritage (Gene Bartow, Larry Finch) to their time together in CUSA. However, the history is not an all-together friendly one – highlighted by the infamous 2008 Pierre Henderson Niles incident in which the burly Memphis reserve smacked a screaming red-neck in the face. In the early 1990s, Iowa State was led by Johnny Orr, then Tim Floyd and Larry Eustachy. Orr coached Fred Hoiberg – who is now the Cyclones head coach. I’m going with the Cyclones. Thursday, March 19 12:40 pm truTV
W No.14 Georgia St. vs. W No.3 Baylor Baylor crushed Memphis earlier in the year and is led by a coach – Scott Drew – who was almost named the Memphis coach in 2009. Their old coach covered up a murder. I was admitted to Georgia State law school in 1999, but opted for Memphis instead. Therefore, Baylor. Thursday, March 19 1:40 pm TBS
W No.15 Texas So. vs. W No.2 Arizona Texas Southern is coached by Mike Davis – formerly of UAB and Indiana. What I love about Davis is when he was at UAB he would openly admit that his teams had no chance of beating Memphis. He did this even after John Calipari had left and Memphis wasn’t really that much better than his Blazers. Arizona is obviously the alma mater of current Memphis head coach Josh Pastner. Pick: Wildcats. Thursday, March 19 2:10 pm TNT
MW No.11 Texas vs. MW No.6 Butler Memphis beat Texas in 2008. My sister graduated from Texas. Butler used to be a really enjoyable program to watch when they were unique and plucky. Pick: Longhorns. Thursday, March 19 2:45 pm CBS
S No.11 UCLA vs. S No.6 SMU I love Larry Brown. I love Larry Brown. I love Larry Brown. I love everything about Larry Brown. I love his career, I love his interviews, I love his job hopping history, I love the way his teams play. I love the way he’s totally miserable all the time. I love that he has SM freaking U in the tournament. Am I the only person that remembers the Matt Doherty era? Robodoh? Good lord I love Larry Brown. Pick: Mustangs. Thursday, March 19 3:10 pm truTV
No.11 Ole Miss vs. W No.6 Xavier Go to hell Ol’ Maid. Pick: Muskies. Thursday, March 19 4:10 pm TBS
W No.10 Ohio St. vs. W No.7 VCU In 2007, I went to San Antonio and watched Memphis lose in the Elite 8 to Greg Oden and Mike Conley’s OSU team. The only thing that took the sting away is that the Buckeyes had reached that game by delivering a crushing loss to the UT Vols a few nights earlier. I can remember at least 2 occasions in which VCU has beat Memphis off the top of my head – once in an early 1990’s non-conference road game, and once in that Bahamas ball room just a few years ago. I don’t like either program, so I’ll go against what’s sure to be the most popular choice. PIck: Buckeyes. Thursday, March 19 4:40 pm TNT
E No.16 Lafayette vs. E No.1 Villanova Obviously my oldest memory of Villanova was them beating Memphis State in the 1985 Final 4. Sons of bitches. I lived in Philadelphia from 2004-2009. Also, they’re a #1 seed. Pick: Wildcats. Thursday, March 19 6:50 pm TBS
MW No.9 Purdue vs. MW No.8 Cincinnati Long history with both of these programs. Obviously Cincinnati is one of the longest standing Tiger rivals. Too much history to even go into. The Boilermakers and Tigers have met before as well, most memorably in the 1995 NCAA tournament when David Vaughn hit a shot with under 3 seconds to go to advance Memphis to the Sweet 16. Sure, the late Lorenzen Wright pulled a Purdue rebounder down by his jersey on the play and no foul was called – but that made sense considering Boilermaker coach Gene Keady had the worst combover in the history of humanity. Pick: Bearcats. Thursday, March 19 7:10 pm CBS
W No.13 Harvard vs. W No.4 N. Carolina Jeremy Lin vs. Roy Williams. Pick: Tar Heels. Thursday, March 19 7:20 pm TNT
S No.12 SF Austin vs. S No.5 Utah SF Austin beat Memphis in Memphis this year. Pick: Lumberjacks. Thursday, March 19 7:27 pm truTV
E No.9 LSU vs. E No.8 NC State LSU coach Johnny Jones was Memphis’ interim coach in 1999 after their current head coach, Tic Price, was dismissed on the eve of the season when it was revealed he had a violent domestic abuse situation with a student. The whole situation was crazy, and Johnny Jones almost got the permanent job at Memphis instead of John Calipari. Since that time, Jones has had a nice run at North Texas and now LSU, his alma mater. NC State used to play on one of those rubber surfaced courts. Pick: LSU. Thursday, March 19 9:20 pm TBS
No.16 Hampton vs. MW No.1 Kentucky I think Hampton won as a very high numbered seed before, but they’re not going to do it here. Pick: The Figthing Calipari’s. Thursday, March 19 9:40 pm CBS
W No.12 Wofford vs. W No.5 Arkansas At one point in time Arkansas was my least favorite program in the country. When Nolan Richardson had the Hogs rolling in the early 1990’s – he was doing it with mostly Memphis kids. The names of the players from those teams still roll of the tounge – Todd Day, Ron Huery, Dwight Stewart, Corey Beck, Corliss Williamson, Al Dillard, Lee Mayberry, Scottie Thurman. Pick: Hogs. Thursday, March 19 9:50 pm TNT
S No.13 E. Wash. vs. S No.4 Georgetown I know nothing about Eastern Washington. Memphis used to play Georgetown and get mauled every year. I’ve seen Memphis play in DC twice – on the road at Georgetown. 0-2. Those memories nothwithstanding, my pick here is the Hoyas. Thursday, March 19 9:57 pm truTV
