Is Memphis a Better Opportunity Than Tennessee?

I called my grandfather today, who lives just north of Memphis.  Wanted to get his take on Calipari's departure.  His thoughts:  "Reminds me of Elvis's funeral."

As Bruce Pearl and Mike Hamilton supposedly talk about a new contract opportunity at Tennessee, and rumors of $21 million dollars float around the FedEx Forum, fans of both programs left twisting in the wind are quick to defend their school's reasons that BruceBall should call Knoxville/Memphis home.

They are two very different opportunities six hours apart, and each with the same championship aspirations and hatred for the other.  While we attempt to separate some of the specific-to-Pearl facets of this question, it still is a fascinating issue:  which is the better opportunity for a college basketball coach right now:  the University of Tennessee, or the Tiger High School University of Memphis State?

The two programs have been among the nation's elite in the last four seasons, with Pearl and John Calipari forging a 2-2 tie since BruceBall came to Knoxville.  They share borders and recruiting wars, and have divided plenty of families in the Volunteer state.  Both are good opportunities...but which one is the best?  We take a look at the positives and negatives of both...   

TRADITION

First of all, the notion that Memphis is so much better at basketball than Tennessee is quickly dispelled by the fact that the Vols are 12-8 all-time against the Tigers. 

The Tigers have made 21 appearances in the NCAA Tournament, the Vols 17.  The difference between the two here is tournament success:  the Vols have made the Sweet 16 three times since the field expanded to 64 - all this decade -  but never any farther.  Memphis has made three Final Fours stretching back as far as 1973 (though the 1985 one was later forfeited) and has appearances in two National Championship games.

The relevant NBA talent pool is similarly small:  Elliot Perry, Penny Hardaway and Derrick Rose from Memphis; Bernard King, Dale Ellis and Allan Houston from Tennessee.

National perception would place Memphis higher in the average college basketball consciousness than Tennessee, but the Vols are catching up rapidly under Pearl.

CONFERENCE PLAY

The biggest advantage/disadvantage situation is here.  The Vols play in the SEC, which comes loaded for bear with a massive television contract with CBS and ESPN.  While 2009 was a down year for the league, the SEC is generally in the mix for the nation's third best basketball conference behind the ACC and Big East.  And Pearl has proven that you can win championships in this league in Knoxville. 

Meanwhile, Memphis was left out in the cold when Louisville and Cincinnati bolted for the Big East, making the Tigers the best team in a weak Conference USA.  Right now, Memphis has the easiest path to the NCAA Tournament of any school; the Tigers haven't lost a conference game in three years. 

What's the balance between playing in one of the nation's best and most competitive basketball conferences, and playing as the alpha dog in a second-rate league?

FACILITIES

You really can't go wrong either place.  Under Pearl's watch, Tennessee has enhanced Thompson-Boling Arena, which now seats 21,000, and built a brand new practice facility.  Memphis has the newer FedEx Forum, which seats just over 18,000 and also houses the Memphis Grizzlies.

ATMOSPHERE & ENVIRONMENT

(insert your jokes about the City of Memphis here)

The Tigers have to "compete" with the Grizzlies, but the out-of-balance success of both teams combined with the Tigers' longevity makes the Tigers an overwhelming favorite in that race.  And a coach might actually enjoy being the neighbor of an NBA team.

In Knoxville, you're competing in a losing battle with the football team, though Pearl has shown that Tennessee fans will care about basketball, especially when the product is winning.  You're also in the shadow of Pat Summitt, which probably has similar positives and negatives of being in the shadow of an NBA team.  However, Tennessee has shown their commitment to building a championship basketball program, and the coach involved with that ascension (which thus far has only been Pearl) would reap the longterm benefits of being the first guy to take the program to unprecedented heights.  There are certainly negatives to playing second or third fiddle on campus in Knoxville, but there are also positives that come with being associated with an overall culture and atmosphere of winning and championships that flows throughout the entire Tennessee Athletic Department.

The basketball coach at Memphis has a chance to be the king of the city.  The basketball coach at Tennessee does not.

The basketball coach at Memphis is also backed by deeper pockets, thanks to the friendly folks at FedEx, which also probably means...

MONEY

Simply put, I'm not sure Tennessee can compete with Memphis here.  If the Tigers were willing to make Calipari the highest paid coach in college basketball - by far - and the rumors about essentially doubling Pearl's base salary are true, Tennessee may not be able to out-bid Memphis, for Pearl or anyone.  Whether Mike Hamilton will say this out loud or not, there are concerns about the football vs. basketball vs. Pat Summitt salary structure, something Memphis has zero issues with.  The FedEx support suggests the Tigers will win this category not just against Tennessee, but against almost anyone in college basketball.

RECRUITING

Calipari (read:  Worldwide Wes) made a habit of recruiting nationally at Memphis, but often times there's no need.  The Vols have tried unsuccessfully to get the kids they wanted out of Memphis since Tony Harris signed with Tennessee (they did get Wayne Chism from just outside the area).  Certainly, recruiting is a huge advantage for the Tigers.

RETURNING TALENT

This always depends on who's going pro, but with Calipari leaving the assumption is that many of his recruits will go with him, and players like Tyreke Evans are also bolting from the banks of the Mississippi.  Tennessee also has Tyler Smith and Wayne Chism in NBA Draft conversations, but either way it certainly appears right now that the Vols will have more talent for the 2009-10 season.  Again, the recruiting factor suggests that the Vols will almost always have to work harder to maintain that advantage.

So...

These are two great opportunities (something that wasn't necessarily as true in Knoxville until Pearl showed up), and it really comes down to what you like and think is most important.  If it's all about money, the answer is probably Memphis.  If you want to win right now, your chances are better in the immediate future at Tennessee.  If you want to win longterm, your chances are better at Memphis simply because of the recruiting talent around you.  If you want to dominate lesser competition and be the city's main attraction, go to Beale Street.  If you want to compete with the nation's best every week and take a program to unprecedented heights, come to Rocky Top.

All things being equal, I'm just still not convinced that a Conference USA school is a better place to be than at a school that's winning championships in the SEC.  You'll have an easier path to March and probably higher seeds at Memphis, because right now you can steamroll the rest of C-USA.  But you have a better opportunity to rise in the national consciousness in the SEC, where you're on TV all year long and not just during your non-conference schedule. 

I also think that if Pearl stays in Knoxville (or someone else came in and continued the program's ascension), Tennessee's program ultimately has a higher ceiling, even if right now Memphis is closer to their ceiling. 

And the Vols are ultimately going to have to win more in March to get where they want to go...which is something Pearl or anyone coaching in Knoxville would strive to do.

What about you?  Why is Memphis or Tennessee a better opportunity?  And did we leave anything out?

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