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Crooks or saints? Hard to say with Memphis Tigers

Coach John Calipari has brought up Memphis’ graduation rate from zero to 89.5 percent for four-year players.

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Coach John Calipari has brought up Memphis’ graduation rate from zero to 89.5 percent for four-year players.

SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Usually, there are two sides to every story. Which is the polite way of saying the bull is about to fly from both directions.

So welcome to the University of Memphis locker room, a place where reputation and reality have a difficult time finding common ground. Where the critics spin one truth, and the apologists spin another.

For instance, you may have heard that the Tigers are a renegade outfit. A bunch of mercenaries brought to town with no regard for classrooms or decorum. Yeah, well, don't believe it.

On the other hand, you can also ignore a lot of what coach John Calipari says. Listen to him long enough and you get the impression the Tigers are on a Peace Corps-like crusade to spread cheer and goodwill throughout the basketball world.

On both counts, the truth is more complex. With the NCAA Tournament championship game hours away, the reality is that the Memphis Tigers are far more fascinating than either side seems willing to admit.

These are players who know their way around a fingerprint kit and have a working knowledge of their Miranda rights. They also are part of a program with a graduation rate that would be the envy of most coaches.

"Don't get me wrong, a couple of players on our team have done some really dumb things. I'm just being honest," said guard Chris Douglas-Roberts. "People make mistakes, but because we're on the basketball team, they become publicized. I think people look at those few mistakes and think the entire team is that way. And that's not right. You can't judge people by someone else's mistakes."

Sure, this is a place where questionable recruits can always find a home as long as they can drive to the hoop. It is also a place for a kid such as Joey Dorsey, who will be the first in his family to graduate.

"Everyone back home thought I would be the first one to get kicked off the team," Dorsey said Sunday. "It will be great to walk across the stage and get my degree."

This is why it is worth the effort to figure out how this team came to be. To understand how Memphis could easily be labeled as both the best and the worst of college athletics.

You begin, of course, with Calipari, the man who deserves the credit or the blame, depending on which side of the argument you choose to champion.

Before he showed up eight years ago, Memphis had missed the NCAA Tournament four consecutive seasons and had a zero graduation rate, according to university records.

Calipari has transformed Memphis into a powerhouse, with a 104-9 record the past three seasons and three consecutive appearances in the Elite Eight. He has also brought the program's graduation rate up to 89.5 percent for players who use all four years of eligibility.

"The success stories … far outweigh a couple of kids screwing up. Far outweigh it," Calipari said.

"For me, it's not what they come in with, but what they leave with."

There is truth to what Calipari says, that he has recruited a lot of kids from less-than-desirable backgrounds and has helped them turn their lives around.

But it is also true that he has a Machiavellian-like approach to recruiting and discipline. His moral barometer seems to fluctuate greatly depending on how impressive a young man's jump shot is.

In recent seasons, he has had two players accused of beating up their girlfriends. Two more players were charged with inciting a riot and disorderly conduct in a nightclub. One player was arrested for marijuana possession, and another was automatically suspended for failing a drug test.

That list doesn't include the most notorious recruit, Sean Banks, who did not make it past the first semester of his sophomore season before flunking out.

"Every once in a while a kid will do something that's just dumb, like my own children have, and I deal with it," Calipari said. "I don't throw them under the bus at the first sign of trouble."

Not only does he not throw them under the bus, he often holds their seat on it for them. Calipari rarely uses suspensions as a deterrent when talented players find trouble. Does this make him evil? No, it just means he's more Jerry Tarkanian than Mother Teresa.

By the way, a comparison with Tarkanian's UNLV teams is not far offbase. In both cases, you have schools from nontraditional conferences recruiting at-risk players, playing an up-tempo offense and beating the bejeebers out of the rest of the country.

The formula has made Calipari a rich man and Memphis a successful program. It has also turned some unlikely candidates into college graduates.

For Memphis, that is the reality.

No matter which angle you approach it from.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Crooks or saints? Hard to say with Memphis Tigers 04/06/08 [Last modified: Monday, April 7, 2008 3:03pm]

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