MW No.15 New Mex. St. vs. MW No.2 Kansas Oh Kansas. Dear Kansas. My alma mater. My other sister’s alma mater. My mother’s home state. A true gem of College Basketball. Tradition, excellence, beauty. I actually don’t even like Kansas that much, but they’re probably going to win this. Pick: Jayhawks. Friday, March 20 12:15 pm CBS
E No.10 Georgia vs. E No.7 Michigan St. Georgia once employed Jim Harrick, a true win-at-all-costs kind of coach. A guy twice fired for running a dirty program. Hugh Durham, Dennis Felton, Tubby Smith. There’s some memorable history here. I’ve even been to a game in their coliseum. On the other side – the Spartans. Memphis’ most epic beatdown of all time came against Michigan State in 2008 in the Sweet 16. The halftime score of 50-20 (?) is one Tiger fans won’t soon forget. Who did they beat to advance to that round? Current Georgia coach Mark Fox’s then Nevada Wolfpack. Pick: Spartans. Friday, March 20 12:40 pm truTV
E No.12 Wyoming vs. E No.5 N. Iowa Memphis played at Wyoming in the late 1980’s in an early season non-confernece game and got their doors blown off. The Cowboys are now coached by Larry Shyatt – the once Clemson head coach. If it weren’t for a win over Northern Iowa a few years ago, Memphis would have finished one of those early season tournaments 0-3. Pick: Cowboys. Friday, March 20 1:40 pm TBS
MW No.12 Buffalo vs. MW No.5 W. Virginia One of the underrated storylines in college basketball over the past few years is how Bob Huggins went from a decent looking, great young coach in the 1990’s at Cincinnati to a giant huge fat man who wears windbreakers at West Virginia. In between he was fired for reasons I can’t recall, coached a year at Kansas State and has had multiple heart attacks. One of the Hurley brothers coaches Buffalo. Pick: Huggs, not Drugs. Friday, March 20 2:10 pm TNT
MW No.10 Indiana vs. MW No.7 Wichita St. Everyone and their mother is going to be picking the Shockers. Tom Crean coaches the Hoosiers. I’ve never cared for Tom Crean. Pick: Shockers. Friday, March 20 2:45 pm CBS
E No.15 Belmont vs. E No.2 Virginia Belmont is known for its aesthetic brand of basketball under longtime head coach Rick Byrd. Virginia is known for its aesthetic brand of basketball under head coach Tony Bennett. Memphis has a history with both of these programs. I could see an upset here, but I’m not picking it. Pick: Virginia. Friday, March 20 3:10 pm truTV
E No.13 UC Irvine vs. E No.4 Louisville I haven’t really been able to hate Louisville since Rick Pitino lobbied to get Memphis into the BIG EAST before it fell apart when Louisville bolted for the ACC. I know zip about UC Irvine. Pick: Cards. Friday, March 20 4:10 pm TBS
MW No.13 Valparaiso vs. MW No.4 Maryland I have a long history with the University of Maryland. It started on their campus in 1998 – in bars, apartments, convenience stores, etc… Later, I relished a 2009 Memphis 2nd round win over Grieves Vasquez. When current Maryland G Dez Wells visited Memphis prior to committing to Maryland – I ran into him on Memphis’ campus and suggested he commit to Memphis. He was unimpressed. Valpo also has a notable NCAA tournament history. Pick: Twerps. Friday, March 20 4:40 pm TNT
W No.9 Oklahoma St. vs. W No.8 Oregon When I think of Oklahoma State I think of former coach Eddie Sutton. When I think of Eddie Sutton, I think of Dick Vitale calling him, “Eddie Suh-On.” Oregon coach Dana Altman once took the Arkansas job only to quit 2 days later. I love that. Pick: Altman. Friday, March 20 6:50 pm TBS
No.16 Robert Morris vs. S No.1 Duke I like calling Robert Morris, “Bob Morris” – but they’re a #16 seed. One of these years a #16 seed is going to win, and it’s going to be awesome. Pick: Devils. Friday, March 20 7:10 pm CBS
S No.10 Davidson vs. S No.7 Iowa Steph Curry vs. Dr. Tom Davis. That white haired coach vs. Acie Earl. I’m digging deep here. Pick: Hawkeyes. Friday, March 20 7:20 pm TNT
E No.14 Albany vs. E No.3 Oklahoma My parents met at the University of Oklahoma. Pick: Sooners. Friday, March 20 7:27 pm truTV
W No.16 Coast. Car. vs. W No.1 Wisconsin Coastal Carolina is coached by Cliff Ellis – who used to coach Auburn. Pretty sure he was the coach when Auburn got a #1 seed in the 1990’s. Dude can coach. Wisconsin used to be coached by that dude Stu Jackson who went on to work in the NBA league office. Pick: Stinkin Badgers. Friday, March 20 9:20 pm TBS
S No.9 St. John’s vs. S No.8 San Diego St Steve Fisher vs. Steve “The Cockroach” Lavin. Steve Lavin is the cockroach because he survived nuclear holocausts every year at UCLA – keeping his job year after mediocre year. Until he was finally fired. This is a battle of retreads. Edge: Fisher. Friday, March 20 9:40 pm CBS
S No.15 No. Dak. St. vs. S No.2 Gonzaga This feels like it could be an upset, just based on the fact that Gonzaga has been to the tournament 3837 years in a row without advancing to a Final 4. Not picking it though. Pick: Zags. Friday, March 20 9:50 pm TNT
TBD vs. E No.6 Providence Rick Pitino coached Providence in 1987, when he was 11 years old. Pick: Friars.

