Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Tennessee Trio in Sixteen

Tennessee trio put Final Four bids, alliances on the line

By Gary Parrish

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- John Calipari has spent the past few years using an East Coast attitude to antagonize his friends from the eastern part of this state.

The Memphis coach has at different times insisted on no longer playing Tennessee, promised to only play the Vols on a neutral court and explained in detail why Bruce Pearl is at a disadvantage in attempting to come into his city and recruit.

John Calipari is from the East Coast, but he mixes it up in Tennessee. (Getty Images)
John Calipari is from the East Coast, but he mixes it up in Tennessee. (Getty Images)
It started as friendly banter. It became heated dialogue.

So though Calipari remains more Pittsburgh than Memphis in many ways, one thing he inherited long ago is a disdain for Good Ole Rocky Top. It's a sizeable disdain, and the man has never wavered, privately or publicly.

Until now.

"All of their fans should be rooting for us and all of our fans should be rooting for them," Calipari said. "We should be cheering for each other."

Ah, strength in numbers.

It's a sensible strategy on the surface, considering the state of Tennessee has a numbers advantage in this NCAA Tournament. Memphis and Tennessee remain in the South Regional and Vanderbilt is in the East Regional -- meaning this state known more for its musical contributions to Rock 'n' Roll (Sun Studio), Country and Western (The Grand Ole Opry), Southern Soul (Stax Records), Rhythm and Blues (Beale Street) and Rap (Hustle and Flow) is the largest contributor to the Sweet 16 with three institutions that are just two wins from the Final Four.

"It's incredible," Calipari said. "What my man (Kevin Stallings) is doing at Vanderbilt is incredible, what Tennessee is doing is great and then we're hanging around, too. So it's kinda nice."

But can everybody play nice?

That's the question, and to fully understand why it's not as easy as it sounds you have to understand the state of Tennessee and the divisions that exist. For the most part, east Tennessee (Knoxville/UT) and middle Tennessee (Nashville/Vanderbilt) despise west Tennessee (Memphis/U of M), and vice versa. The people of Memphis believe the people of Nashville are snobs and the people of Knoxville are rednecks, and the people of Nashville and Knoxville both believe the people of Memphis spend most of the week robbing and shooting each other.

They are wild stereotypes, to be sure. But they exist.

Why didn't Harold Ford Jr. win his U.S. Senate race last year?

Analysts believed it wasn't just because he was a black man running in the south or a Democrat running in a conservative state. The real problem was Ford is a black democrat from Memphis, and that's a hell of a combination to overcome in the eyes of everything outside a 60-mile radius of Memphis.

Plus, Ford is a Tiger supporter; it's doubtful that helped in any way.

Which brings us back to the Sweet 16 and San Antonio, where Memphis and Tennessee fans have converged for the weekend.

The Tigers play Texas A&M in the first game Thursday just before the Vols play Ohio State. Depending on the outcomes and how much alcohol is consumed, don't be surprised if the two schools' contingents shimmy over to the Alamo and re-enact the famous 19th century battle at some point late Thursday night.

But Calipari has offered a truce.

"I'm not going to paint my body orange," he said. "But I might wear an orange shirt."

Gotta start somewhere. Baby steps and all that.

Anyway, when I heard this proposal I decided to call Pearl. I wanted to know whether he was down with the idea. So I asked whether he was down with the idea.

"I'm absolutely down with it," answered Pearl, who added he had already called to congratulate Calipari and Stallings. "Tennessee and Memphis are sister schools in a way, from the same system. So I don't think there's any question we should be rooting for each other."

And what if Memphis and Tennessee both win Thursday and play Saturday with a trip to the Final Four at stake?

"It would be great for the state," Pearl said.

"Then we draw the line in the sand and it's back to civil war," Calipari added. "But up until then we should be rooting for each other."

Bipartisan basketball at its finest.

But in a search to determine whether the notion of Memphis and Tennessee fans uniting is realistic, I bounced the idea off a man with ties to each school. His name is Keith Easterwood, and he's an AAU coach in the state of Tennessee who has worked with players in both programs and regularly talks with both staffs.

Can Memphis root for Tennessee? Can Tennessee root for Memphis?

"It's a nice warm fuzzy thought, but it goes against the grain for too many people," Easterwood said. "I don't think it's going to happen."

In other words, see you at the Alamo late Thursday night.

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