MEMPHIS, Tenn. >> John Calipari knows people in Memphis are still pretty upset with how he abandoned their Tigers to take the Kentucky coaching job and that nothing will ever soothe the hurt feelings.
In case they still don’t understand why he left back in 2009, Calipari made it as clear as possible today.
“I had been talked to probably by six other universities during my time here, and three had offered jobs, and a couple I considered,” Calipari said.
“But Kentucky is one that you leave for. It just is.”
Now, with an assist from the NCAA Tournament selection committee, Calipari will coach his first game in Memphis since leaving eight years ago. It’s a town where some fans still hate him for departing, a move all the more painful because the coach’s best season at the school was wiped off the books just months later.
This isn’t Calipari’s first trip back to Memphis since being hired by Kentucky in April 2009. The coach still visits friends here and recruits Memphis’ talent-rich high school talent.
But Calipari hasn’t coached at the FedExForum since March 2009 when he won his last Conference USA tournament title. That drought will end Friday night when his Wildcats play UCLA in the South Regional semifinal.
“I think we did all right here,” Calipari said. “Had some good times.”
That’s putting it mildly.
Before Calipari stunned Memphis by choosing the winningest program in all of college basketball, he oversaw the best four-year stretch in Tigers’ history. He went 137-14 at Memphis, the kind of success fans dreamed of when Calipari was hired.
Calipari was seen as such a savior that fans came out to his introductory news conference, which also was shown live on local television.
The coach delivered, dominating Conference USA with players from DaJuan Wagner to Derrick Rose. Calipari’s best came in 2007-08 with an NCAA-record 38 victories and an overtime loss to Kansas in the national championship game — a season that no longer counts for either Memphis or Calipari.
He coached the Tigers to a loss in the Sweet 16 in March 2009 when Kentucky fired Billy Gillispie and came offering the Southeastern Conference’s power program to Calipari. Calipari not only took the job at Kentucky, he took most of his coaching staff too while convincing John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe to join him with the Wildcats.
By August 2009, the NCAA stripped away every victory from that record season for Memphis using an ineligible player believed to be Rose.
Calipari said he hadn’t thought of not having a banner in the rafters for that amazing 38-2 season, which he since has matched twice at Kentucky: 2012 and 2015.
“I would say that there’s nothing that can take away what that run was about for all of us, including the city,” Calipari said. “It was a special time.”
A couple hundred friends joined Calipari at a reception Wednesday night after he arrived in Memphis with the coach hearing from former players like Chris Douglas-Roberts, Robert Dozier and Antonio Anderson.
But the University of Memphis President quickly canceled a dinner announced in September 2015 to honor Calipari for his induction into the Naismith Hall of Fame that would have benefited the Tigers. Fans made it very clear they weren’t ready to make nice with Calipari just yet.
When he walked onto the court Thursday for the final open practice, Calipari was met with a heavy dose of boos that not even the Kentucky faithful could drown out. He went straight to work, leaving people like Jack Vernon and his friend, Zach Kieffner, happy to finally let Calipari know how they feel.
Vernon, now 18, of Southaven, Mississippi, became a basketball fan in 2007-08 when his sister attended Memphis.
“Just the way he left and everything,” Vernon said. “We had Boogie Cousins lined up, John Wall and all of a sudden our whole class just dispersed … he just kind of left us in a bad place. And you see Memphis hasn’t quite recovered from that.”
Calipari, who signed a two-year extension Wednesday , knew he’d face questions about Memphis. He also predicts people will watch Friday night because of the talented teams on the court, not because he’s on the sideline “and it should be a lot of fun.”
If you’re not a Memphis Tigers fan.