Former Melrose G Chris Jones’ Tragic Situation A Reminder of Pastner’s Value

According to multiple news outlets, former Melrose High School & Louisville Cardinal G Chris Jones has been charged with raping one woman, and sodomizing another. Jones was a starter and key member of Rick Pitino’s Louisville team this season, but had been permanently dismissed from the squad earlier this week.

Obviously, if the charges have any merit, it’s a tragic situation for the victims and their families.

And nobody envies Chris Jones right now either – it appears the young man has done some things in the past week that could permanently alter other people’s lives for the worse and destroy what appeared to be a bright future.

Memphians root for Memphis kids – and this is a terrible situation for a Memphis kid – whether the charges prove to be true or not.

It’s an awful situation all around.

And it also re-emphasizes some things that have been written lately about Josh Pastner.

Critics of Pastner have pointed specifically to Jones as a kid that was better off getting away from the Memphis program. That argument seems dubious today, if not flat out wrong.

Remember that Pastner, running a program heavily built on Memphis kids, has yet to see a single player arrested (even for a minor offense) in over 6 years as head coach of the Tigers.

As recently as a few days ago, Geoff Calkins wrote about the value of Pastner’s high standards for player conduct.

A few weeks ago, I interviewed Pastner and concluded that any talk of firing him right now was off base. 

Like it or not, these coaches are leaders of young men. That’s part of their job.

Critics of Pastner, myself included, have pointed out that he has struggled to develop players. That specific argument has more to do with basketball related development, than moral or character development – but don’t they go hand in hand to some degree?

Critics of Pastner have pointed to Jones as a kid that needed to escape Memphis to succeed.
Critics of Pastner have pointed to Jones as a kid that needed to escape Memphis to succeed.

They do when tragic developments like the Chris Jones allegations unfold.

On the flip side of that coin – Memphis products Austin Nichols, Nick King, and Markel Crawford are going for their 4th consecutive win in a very meaningful game against SMU tonight at 8pm on ESPN2. Nichols and Crawford, especially, are having very good years. King has been up and down.

By all accounts, King, Crawford and Nichols are young men that the City of Memphis can be proud of.

This morning we got a reminder that perhaps there’s more value in Pastner’s approach than some, including myself at times, want to admit.

