The Thompson-Boling experience
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MEMPHIS - You'd think Bruce Pearl would rather play this game tonight anywhere but the FedEx Forum, where Tennessee will incur the full wrath of the Memphis Tigers' homecourt advantage.
You'd think John Calipari would be ecstatic he's got the Vols in his house tonight.
You'd be wrong on both counts.
It's the biggest regular-season college basketball game ever in the state of Tennessee. And it almost did not get played over a dispute about where to play.
In the fall of 2003, long before Pearl came to Knoxville to resurrect the Vols from mediocrity, the future of any athletic endeavors between UT and Memphis was at an impasse.
Calipari didn't especially want to play Tennessee - whom he dismissed as a "regional power" - and absolutely not on a home-and-home basis.
UT's first-year athletic director Mike Hamilton had to dangle football as leverage to get the Tigers to extend the basketball series that would lead to the monster game that will be played here tonight between the top two teams in America.
That November, Hamilton said the remaining four UT-Memphis football games under contract were off. No basketball? OK, no football.
A peace committee of former president Jimmy Carter, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Dick Vitale brought the two schools to the table and coaxed a new agreement to continue both sports.
Just kidding about that part. But it was a hard-ball negotiation.
In December 2003, UT agreed to play Memphis in football five times in a nine-year period. The Tigers agreed to an eight-year home-and-home basketball contract that renewed in 2005-06.
Tonight will be the third game in that series.
"Continuing the basketball series was something we felt like was important to us," Hamilton said recently.
Especially continuing it in Memphis. And there's the rub.
Tennessee feels it has much to gain by showing up in Memphis, even if only every other year.
Calipari, meanwhile, champions a UT-Memphis annual showdown in Nashville called the Governor's Cup.
Two basketball powers. Two agendas.
Pearl heartily endorses the importance of playing in Memphis to bolster recruiting.
"It's a known fact the best high school basketball is played in West Tennessee," he said. "Did (playing in Memphis) help us recruit Wayne Chism? No question.
"Without Wayne Chism I think our program would not be anywhere near where it is."
Besides, UT is the state's flagship university. Pearl wants to connect with fans outside Knox County. That's why he plays in Chattanooga and Nashville as well as Memphis.
"Part of it is the way the state is shaped," he said. "We need to take the show on the road."
They need to make a show at home, too. UT has a 21,000-seat arena to fill.
"We have to sell tickets," Pearl said. "If you're Texas and want to play Tennessee, we go home-and-home. Even the Atlantic 10 teams like Xavier and Temple, we go home and home."
For Calipari's part, the Tigers have little following in East Tennessee and don't recruit there. Why go to Knoxville?
"How about if (tonight's game) was a neutral site?" Calipari said. "And they had half the tickets and we had half the tickets and it becomes the event of events and it takes the state of Tennessee absolutely to another level?
"I'm a big-picture guy. ... Now some people will fight it for selfish reasons but it's bigger than all that."
His neutral site is Nashville. Calipari feels Memphis gets short shrift from the legislature. He wants to showcase his program in front of those who control the purse strings.
"The University of Memphis," said Hamilton, "has the opportunity to schedule games in Nashville. It doesn't have to be Tennessee."
Tonight is a showcase. It happens to be in Memphis, but would be no less of a showcase in Knoxville or Nashville.
Two basketball powers, two agendas.
I don't much care where they play, just as long as they play.
Mike Strange may be reached at 865-342-6276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.