Monday, June 29, 2009

Q&A: Dan Wolken of The Memphis Commercial-Appeal

Since John Calipari made the move from Memphis to Lexington, I have spent numerous hours visiting various Memphis-media sites. I have covered everything from the infamous door, to R.J. Corman private planes, to the recruitment of Lance Stephenson lately. In fact, I would say (quietly of course) that I am becoming somewhat of a Memphis basketball fan. If the Tigers ever face the Kentucky Wildcats, I will be religiously cheering for the Cats, but I am hopeful that Josh Pastner will continue to build on Calipari's progress at Memphis.

One Memphis site that I frequent is, which is associated with several journalists from The Memphis Commercial-Appeal newspaper. I enjoy the articles written by Dan Wolken, who has been with the Commerical-Appeal since 2006.

Over the weekend, I caught-up with Dan for a Q&A session. I thought it would be interesting to get his take on the events that have taken place in the basketball programs at Memphis and Kentucky.

BSB: Dan, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to chat with me. Let's start by telling the readers a little about yourself. How long you’ve worked for The Commerical-Appeal and how long have you been covering the Tigers?

Wolken: I started at the CA in October 2006. My first story was about Derrick Rose coming on an official visit. I had worked in Colorado Springs previously, and had been talking to the people in Memphis for a couple months about the job (it came open when Gary Parrish went to CBS but it took awhile to get everything finalized. I didn’t have much time to dip my toes in the water, so to speak. I had to get a running start into the 06-07 season, and it’s pretty much been nonstop craziness ever since.

BSB: Talk a little about the Memphis program during Calipari’s tenure. What changes did you see with the program from the hiring of Calipari to the time he left for Kentucky?

Wolken: My tenure here basically covers the last third of the Calipari era at Memphis, and each third was markedly different. The first third was marked by a lot of expectations and some disappointment. He brought in Dajuan Wagner as his first big recruit, and that was a huge deal, but things didn’t really work out the way people thought. In the second third, the program started to improve, but there was a lot of off-court drama. His fifth year was definitely the toughest. That was supposed to be “the” team, but it was just a disaster with Sean Banks and all of his troubles. When that team didn’t make the NCAA Tournament, there were definitely some people questioning the direction of the program. Then in Calipari’s sixth year, when he brought in the Laurinburg guys, things changed dramatically. I came in right after that year, and the program pretty much blew up from that point on. I think it’s fair to say that, over the course of nine years, pretty much everything about the program changed. Facilities, travel, the way the program recruited, the way it was perceived nationally, the fan base. You could go on and on. But much of that happened in the last 3-4 years. It just absolutely exploded. John demanded a lot from the AD and boosters, and he got a lot, but in the long run the investment they made will pay off because the program now has the infrastructure in place to maintain at a high level.

BSB: What was the general consensus of how the fans in Memphis felt and reacted upon the announcement that Calipari was leaving?

Wolken: I think any time a coach leaves, there’s going to be that sense of betrayal and disappointment among the fan base. It was especially pronounced with this situation because Memphis fans felt like they were going to be No. 1 in the country again in 2009-10 with the recruiting class that was coming in. And the reality is, Memphis really needed that recruiting class. Some guys had been encouraged to leave to make room for new recruits. There had been some recruiting misses the last couple years, guys Memphis maybe shouldn’t have taken and some other guys they passed on that turned out to be very good. Some veteran guys hadn’t developed like they had hoped. It was obvious that Calipari wasn’t real happy with the roster. He had talked all year long about bringing in eight, maybe nine new guys. The mix of one-and-dones, four-year guys and junior college transfers would have basically reset the roster for the next few years.
Then he leaves, and poof, that recruiting class is gone. For the fan base, it was a huge shock to the system. When you looked at the roster the day he left, you’re like, “Can these guys even field a team next year?” Plus, Calipari said a couple things during the whole process that he probably shouldn’t have said. Getting off the plane in Memphis after the Sweet 16 game and telling the fan base, “Memphis is where I want to coach,” then turning around and taking the Kentucky job a couple days later didn’t endear him to people here.

BSB: Why do you feel it took a successful coach like Calipari this long to get a BCS coaching position? Are you aware of any other BCS offers he has received during his tenure at Memphis?