 

 

Valentine’s Day Lesson: Forgiveness of Calipari Essential To Moving On

Allow me to get philosophical about relationships for a moment this Valentine’s Day: It’s impossible to move on in life when you’re holding on to dreams that have died.

The Basketball Hall of Fame announced its 2015 nominees Saturday at Madison Square Garden – on the list was former Memphis, and current Kentucky coach, John Vincent Calipari.

After the news was announced, Horn Lake, MS resident, Memphis graduate and former Commercial Appeal Tiger beat writer Gary Parrish – who is now a National College Basketball writer and studio analyst for CBS Sports – sparked a little debate on Twitter:

The responses were what you would expect. Some from every angle – but mostly like this:

https://twitter.com/NationofJake/status/566634671488761857

I am of the opinion that this is more than a fun debate. I think the decision to forgive, embrace, and move on from John Calipari is important. I think it’s crucial to the future of the Memphis program. I don’t believe that anyone can truly be happy in life until they’re done being angry. The Memphis fan base is an angry fan base right now.

I think Memphis needs a moment where John Calipari is brought back to FedExForum and given a standing ovation. I really do.

Hear me out.

First of all, I realize that convincing someone to forgive is pretty stupid – and usually doesn’t work. Nevertheless, I feel strongly enough about this to attempt to influence the fan base to make this forgiveness dream a reality.

I think the next 10 years of Memphis basketball might just depend on it.

Here are 8 factors designed to sell Memphis fans on the idea of forgiving John Calipari.

1. 9 years. Calipari stayed at Memphis for 9 years, which is about 6 or 7 longer than anyone thought he would. It’s also 6 or 7 longer than he really needed to – given the fact that he turned down opportunities over the years from schools with bigger athletic budgets in higher profile conferences. Calipari reportedly had interest over the years from Missouri, South Carolina, Arkansas, NC State and others. Critics will claim he used those opportunities to get a better deal for himself – and he did – but who cares? That’s how the world works – and he also used the opportunities to get raises for his assistants and more perks for his program. Everyone associated with Memphis basketball won in those exchanges.

2. 2005-2009. Calipari’s 4 year stretch at Memphis from 2005-2009 was historic. Technically speaking, it was the most wins ever produced by an NCAA school in a 4 year period. Of course, the record is attributable to some trivial factors (CUSA, longer schedules, etc…) but it is nevertheless impressive and was important to the school and community. Most importantly, it produced another generation of Tiger fans who aren’t old enough to remember Penny Hardaway’s playing days much less Keith Lee’s or Larry Finch’s. The level of interest and passion for Memphis basketball today is partially attributable to Calipari. That’s a fact. As for the vacated wins – do you really blame Calipari or the NCAA for that fiasco? I thought so.

Photo courtesy USA Today.
Photo courtesy USA Today.

3. Dreams. Surely you can understand a man who grew up in a working class family in the rust belt pursuing the opportunity to coach in Lexington, KY, at The University of Kentucky. The fact that Calipari legitimately considered not going to Kentucky to stay at Memphis in a watered down CUSA is a tribute to how powerful a program he had built at Memphis and the level of support that had emerged around him. Memphis fans should be honored that the decision was so difficult. He legitimately agonized over it and mentioned how much he was ‘leaving behind’ during his introductory press conference at UK.

4. Reputation. Perhaps the biggest gift Calipari gave Memphis was restoring its reputation nationally. Outside of a few Sweet 16 appearances in the 1990’s – Memphis had slowly drifted from the national spotlight over the course of the late 1990’s. Had someone besides Calipari been hired in 2000, there’s no guarantee Memphis Basketball would have ever gotten back into said spotlight. Memphis fans often assume otherwise – but look no further than fellow AAC member Houston, or UNLV, to see what fading from national relevance outside the “Power 5” looks like over a long period of time. It isn’t fun for fans.

5. Opportunity Cost. By not embracing Calipari, by not inviting him back into the program, Memphis is missing an opportunity to be associated with what is possibly soon to be a Hall of Fame basketball coach. That seems silly. I’m not suggesting that Memphis owes Calipari a statute or that they should name the court after him – but why not acknowledge the near-decade the man spent in this city, in this community, and as the leader of a beloved basketball program? The more HOF coaches you have attached to your program – Bartow, Calipari – the greater your reputation. Why pass that up?

