Memphis tried hard to keep Calipari, wish him luck

MEMPHIS – Devastated after losing Memphis’ “rock star,” athletic director R.C. Johnson says he’s not angry with John Calipari.

Johnson said during a news conference Wednesday that the school did everything possible to keep Calipari, including tapping their boosters for more money. He would not say how much they offered Calipari to stay.

“There’s nothing left that we could’ve done to keep him,” Johnson said.

When told that fans in town are deflated, Johnson said he is too — but added he is not angry.

“John has done such a remarkable job. I’m terribly disappointed and devastated, but I understand it and I’m sure our fan base feels the same way,” Johnson said. “He took us to heights no one probably ever thought we’d get to.”

Calipari was introduced Tuesday at Kentucky, where he’s now the highest-paid coach in college basketball with an eight-year $31.65 million contract. Memphis paid Calipari $2.35 million a year.

Alan Graf, chief financial officer of FedEx and president of the Tigers Scholarship Fund, said their offer was competitive. He also declined to put a number on Memphis’ offer to Calipari.

“It wasn’t money. It wasn’t that he was going to be paid x-dollars more at Kentucky. He went to Kentucky for the brand name,” Graf said.

Memphis’ challenge now is finding a coach to pick up where Calipari left off.

Johnson said he keeps an updated list of up to five names, especially with a coach in demand as much as Calipari. He nearly went to N.C. State in recent years and was been linked to several other jobs while at Memphis, including positions at Arizona, Indiana, St. John’s, Pittsburgh and South Carolina.

Johnson said his phone has been ringing off the hook from coaches wanting the Memphis job.

The athletic director said he doesn’t have a timetable or deadline to hire Calipari’s replacement. He will conduct the search himself with help of university staff and pointed out the signing day for recruits on the second Wednesday in April as looming.

Johnson expects to lose the rest of the coaching staff but that the assistants will help with oversight for now.

“Whatever he says, we’ll go do,” assistant coach Josh Pastner said of whether he’ll follow Calipari to Kentucky. “He’s the boss man so he’s the guy. Whatever he says, we’re going to do.”

The athletic director planned to meet with current players later Wednesday to convince them to stay. Calipari had the top-rated recruiting class for next fall according to Rivals.com and Scout.com. Johnson said each recruit has a clause freeing them to go elsewhere if Calipari left for any reason, so they will try to re-recruit those players too.

What Calipari accomplished, especially over his past four seasons, is what Memphis expects of his replacement.

And the bar is high: The most wins over the past four seasons in NCAA Division I history, a 137-14 record, the only program in the country with either a No. 1 or 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, four straight regional semifinals, a Final Four and national runner-up in 2008.

Calipari did it in a weakened Conference USA after Louisville, Cincinnati and Marquette bolted for the Big East.

The Tigers have a proud but spotty history. They have been coached by Gene Bartow who took them to the 1973 national championship game. There was a 1985 Final Four berth later vacated under NCAA sanctions incurred under Dana Kirk. Memphis ran off Larry Finch, a former Tigers standout and the program’s winningest coach until Calilpari, after he went 16-15 in 1996-97.

Then came Tic Price from New Orleans. He lasted two seasons before being fired in November 1999 for an affair with a female student. His assistant Johnny Jones took over on an interim basis and led the Tigers to a 15-16 record.

But Memphis brought in Calipari in March 2000, introducing him as their new coach only a couple hours after the Conference USA tournament had ended and a couple days after Jones coached his last game for the program.

Calipari went 252-69 in nine seasons. In the previous nine seasons, Memphis went 163-115.

 

Teresa Walker/The Associated Press