Wolken: He could have taken any number of jobs, but the reality is that Memphis was the best setup for him until the moment Kentucky came after him, and he knew that. He had total control over every aspect of the program, all the resources he could want, and a guaranteed No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament every year as long as he was recruiting guys like Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans. The only time he ever seriously thought about leaving was the N.C. State situation in 2006, which was really more about a contract dispute with the athletic director that eventually got smoothed over. Arkansas made him a very good offer the next year, good enough that he had to at least look at it, but I don’t think he ever seriously considered going there. But it is true that he had been largely overlooked for the traditionally elite jobs (UK, Indiana, UCLA) before this year. My guess is that Calipari, for a long time, had to fight off the reputation for being a great recruiter but average coach (which, for the most part, was unfair). And there was probably some skepticism about his past, especially regarding the UMass/Camby situation.

BSB: As someone that has watched many Memphis games under Calipari, talk a little about his DDM offense and the strengths/weaknesses you’ve noticed in his game plans and in-game adjustments.

Wolken: You know, it’s remarkable to me how much people talk about the DDM, which is exactly why Calipari runs it (I think he’s selling those videotapes now; someone told me it’s like $200 bucks for the set.) But to me, the genius of Calipari is pretty simple. He recruits really good players and gets them to play really hard. Everything else is kind of just fan fodder. I would contend that if you put Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts in your backcourt, you can run pretty much any offense you want and those guys are going to kill people in college basketball. As far as the DDM itself, it’s definitely wide open; guys have freedom in that system, and it’s a good sell on the recruiting trail. Otherwise, I’m not a huge fan of it. I saw Memphis get taken out of that offense way, way too much by zones and junk defenses, and it can look downright ugly when that happens and shots aren’t falling. The fact is, when teams go zone, you can’t really run the DDM. You have to have make shots and force teams to go back to man. That was really the flaw for Memphis last year, and Calipari knew that. Every time I talked to him, he lamented the fact that they hadn’t recruited enough shooters and was really in the process of changing his recruiting approach to get more guys who could make shots even if they weren’t as athletic. If you look at the game tapes, Memphis barely ran the DDM at all last year. There’s no doubt that going to the DDM when he did made Calipari think differently about basketball, and I think it really rejuvenated his career. On the other hand, I know a couple coaches who would take you into the film room and just trash it. At the end of the day, it’s really all about players.

Having said that, Calipari is very underrated as a practice coach. People don’t really talk about that, which is unfair. The stuff about “just rolling the ball out” is bunk. There are coaches who just roll the ball out; I’ve seen them. But watching Calipari in action would dispel that notion pretty quickly. I think for the most part, he and Robic also do a very good job of putting together a gameplan (the Missouri game notwithstanding) for their guys. They totally coached circles around Ben Howland at the Final Four a couple years ago. This last year at Tennessee, they had a brilliant plan to hold the ball and slow the game down, and it worked. I was shocked they didn’t do the same against Missouri in the NCAAs. Instead, they tried to run, and that was a fatally bad decision. The main criticism I’d have of Calipari as a coach is that he gets too emotionally wrapped up in the heat of the game. During games, I don’t think he coaches for strategy nearly as much as he coaches for effort. If a guy doesn’t give an effort on a play, he’s coming out. That’s what he’s watching for at least 95% of the time. He is as animated and borderline maniacal on the sidelines as any coach in the country, always imploring guys to play harder or run faster. But hey, guys play really, really hard for him.

BSB: Calipari is without question an excellent recruiter. He has brought in top-level talent at all stops in his career, but his recruiting success has not been without criticism. As someone that followed the program closely, have you noticed any red flags that would make you question Calipari’s recruiting practices?

Wolken: Any coach who recruits the top players in the country spends a lot of time working in the gray areas. Package deals, hiring someone close to a player, etc. – Calipari certainly isn’t the only coach who has done that stuff. And one thing I know is true is that any successful coach is going to have to deal with a lot of questionable characters along the way, because top-level players attract questionable characters. The two issues that have gotten a lot of attention specific to Calipari are the academic stuff and the stuff with William Wesley, or “Worldwide Wes.” Calipari’s run at Memphis was built on a bunch of guys who came from Laurinburg Prep, which had a lot of question marks attached to it when the prep school scandal came up a couple years ago. It’s especially relevant now in light of the Derrick Rose/SAT stuff. With Wes, you know, that’s a topic that we’d need a lot more time to discuss fully, but a lot of people have questions about him and what exactly he does and how he makes his living. I’m not sure Wes ever intended to get this famous, but certainly everyone who follows recruiting closely knows about him.

