A Full-Court Press Beats John Calipari

College basketball season starts this month, and I already have some great news for round ball fans across the Volunteer State. It’s news you’re going to love whether you’re a fan of the Memphis Tigers, the Vanderbilt Commodores or the Tennessee Gentlemen Vols. (I refer to the Tennessee men’s basketball team as the “Gentlemen Vols” to distinguish them from the real Tennessee team, the Lady Vols).

Are you ready for this? The season hasn’t even started, and Kentucky Coach John Calipari has already suffered a big defeat.

You read that right, Dick Vitale-breath! Coach Cal is already 0 and 1! He was trapped by a full-court press administered by three Memphis lawyers.

Basketball fans will recall that back in 2007-2008, John Calipari was coaching the Memphis Tigers and led them to the greatest season in their storied basketball history. The Tigers won 38 games, went to the Final Four, and came within one free throw of winning the national championship before losing to the Kansas Jayhawks in overtime.

Or so we thought. In August 2009, the NCAA Infractions Committee found that the Tigers’ star player, Derrick Rose (now an NBA superstar for the Chicago Bulls) should not have participated in any of the Tigers’ games that season. The reason? Well apparently when Derrick was a senior in high school, he sat on the bench during his Scholastic Aptitude Test, allowing a substitute to, shall we say, fill in for him. Since the Tigers’ main man was an ineligible player, the committee ordered the University of Memphis to vacate all its wins in the 2007-2008 season. The committee also “vacated” the Tigers’ appearance in the 2008 Final Four. Suddenly, instead of a record of 38-2, the Tigers’ official record became 0-40.

Moreover, with the ruling, Coach Cal became the only basketball coach in NCAA history to take two teams to the Final Four only to have the NCAA later rule that he didn’t. You see, for Coach Cal, the 2007-2008 season was simply déjà vu all over again, since when he was coaching at the University of Massachusetts several years ago, he took a team to the Final Four, only he didn’t, since the NCAA Infractions Committee vacated that Final Four appearance as well.

But by the time the NCAA ruling came down, Coach Cal was no longer in River City. He had headed to Lexington to be the new basketball coach at the University of Kentucky, just as he had left Amherst, Mass., before the NCAA vacated UMass’ Final Four appearance. If he follows true to form, he will someday lead Kentucky to a Final Four appearance, only he really won’t, since it will be vacated by the NCAA for rules violations, although he will be somewhere else by the time the University of Kentucky (not he) gets punished.

Believe it or not, the story gets worse. When Coach Cal fled River City in the spring of 2009, he didn’t go alone. He took the nation’s number one recruiting class with him, featuring three star players who had all signed to play basketball at the University of Memphis, only they didn’t. The fine print of their scholarship papers contained an escape clause. Their commitment (sic) to the University of Memphis was null and void if Cal wasn’t coaching there. In other words, if he skipped town, they could go with him.

When Cal pulled his U-Haul out of River City loaded with his posse of star players, he had lots of money in his pocket. Not only had he signed a contract with the University of Kentucky for $4 million a year, the University of Memphis had paid him a bonus of $355,000 for his successful 2007-2008 season. Now remember, basketball fans, the official record for that season was 0-40, but Coach Cal collected his $355,000 bonus before he saw Graceland in his rearview mirror.

Memphis Tiger basketball fans were outraged. But there was nothing they could do about it, right? It was a classic example of the Golden Rule: He who has the gold, makes the rules.

But there were three Memphis Tiger basketball fans who decided they would try to do something about it. And unfortunately for Coach Cal, they were three high-powered Memphis lawyers: Martin Zummach, Frank L. Watson III and William Burns. The Memphis legal trio threatened to file a class action lawsuit against Coach Cal and the University of Memphis, contending that Coach Cal was responsible for making 2009-2010 season tickets and future season tickets worth less than they had anticipated.

According to the Memphis Commercial Appeal, the University’s legal counsel advised the Memphis lawyers that their threatened complaint was “baseless factually and legally.”

But attorneys Zummach, Watson and Burns were undeterred. They started the full-court press and basically told Coach Cal and the University that they better get ready to play another overtime game from the 2007-2008 season.

In the face of a front court of three tough Memphis lawyers, Coach Cal folded like a cheap bleacher seat. He agreed to pay the bonus back ($232,000 after tax dollars) by contributing it to the University of Memphis Scholarship Fund. And that’s not all. Coach Cal and his potential co-defendants agreed to pay the legal team of Zummach, Watson and Burns $100,000 in attorney’s fees.

It was a legal slam-dunk! Zummach, Watson and Burns can now afford to buy their own skybox at FedEx Forum or courtside seats for Grizzlies games.

Well, I’m hoping this will not be the last of threatened class action lawsuits on behalf of aggrieved sports fans.

For example, I sure wish some outstanding lawyers in Knoxville would file a class action lawsuit against Lane Kiffin for intentional infliction of emotional distress. And they should name Ed Orgeron as a co-defendant.

Or how about a lawsuit to repossess Bruce Pearl’s orange blazer? He’d probably just give it up. I mean, where is he going to wear it now, to a barbeque at his house? (No cameras, please!)

And how about a class action suit against Nick Saban? It would be, in effect, a legal make-up call, given the fact that several years ago, disgruntled Alabama fans filed a lawsuit against Phillip Fulmer, the University of Tennessee, and the NCAA, alleging that there had been a vast Big Orange conspiracy to do in the football program at the University of Alabama.

That lawsuit was dismissed by an Alabama judge (he was probably an Auburn fan), but only after Alabama started beating Tennessee again.

But even if no other sports class action lawsuits are filed, I think the legal trio of Zummach, Watson and Burns should be honored at halftime at a Tigers basketball game this winter. They deserve to have their three-piece suits retired and hoisted to the rafters of the FedEx Forum!


Bill Haltom BILL HALTOM is a partner with the Memphis firm of Thomason, Hendrix, Harvey, Johnson & Mitchell. He is past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and is a past president of the Memphis Bar Association.