Remember Gordon Bombay? He was the reckless coach of the peewee hockey team in Disney’s Mighty Ducks trilogy, a one-time lawyer sentenced to community service that found himself through hanging out with teenagers. A wild-and-crazy hotshot who settles into the role of mentor in the first Ducks installment, Bombay regresses to his me-first ways as a sellout public figure in D2, the second edition of Ducks. By D3, Bombay has left the coaching box for a return to the courtroom, though still cameos as the once-again compassionate, loving patriarch of the Flying V.
Such is the life of Memphis men’s basketball coach John Calipari. From 1988 to 1996, Calipari was the on-the-rise head man at the University of Massachusetts. Thanks to one Marcus Camby (aka Ducks’ captain Charlie Conway, aka future Dawson’s Creek co-star Joshua Jackson), Calipari led the ’96 Minutemen to their first-ever Final Four appearance, whereupon his team was defeated by eventual champion Kentucky. Nevertheless, Calipari carved his own Ducks-like sequel, bolting UMass for the glitz and glamour of the NBA, where the stay at the top was short-lived. In two-plus seasons with the New Jersey Nets, Coach Cal comprised a mediocre 72-112 win-loss record, all but punching his return ticket to the college basketball ranks.
Though Calipari spent the 1999-2000 season as an assistant with the Philadelphia 76ers, he quickly realized his true calling, like Bombay’s, was hanging out with teens. He returned to the NCAA with the Memphis Tigers of Conference USA. Like UMass of the Atlantic 10 Conference, Memphis was a relative unknown before Calipari’s arrival. Since 2000, Calipari has taken the Tigers’ basketball program to unanticipated levels of success, including four straight conference titles and an appearance in the National Championship game in 2008. His tenure as the biggest of fish in the smallest of ponds has been nothing if not serendipitous.
And that’s where the story should end. If Calipari can take anything from the fictional Bombay, it’s the fact that finding happiness in your surroundings, no matter how humble, is the key to a wonderful life. Instead, Calipari is flirting with the thought of the big-time sequel, once again. The University of Kentucky has come calling, and Coach Cal is listening. This is the New Jersey Nets all over again, the stormy D2 to the utopian prequel. What doesn’t Calipari understand?
Making the jump to the bigger pond would be a mistake. Selling out to the storied program with the powerful boosters and the billboard marquee name might seem like the right move, but it wouldn’t work out. The money wouldn’t last when wins evaporated and morphed into losing seasons. The big name would lose its luster amidst the pressure-cooker environment of impossible expectations. Worse yet, fans and pundits would use the term that no one wants to hear: Sellout. Calipari would become a nomad of coaching, accused of using each subsequent layover as a launchpad to the next green pasture. His integrity would be questioned, his loyalty tested. John Calipari needs to understand that if it ain’t broke, there’s no need to fix it. And right now, having built a powerful empire at Memphis, there is nothing to fix.