6. Good health. According to the Mayo Clinic’s website, forgiveness can lead to lower blood pressure, fewer symptoms of depression, a stronger immune system, and improved heart health. This is to say nothing of the myriad psychological benefits including fewer symptoms of depression. The city of Memphis ranks low enough on all the national health measurements as it is – we don’t need a collective resentment dragging us further down. I say this somewhat jokingly, but there’s a large element of truth to it. I’ve heard a lot of people say that Tiger games aren’t as fun as they used to be. Perhaps that’s true – and perhaps it’s not Josh Pastner’s fault. Maybe 60%-70% of the fan base is still angry.

7. Xavier Henry went to Kansas anyway. Ok, I get it. When the guy left town he destroyed a recruiting class. But remember – John Wall and Demarcus Cousins had technically yet to sign with Memphis. Sure, they were going to likely sign with Memphis – and he recruited them with University money and blah blah blah. My point here is this angle has been overblown. Xavier Henry didn’t even end up with Calipari anyway. Darnell Dodson ended up at Southern Miss. We got Will Coleman and Elliot Williams (for a year) out of the deal. Players sign with coaches – not schools. Everybody except Memphis fans still angry at John Calipari seems to understand this by now.

8. Karma. According to a website called budahnet.net:

In this world nothing happens to a person that he does not for some reason or other deserve. Usually, men of ordinary intellect cannot comprehend the actual reason or reasons. The definite invisible cause or causes of the visible effect is not necessarily confined to the present life, they may be traced to a proximate or remote past birth.

According to Buddhism, this inequality is due not only to heredity, environment, “nature and nurture”, but also to Karma. In other words, it is the result of our own past actions and our own present doings. We ourselves are responsible for our own happiness and misery. We create our own Heaven. We create our own Hell. We are the architects of our own fate.

So maybe Calipari’s leaving for Kentucky – and the pain surrounding it – was karma for firing Larry Finch at a hot dog stand? I’m willing to look at it that way.

Or maybe RC Johnson was an evil guy in his last life? Or maybe Calipari is on his way to some other lesson with karma and the reason he left when he left is a mystery. Who really cares?

Let’s not try to figure it out.

Let’s just forgive, if we can, because otherwise we might find moving on to be more difficult.

Remembering Dean Smith Via Robert Goulet

Dean Smith, the legendary former North Carolina head coach, passed away this weekend.

In a tidbit of information straight out of the holy crap, I’m old department — Dean Smith actually retired from coaching 18 years ago, in 1997. Therefore, most basketball fans under 25 probably have no idea who Dean Smith was – or what he represented.

Dean Smith was Michael Jordan’s college coach at North Carolina. And he was the most respected coach / teacher in the college game for over 2 decades.

Dean Smith was a coach. He was a coach in an era – the 1980’s and 1990’s – of college basketball when coaches were larger than life. And they were coaches.

Today, head coaches are basically CEO’s. Given the realities of modern media, coaches today must be polished, politically correct, figure heads. Of course, they still have to win basketball games. That was true then and it’s true now. But 20 and 30 years ago – coaches coached. And they did so with vastly different personalities and styles that made each of them unique and highly marketable in their own way.

Without social media, without nearly as much national television, without the internet – coaches were significantly more free to be themselves and coach their team with freedom of personality. It made the whole enterprise just a little more fun than it is now.

Today, in a college athletics environment that resembles a corporate workplace – having an outlandish personality is a risk. College employees – including coaches – have their spontaneity and personality scrubbed by risk managers and P.R. filters. I get why it’s necessary, but for the average fan – it leaves a void.

As a result, there aren’t nearly as many colorful personalities in today’s college game. The ones that stand out – Boeheim, Calipari, Pitino – are mostly holdovers from a previous era.

Robert Goulet - Star of the Greatest Commercials Ever Filmed.
Robert Goulet – Star of the Greatest Commercials Ever Filmed.

In the mid-90’s – in a move reflective of the popularity of the coaches themselves – ESPN produced a series of musical commercials – designed to promote their college basketball telecasts – which featured actor / singer Robert Goulet.

If you don’t know who Robert Goulet is – I’m sorry.

Think of Robert Goulet as Burt Reynolds, but with an incredible voice and as a lounge singer in Vegas. It’s a lethal combination.

The commercials were – quite possibly – the greatest series of musical commercials ever filmed.

Side notes about Robert Goulet: (a) He played one of the house guests in Tim Burton’s 1998 classic film Beetlejuice, and (b) the American Mustache Institute presents The Robert Goulet Memorial Mustached American of the Year Award to the person who best-represents or contributes to the Mustached American community during that year (courtesy WikiPedia).

Side note about Beetlejuice: apparently Beetlejuice 2 is in the works.

