John Calipari’s Recent Stance Conjures the Time He Ruined an Arkansas Basketball Rivalry

John Calipari, Eric Musselman, Arkansas basketball
photo credit: Nick Wenger

When I was a child, my assumption was Arkansas and Memphis were rivals. Real, honest-to-goodness, did-not-like-each-other rivals. It made sense when I applied kid-logic to it. What I knew about other rivalries was that they were built on history and geography. By the time I was old enough to actually understand what sports were on a level deeper than “my favorite team won,” Arkansas and Memphis had established itself as a year-in, year-out affair on the basketball court.

In fact, from 1991-92 through the 2002-03, the two squared off every season. In two of those seasons they even played twice, meeting again in the NCAA Tournament in 1992 and 1995. Even then it wasn’t new. The Hogs and Tigers met six times in the 1970s, as well, with Arkansas taking an 11-10 lead in the all-time series.

Those days seem long past gone. In certain ways they are. Only a handful of Arkansas’ or Memphis’ current players were even alive the last time Arkansas and Memphis played. John Calipari, who now coaches Kentucky, was coaching the Tigers back then. He’s the one who put a stop to the series. Nevermind the animus created when Memphis assistant Tony Barbee and Arkansas guard J.J. Sullinger met up, so to speak, in a Razorback win in Memphis in 2002. 

“We have to play national games,” Calipari told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 2002. “You can’t play regional games if you’re being a national program. We don’t need Arkansas to sell out our building.”

Lo, the irony of Calipari now getting Arkansas at least once – and sometimes, like next season, twice – every year and Barbee later coaching Auburn and getting the Hogs every year.

John Calipari’s Interesting Scheduling Philosophy

Now Calipari is practically watering at the mouth of playing a home-and-home with a national program in Gonzaga.

The kicker is what followed.

Certainly, the Arkansas basketball program was coming back to Earth at the time of the Memphis cancellation. The Nolan Richardson drama was practically at its peak for the Razorbacks. But the notion that Arkansas was not a national program was absurd. Even in its nadir, the Hogs program was still a prestigious brand with only an odd decrepit year here and there, even if John Calipari felt otherwise when so quickly dismissed Frank Broyles’ offer to become the next Arkansas basketball coach after Stan Heath’s firing in 2007.

It was the average years that feel bad for Arkansas fans in retrospect, but that feeling only exists because of the heights previously known. It will be the same at some point when this iteration of Razorbacks falls from its height (that doesn’t appear to be any time soon).

Gonzaga is a national program, no doubt. Memphis, too. In fact, for a brief time earlier in the 2000s, Memphis even outshone Arkansas on the national stage. Consider that in 2008 ESPN put together a list of its more prestigious college basketball programs since 1984 and put Memphis at No. 14, just one spot ahead of Arkansas.

In certain regards, when it comes to Kentucky-Gonzaga, Calipari has a point. National rivalries draw bigger national attention. The Arkansas basketball program is back to being among the nation’s best, but it’s only been two years. They’re not yet among the hob-nobbers of the elite when it comes to national recognition by the commoners, even after Arkansas took down No. 1 seed Gonzaga just a few months ago. Shoot, it’s part of the reason coach Eric Musselman is as gregarious as he is on Twitter. Building a brand, in this day and age, is as important as actually accomplishing anything (see: Lane Kiffin), for the first part can often help the second. No one in the country is as good at it as Muss.

Finding a Non-Conference Rival for Arkansas Basketball

What is the biggest bummer, though, isn’t Calipari’s feelings about Arkansas basketball from 20 years ago. That’s long since passed. But the Razorbacks don’t have a consistent out-of-league rival. Now, granted, the game isn’t as conducive to such things anymore. It’s unlikely the second part of Calipari’s tweet will come true to the point where Kentucky and Gonzaga are playing every season for 10 straight the way Arkansas and Memphis did. Rivalry games like that are fun, though. Hogs-Tigers sure was.

But who would it be? What’s a program similar in stature to Arkansas that would make for such quality? Kansas might be aiming a bit too high, even if the geography fits. Texas is moot because the Longhorns will join the SEC in the next few years. Same with Oklahoma, a team the Razorbacks lost to last year but will get another shot at this year.

Hold on.

Wait a second.

I’ve got it.


Seriously. Bring it back. The Tigers are itching to become nationally relevant again. They’re getting close to being an occasional blip on the radar as it is and are just one season removed from having the best recruiting class in the country.

Five years ago, it looked like we were on the brink of getting the Arkansas-Memphis rivalry back. Former Memphis basketball coach Tubby Smith said he didn’t think that she of Calipari’s apparent concerns about losing local talent to a cross-border rival had remained as relevant.

Recruiting Concerns for Memphis Basketball

“We have a hotbed for talent here and certainly I know when Nolan Richardson was there, he did pretty well recruiting that region, especially the Memphis area,” Smith said. “But you know, recruiting has changed so much over the last 10 years, five years. Kids are going to be going where they want to go anyways. It’s a pretty mobile society, so I’m not concerned about that.”

Smith said he and former Arkansas basketball coach Mike Anderson were on the cusp of a renewed series that Anderson predicted would start in 2018-19. “We’ve talked about it and … I’m sure we can work out dates and stuff,” Smith said in a video posted by the Arkansas Democrat Gazette. “We’ll get that done. I’m looking forward to it.”

Within a couple years both Smith and Anderson had been fired, but Smith’s successor also has as incentive to restart the series.

Current Tigers coach Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway is an iconic figure in the game, so that helps draw the star power, too. He and Arkansas basketball legend Todd Day are both Memphis natives and remain friends. 

Like Smith, Hardaway has said multiple times that he wants to restart the Arkansas-Memphis basketball rivalry. “I want to play all the teams that we used to play back in the day to get the rivalries going again,” Hardaway said in 2018. “I would love to play Arkansas. … I’m definitely going to be the guy that wants to get those rivalries going again the way they were back in the day.”

And yet, the two sides can’t come to an agreement to actually overcome John Calipari’s bone-headed decision to squelch the rivalry all those years ago. Whatever the hang-up, it’s time to get past it. Penny, Musselman: Let’s get Arkansas-Memphis going again. I mean, honestly, what’s not to like?

Take a trip down memory lane with these Arkansas basketball highlights vs. Memphis in 1995…

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More coverage of Arkansas basketball from BoAS…

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