John Calipari-Mark Stoops spat makes me wonder if Tennessee is a basketball school | Toppmeyer

Blake Toppmeyer

Phillip Fulmer got one thing – and maybe only one thing – right during his tenure as Tennessee’s athletics director: UT is a football school.

Fulmer frequently said he’d be a football-focused AD because of the sport’s ability to be a driving force for Tennessee athletics. The Vols didn’t solve their football tailspin under Fulmer’s watch, instead continuing their feeble march since they last won the SEC East in 2007.

Meanwhile, men’s basketball and baseball ascended thanks to heightened success under popular coaches, but even so, Tennessee remains a football school. And hopefulness abounds entering Josh Heupel’s second season, after his seven-win debut.

Still, based purely on performance, Tennessee looks more like a basketball school (or even a baseball school) in the past five years. Rick Barnes’ Vols made the NCAA Tournament in four of the past five seasons. They ranked in the AP Top 25 entering March Madness in three of those years. By comparison, UT football has gone five straight years without a Top 25 finish.

I thought about Tennessee during last week’s spat between Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari and his football counterpart, Mark Stoops, about whether the Wildcats are a basketball or football school. While campaigning for a new practice facility, Calipari touted his program's bona fides.

“This is a basketball school. It’s always been that,” Calipari told The Athletic. “Alabama is a football school. So is Georgia. I mean, they are. No disrespect to our football team. I hope they win 10 games and go to bowls … but this is a basketball school.”

Stoops fired back on Twitter. He suggested that UK is a football school and drew attention to the recent disparity in postseason success compared to Wildcats basketball.

It’s a ridiculous debate that started because Stoops got itchy Twitter thumbs, a move you’d expect more from a college athlete than a veteran coach.

Stoops embarrassed himself by suggesting his program, which has five Top 25 finishes since Bear Bryant’s final season in 1953, had surpassed one of college basketball’s bluest of blue bloods.

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Stoops is Kentucky football’s most accomplished coach since Bryant, even if he does play one of the SEC’s softest schedules each year. But if Stoops were the coach at almost any other SEC school, he’d have been fired by now. Two Top 25 finishes in nine seasons earns pink slip, not praise, at “a football school.”

As it stands, Stoops' reputation is soaring after a 10-win season in which Kentucky won the Citrus Bowl. That’s the basketball equivalent of reaching the Sweet 16. Such a season for UK hoops would not be celebrated.

Calipari has taken Kentucky to four Final Fours, but none since 2015. His plea for a new practice facility suffered from bad timing after his Wildcats lost to 15th-seeded Saint Peter’s in the NCAA Tournament's first round, a flop that left some UK fans wanting to place a for-sale sign in his front lawn, among their kinder acts of retribution.  

The outrage over Kentucky's early postseason exit after a 26-win season served as a reminder that it is a basketball school, and unrelenting expectations similarly reaffirms why Tennessee is a football school.

Former Vols coach Butch Jones won nine games in back-to-back seasons in 2015 and ’16. That included victories in the Outback and Music City bowls.

Stoops may have commissioned a statue of himself for such success at Kentucky, and Jones reveled in his Music City Bowl triumph like he'd won the Super Bowl. Nonetheless, Jones entered 2017 a step away from the hot seat.

A few factors accelerated the situation. Jones’ car-salesman persona was wearing thin, and thin-skinned quotes about “five-star hearts” and “Champions of Life” made him look foolish. Plus, UT fans were miffed by a squandered opportunity in 2016 to win the SEC East.

At the core, though, Jones was under fire because he coached at a football school where coaches frequently come under fire.

Contrast that with Barnes. Tennessee’s second-round exit as a No. 3 seed in March marked the fourth straight NCAA appearance in which the Vols failed to live up to their seeding.

Still, Barnes’ apologists outnumbered his critics and blamed the loss on poor shooting rather than coaching, a sign of Tennessee fans' more temperate expectations for basketball than football.

Barnes has enjoyed a long career as a winning coach at football-first schools – Tennessee, Texas and Clemson. He's not at his best in the NCAA Tournament, but he's built goodwill with the Vols and stayed put after an overture from UCLA in 2019. He’s affable and regularly flashes a sense of humor with good-natured ribbing, but he wouldn't throw a Twitter elbow at another Vols coach.

Barnes would have a stronger argument about Tennessee becoming “a basketball school” than Stoops does in claiming Kentucky is “a football school,” but he’s comfortable enough in his skin to enjoy the relative peace that comes with not coaching the most-scrutinized program at his school.

Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.