Side note about that side note: That’s pretty awesome – mainly because Winona Ryder is gong to be in it and she’s probably still incredibly beautiful in that nutty-waif kind of way.

Anyway, back to Dean Smith. His passing – happily – reminded me of the Robert Goulet commercials. After said reminder, I immediately re-watched them. All of them. There are 16. It’s time well spent. I do it about once a year. I encourage you to do the same.

Here’s a link to the Dean Smith version (you can easily find the others by searching for “Robert Goulet ESPN commercials”). There’s a Bob Knight, and a Rick Pitino version as well. You can thank me later:

 

Realignment Revisited: Memphis Is Actually In A Decent Basketball League

Memphis fans are accustomed to Tiger basketball playing in boring, weak basketball leagues.

American-Athletic-Conference-LogoThe Tigers competed in Conference USA from 1995-2013. After Louisville, Cincinnati and Marquette defected prior to 2005, the conference was significantly watered down. As a result, Memphis dominated the league annually.

The lack of competition in CUSA was a regular topic of discussion for college basketball pundits critical of Memphis. Every March, Memphis dominated the CUSA tournament and listened to experts denounce the accomplishment.

When Memphis was selected for BIG EAST membership in February of 2012, the excitement was short lived. Before Memphis could officially enter the league, it was torn apart by defections. Louisville left for the ACC, Rutgers joined the B1G, Marquette and other basketball schools (Georgetown, Villanova, etc…) split off to form their own league. They took the BIG EAST brand with them.

Memphis was left in something called the American Athletic Conference.

After all the movement, amid a disappointing / rebuilding year for Memphis basketball, a positive development for the Tiger program has been obscured: the American Athletic Conference is a pretty darn good basketball league.

The American is certainly a major improvement from the final version of CUSA that Memphis left in 2013.

Here’s a few reasons why:

  • Television. Almost every single conference game is on national television (either on the ESPN family of networks, or CBS Sports Network). This is a far cry from the CUSA days where Memphis Basketball disappeared from the national conversation during the final 3 months of the season – even if they were highly ranked. Not only is the contract good for watching Memphis games – but you can turn on the TV almost any night and see an interesting conference game.
  • Cincinnati. Memphis had lost all traditional rivals in CUSA v2.0. UAB – after the incredible 2008 match up with Memphis in Birmingham – started to feel like a legitimate rival, but at some point you have to win a game in the series to be considered a true rival. The Blazers lost 15 consecutive games to Memphis over their final few years together in CUSA.
  • Larry Brown.  The SMU of CUSA was a laughingstock. Brown – a Hall of Fame coach – was hired in 2012 and almost overnight turned SMU into a nationally relevant program. The Mustangs are currently ranked 23rd in the country and add a certain credibility to the AAC.
  • UConn. Though the Huskies are having a disappointing year in 2014-15, they administered a huge boost to the fledgling league in 13-14 by winning the NCAA tournament. The Huskies presence in the league – in light of their 4 national titles since 1999 – is a long term game changer.
  • Tulsa resurgence. Let’s be honest, when Tulsa was announced as a replacement for Louisville nobody was particularly excited. Sure, Tulsa has a proud basketball history which includes names like Bill Self, Tubby Smith and Nolan Richardson – but they were mostly a steppingstone and none of that success had taken place in the last 15 years or so. Now, the Golden Hurricane are sitting atop the league standings at 10-0 and new coach Frank Haith should be able to capitalize in recruiting.
  • Traditional Temple. Temple, who took a major step back in the first year of the AAC, is currently 7-3 and in good position to return to the NCAA tournament under veteran coach Fran Dunphy. The tradition rich Owl program is a key conference member for basketball purposes. Temple’s success will make the AAC more interesting going forward.

IMG_0183

  • Overall Competitiveness. Memphis, even during parts of the Josh Pastner era, totally dominated CUSA. At a certain point it felt like the Tigers had mind control. CUSA competition just didn’t believe they could beat Memphis – and they couldn’t. The AAC is a highly competitive league (see current standings to left). Any of at least 6 teams will enter next month’s AAC tournament in Hartford, CT believing they have a legitimate chance to win. That makes for an exciting event.

In the winter of Tiger fans’ discontent, the fact that Memphis is is a pretty entertaining, competitive basketball league shouldn’t be taken for granted.

