Commentary

Memphis not the first time Calipari danced with perfection

Updated: February 22, 2008, 3:42 PM ET
By Marty Dobrow | Special To ESPN.com

One thing is for sure: There won't be any raisins in the oatmeal. Not this time.

John Calipari's top-ranked Memphis Tigers enter Saturday night's showdown with No. 2 Tennessee with a record of 26-0. They are hoping to post the first perfect season since Bobby Knight's 1976 Indiana Hoosiers. Since then, some 10,000 Division I teams have started the season with unblemished records. None has finished that way.

[+] EnlargeJohn Calipari
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesJohn Calipari opened UMass' 1995-'96 season with a win over Kentucky.

But this is not Calipari's first run at history, nor is it his first time with a 26-0 record. A dozen years ago, his UMass team made an improbable push for perfection. Playing with just two scholarship guards and one future NBA player (Marcus Camby), the Minutemen began their season by knocking off top-ranked Kentucky. Rick Pitino's squad boasted nine players who would one day play in the league.

From there, the Minutemen rolled. They knocked off Wake Forest with Tim Duncan. They outlasted third-ranked Memphis. They went to Blacksburg and beat No. 10 Virginia Tech. They pushed their undefeated mark past New Year's, past Super Sunday, Groundhog Day, Valentine's Day, pitchers and catchers reporting.

Often they had to scrap mightily for the wins. In running out to a 25-0 record, they found themselves tied or trailing at halftime on 10 occasions. In five games they trailed by double digits. Three times, all on the road, they faced overtime. Always they came through.

The run generated unprecedented excitement in western Massachusetts. The national magazines came out in force: Esquire, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated. On Feb. 15, USA Today ran a front-page story about UMass called "March Toward Perfection." Malcolm Moran, then of The New York Times, wrote four days later: "No matter what happens in March, regardless of whatever future the coach may have at UMass or in the National Basketball Association, Calipari may well look back one day to a snowy winter in Amherst and a single-minded group that became the team of his life."

The next day, Feb. 20, Bob Ryan of The Boston Globe wrote: "If UMass pulls off this unbeaten season/national championship parlay, it will be the greatest one-season achievement in the history of the sport."

The Minutemen squeaked by Rhode Island that night to up their record to 26-0. Just three games were left in the regular season.

On Thursday, Feb. 22, they greeted the nation on "Good Morning America." Charles Gibson talked about how UMass endured 10 straight losing seasons before Calipari arrived: "But it's been a Cinderella story ever since that day."

Calipari was masterful in the interview. He talked about "being unrealistic," and telling his players and staff, "Let's try to get this thing where no one thought it could go."

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Two days later, UMass hosted George Washington at high noon. Colonials coach Mike Jarvis had been Calipari's absolute nemesis, far more so than even Temple's John Chaney (who had memorably charged into a postgame interview two years before, threatening to kill Calipari). In the past 71 games, UMass had gone 0-3 against GW and 64-4 against everyone else.

Needless to say, the constitutionally intense Calipari was wound tight at the team's 7 a.m. shootaround. At breakfast at 8:30 he surveyed the food and lost control. "There are raisins in the oatmeal!" he thundered. "I don't like raisins in the oatmeal!"

A few hours later, UMass was trailing, 27-11, when Calipari picked up his second technical foul, getting kicked out of a game for the first time in his coaching career. He watched the rest of the 86-76 defeat on a locker room television.

The season's drama was not over, of course. UMass reclaimed its No. 1 ranking just before the NCAA Tournament, made it to the Final Four, then lost the rematch to Kentucky, which went on to win the national title. Then it got messy. There was the scandal about Camby taking money from agents, the return of the Final Four trophy and the ill-fated departure of Calipari to become coach of the Nets.

Twelve years later, the man from Moon (Moon Township, Pa.) is back looking at the stars. Perhaps this Memphis squad, loaded with future NBA players, will wind up being the team of Calipari's life.

The still-ferocious coach is hoping that this time the dream season does not dry up like a raisin in the sun. Saturday's game might go a long way to answering whether or not he will soon be eating the breakfast of champions.

Marty Dobrow covers UMass athletics for the Boston Globe.

Marty Dobrow

ESPNBoston.com