Memphis tried hard to keep Calipari

Updated: April 1, 2009, 7:52 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- 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 Wednesday 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 North Carolina 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.

Graf said many calls already had been made by midday Wednesday but wouldn't give up any names. Tim Floyd of USC, Xavier's Sean Miller, Andy Kennedy of Mississippi and ex-Calipari assistants Derek Kellogg of Massachusetts and UTEP's Tony Barbee have already been mentioned as possible candidates.

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

"The program's been elevated to an unbelievable level, and that's the kind of response I'm getting from people now. Wow," Johnson said of the coaches already calling him interested in replacing Calipari. "I know there's a little bit of [concern] following John, but that's because it's a good job. Any good job you're going to get that."

Calipari echoed his former boss in a news conference in front of his house hours after he was introduced as Kentucky's new coach.

"This program will go on. It'll stay at that level. They're going to hire a great coach," Calipari said.

He even stands ready to help recruit his replacement, willing to answer any questions a coach might have about the program.

"Obviously, this is one of the great situations right now in college basketball," Calipari said of what he's left behind.

Johnson 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 is looming.

Johnson expects to lose the rest of the coaching staff but 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. Johnson said each recruit has a clause freeing him to go elsewhere if Calipari left for any reason, so they will try to re-recruit those players too. Johnson promised he will get the right coach.

"The cupboard's a little bare, but it's not empty and we're going to get it replenished. So yeah, we might have a down year or two ... It won't last," he said.

Johnson already appeared resigned to the notion that their blue-chip recruit, Xavier Henry, a 6-foot-6 guard from Oklahoma City and ranked No. 1 on the ESPNU top 100, will not end up at Memphis.

"[Xavier] isn't going to come now,'' Johnson told ESPN.com Tuesday.

Henry, in Miami for the McDonald's All-American game, told ESPN on Wednesday that his parents already have submitted the paperwork for his release from the national letter-of-intent he signed with Memphis.

Henry, whose only official visits were to Kansas and Memphis, said he will reopen the recruiting process and consult with his family, adding that he has spoken with Calipari since the hiring announcement.

Then there's DeMarcus Cousins, a 6-foot-11 center from Mobile, Ala., who is ranked No. 4 on ESPNU's top 100. He verbally committed to Memphis earlier this month, but because he has not signed a national letter-of-intent, he can change his mind and pick another school.

Cousins, also in Miami for the McDonald's All-American game, said during a Tuesday news conference that the Wildcats would be an option if Calipari took the job.

"I would consider Kentucky," Cousins said. "I would open it all the way back up."

Calipari insists he told his now ex-team to stick with Memphis, not to waste a year sitting out. Johnson met with those Tigers on Wednesday afternoon. Freshman Tyreke Evans likely is gone to the NBA -- especially if he's a lottery pick. Junior Shawn Taggart will also test his draft status.

Junior guard Willie Kemp said he doesn't know who will stay. He does expect his teammates not to make a quick decision.

"Basically, everybody's saying they've just got to wait and see who's going to get in and who the coach is going to be," Kemp said.

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

And the bar is high: The most wins in 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.

But 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 having 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 of hours after the Conference USA tournament had ended and a couple of 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.

Information from ESPN.com's Andy Katz, ESPN's Quint Kessenich and The Associated Press was used in this report.

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