 

Tigers Are Who We Thought They Were (Gonzaga Postgame)

As I watched the Tigers get blown out by Gonzaga Saturday night, I thought of Former Arizona Cardinals coach Denny Green’s famous post-game rant. The Tigers are who we thought they were. In other words: the least talented Memphis team – especially at the point guard position – in possibly 15 years. Nothing we saw against Gonzaga changed any of that – though you do have to give the Tigers some credit for playing hard and sticking together – in the midst of getting their doors blown off once again.

More after Denny’s rant:

It’s good every time, isn’t it?

Anyway – back to the game. Let’s hear from some of our friends:

Negative Nellie:

  • Tiger fans have to be very sick of seeing Memphis get blown out – because it’s happening a lot. 
  • In the last calendar year, the Tigers have been blown out 10 times.
  • The games and margins are as follows – beginning on 2/1/14: at SMU by 15, at Cincinnati by 13, vs. UConn by 19, vs. Virginia by 18, vs. Wichita State by 15, vs. Baylor by 24, vs. Oklahoma State by 18, at SMU by 14, at Tulsa by 18 and tonight vs. Gonzaga by 18.
  • That’s 10 times in the program’s last 35 games that Memphis has been blown out. I’m no statistician, but that’s 1 time every 3.5 games. That’s a lot of blowouts.
  • Certainly Memphis is young – but one has to acknowledge that the blow outs could indicate a deeper problem in the program.
  • Shaq Goodwin had 8 rebounds, some nice hustle plays and appeared to keep a positive attitude – but he also had 0 points on 6 shots and thus his Junior season continues to be a disappointment.

Philosophic Phil:

  • Some fans will disagree, but it’s always a glass half full / half empty thing with Pastner’s teams.
  • Half full – the Tigers – in a very hostile environment – fought hard and kept it close for a while. Then, after getting blown out on both sides of halftime, they scraped back in the last 10 minutes against what will be the the #2 team in the country this week.
  • Half empty – is this what the program has been reduced to? Feeling good about only losing by 18 to Gonzaga?
  • Half full – Trashon Burrell and Markel Crawford bring a lot of defensive energy to the lineup and appear to be nice pieces for the program going forward.

woody-woodpecker-o

  • Half empty – the Tigers have no true point guard on the roster. Pookie Powell – since high school – has always been more of a scoring guard. Kedren Johnson still isn’t back to his former level. Demarnier Cunningham plays hard but hasn’t proven he can be effective at this level yet (he also, by the way, is the only PG in the history of basketball who dribbles with an upper body strut that looks like a cross between George Jefferson and Woody Woodpecker (left)).
  • Unfortunately, the trio combined for a mere 3 total assists.
  • Half full – all 3 PG’s combined for only 2 turnovers. After their early season struggles holding onto the ball, the staff has slowed the Tigers offense down and figured out a way to not let turnovers beat them. Gotta give them credit for that adjustment.

Realistic Ralph:

  • There just has to be a story about Shaq Goodwin and why he’s so clearly regressed from last year. Is he unhappy with the coaching staff? Distracted? Bored with basketball?
  • I’m sure those close to the program know the answer to that, but nobody on the beat has written that piece. Maybe it’s not an appropriate story to write about a college kid. I get that – but it’s fair to say this coaching staff has had several different guys that they simply can’t get through to. Shaq is the latest, whatever the reason.
  • It would be one thing if Shaq hadn’t had a very promising Sophomore campaign – he is averaging fewer points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals from last year.
  • The Tigers next game – vs. Jacksonville State on Wednesday night at FedExForum, 7pm – is a nice late season cupcake before Memphis re-enters AAC play for the stretch run. Attendance prediction? Over / Under 5,500?
  • Memphis has some winnable games down the stretch – and if they can display the same kind of stick-togetherness and fight they showed in the last 8 or 10 minutes of the Gonzaga game, they can still finish the season on a high note.

 

 

Pastner’s Philosophy Fails Statistical Examination

20 years ago, I had a statistics teacher at White Station High School named Mr. Isom. He was an excellent teacher. Funny, informative, kind. I haven’t seen him since, but if he ends up reading this article I think he’s going to really like it.

In his post game press conference yesterday after Memphis dropped a 73-55 contest to Tulsa; Josh Pastner acknowledged that Memphis never got into a rhythm, had too many turnovers, was the slower team and was handicapped by a prolonged scoring drought. Everyone who watched the game can agree on all those points.

The next questions become why does the team have these problems and what can be done about them? It’s not that losing to a good Tulsa team on the road is unacceptable, but why was your team blitzed so badly that they found themselves down 28 in the 2nd half? Why can’t Memphis even be competitive in certain games against teams with equal, or arguably lesser, talent?