BSB: We have already witnessed the first few of what will likely be many Memphis/Kentucky recruiting battles. Calipari and Pastner are both excellent recruiters that go after similar types of players. How do you see the Calipari-Pastner recruiting battles playing out?

Wolken: Despite what we’ve seen with Eric Bledsoe and Will Barton, I’m not really sure how often they’ll go head-to-head. It will happen occasionally, but Pastner’s most fertile recruiting territory is going to be Memphis, Mississippi, Texas, etc. Calipari will work New York, Philly, D.C., etc. Pastner will pick his spots against Cal, and if there’s a particular circumstance or relationship that he can use to his advantage, he’ll have a good chance to get a kid. Otherwise, it’s going to be tough. They’ll probably also battle over some Memphis kids; at least that’s the word around town. There’s a lot of talent here in the 2010, 2011 and 2012 classes, but I think it will be hard for Cal. It’s the same reason why good players from Memphis never go to Tennessee. Bruce Pearl and his staff have spent a ton of time here, and they haven’t gotten anybody out of Memphis. There’s just so much anti-Tennessee sentiment around the Memphis kids that, at the end of the day, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for them to go there when it’s a shorter drive to Arkansas, Alabama, Missouri, Georgia Tech, etc., and they don’t have to deal with the grief. The anti-Kentucky sentiment, at least right now, is comparable, and Calipari will have the added challenge here of overcoming his history with the Memphis high school coaches. Calipari didn’t recruit Memphis kids when he was here, and when he left the relationship between the Memphis program and the local recruiting scene was in a state of disrepair. Pastner has turned that around, and it would surprise me if he doesn’t get most of the players out of Memphis that he wants.

BSB: What are your thoughts on Elliot Williams?

Wolken: Elliot is indeed coming to Memphis. It’s a big deal for the program. Local kid, great kid, great academically and a heck of a player. It’s unfortunate that he ends up at Memphis this way, because his mom is sick. He should still be at Duke, but nonetheless, having a kid like that back home is a huge story locally.

BSB: Your thoughts on Lance Stephenson? Is Memphis still hoping to land Stephenson?

Wolken: I doubt it, especially now that Elliot Williams is in the fold. The Memphis staff tried really hard to get on Lance, and they had some conversations early on. But then, from what I’ve heard, the Memphis staff couldn’t reach Lance or his father for a time. Once the Stephensons stopped returning phone calls, the Memphis staff pretty much stopped calling.

BSB: How do you see Kentucky’s season playing out? How do you see Memphis’ season playing out?

Wolken: It will be extremely interesting to watch Kentucky this year with a whole team of guys who have never been coached by John before. Obviously, they’re loaded with terrific players, but it might take awhile for things to click. Derrick Rose wasn’t an elite college player until mid-February. Tyreke Evans was horrendous until mid-January. Even with guys of that ability level, it doesn’t happen automatically. Kentucky will certainly be a Sweet 16 caliber team. They’ll have an opportunity to go further if they figure out who’s going to make perimeter shots, since that seems to be an area of concern right now.

I have no clue where to peg Memphis, and especially since we don’t know for sure yet if Elliot Williams is going to be eligible. If he is, I think Memphis will be picked first or second in Conference USA and could be a top-25 type team if things fall the right way.

Check out Dan Wolken's work at:

The Memphis Edge

The Memphis Commercial-Appeal

Follow Dan on Twitter


Anonymous said...

Nice work

BluegrassHoopster said...

Dan was a great interview. Thanks!

AdamLuckey said...

Great, informative stuff.

Rob Smith said...

Loved this interview and I like the site in general. I have linked it many times and would love for you guys to check out my site at I'm always up for constructive criticism as I've only had the blog up for almost a month. Thanks for the hard work!!

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