For his part, Pastner acknowledged that everyone, including himself, needs to do a better job. He then turned around and attributed the struggles to the fact that this is a young team. Pastner didn’t get into specifically what he could have done better, though he did mention maybe the “approach” could have been different.

You can watch the full video here if you’re so inclined.

I think Pastner is wrong, to a degree.

I think the problem is his overall philosophy on playing time.

Let me explain.

Let me explain, using basic statistics taught to me 20 years ago by Mr. Isom.

Pastner, before the Tulsa game, gave a very revealing quote regarding his philosophy and personal feelings on distribution of playing time:

“The game on Saturday (vs. UCF) I was able to play everybody, that’s always nice. I think with our team, as I’ve said…. it’s its own journey each game, its own entity each game. And uh….there could be a different 7 or 8 guys getting the most minutes game by game. Versus Tulsa we could have a group of 5 we could find that you (would least) maybe not expect that could play the entire 2nd half – as I’ve done before. Through time, through each game we find that combination and kind of just roll with it.”

 

“Guys that are playing well are going to get the time. Guys not playing well, we’ve got some other guys. Everyone’s interchangeable, everyone’s rooting for each other. Just find that mix or group of guys — whoever it may be on that day to get the job done.”

Pastner gets paid $2.65m per year to figure this stuff out, and I’m just some random guy with a blog – so take my opinion for what it’s worth.

I don’t think an elite program can be built around this philosophy. I’ve played organized basketball – I use the term ‘organized’ loosely but there were refs and a scoreboard. Anyway, in an organized, 40 minute basketball game – to be successful – a team needs about 7 or 8 guys, barring injury.

As you can see from his comments, Pastner acknowledges that 7 or 8 guys are going to get the bulk of the minutes at some point in the game, but there’s a two-fold problem with this approach:

(1) it requires playing all 11 early in the game – to figure out which 8 are going to get the most minutes later on (which defeats the point and is really somewhat arbitrary), and

(2) if nobody is playing well, how do you then decide who to roll with?

This problem reared its head against Tulsa – and the consequences were severe. Memphis played 11 guys more than 5 minutes against Tulsa and found themselves down almost 30 with 10 minutes to play. In other words, the decision never got made – and Pastner essentially had an 11 man rotation.

11 is simply too many guys to play extended minutes in a competitive game.

The statistics from across the country clearly back me up on this.

This is the part that Mr. Isom will probably love.

To figure out what successful teams in the country are doing with respect to their rotations, I examined box scores of top 25 teams from this past weekend and up through last night (Wednesday 1/21). I tried to find competitive games so I disregarded those where the margin was greater than 10 at half or whose final margin was above 20. I was able to examine 13 competitive games during that time period involving top 25 teams.

None of the ranked teams I examined played as many guys at least 5 minutes as Memphis did against Tulsa (11).

Here is the list of Top 25 teams and the number of players that played over 5 minutes in their team’s last reasonably competitive game:

Memphis – 11


Kentucky – 10

Kansas – 10

North Carolina – 9

Virginia – 9

Louisville – 9

Villanova – 8

Duke – 8

Northern Iowa – 8

Baylor – 8

Iowa State – 8

Wyoming – 8 (Even in a 3 OT game)

Notre Dame – 7

Dayton – 7

Because of Mr. Isom’s influence, I actually remembered how to calculate the mean, median and mode of the above data set. This is basic stuff, but it felt good to put that knowledge to use. If you’re curious as to what those terms refer to, at the end of this post I’ve copied a very cheesy video explaining the concept. It (the video) involves toads and worm with an Italian (?) accent.

Anyway……

The mean is 8.38 

The median is 8

The mode is 8

Therefore my theory, that it takes about 8 guys to be successful in basketball, seems to be backed up by the evidence.

Pastner is sticking with 11. And his theory that he can somehow identify the right 8 over the course of the early part of the game and then roll with those guys. I think that’s crazy, and I think it’s probably fueled by his desire to keep everyone happy – because he’s such a nice guy. See the above quote about how it was “nice” to play all the guys against UCF? I think he genuinely means that. I think it makes him feel good. But I think his nice guy tendencies are clearly getting the best of him here and costing his team and some of his players the opportunity to develop.

I could get into why I think (and apparently all the other successful college coaches think) that 8 is a better number than 11 and all of the ramifications thereof. It involves recruiting philosophy, roles, transfers, guys sitting on the bench, NBA aspirations, etc….but now’s not the time for that. Now is the time to let the statistics speak for themselves.

Thanks, Mr. Isom.