The Cost of King Cal’s Court
Lexington is now King Calipari’s Camelot. But the Round Table is a baggage claim.
An August Wednesday evening entered its waning hours, and all was well and all was light on the basketball message boards that host some of the Commonwealth’s most, well, frothy discussion.
“About last year at this time, I was chilling at the lassie’s pad in Lex on Transy Park.
Was waiting for her to get out of the shower and finish getting ready so we could head out for the night.
After getting ready she walks into her room and I’m sitting there beer in hand practially [sic] sloberring [double sic] over Theta’s bid day pic of their new gals.
`Ummm, these are your new gals? Yeah, they’re really cute.’”
So wrote a man under the guise of IsRichieGonnaStart, one of these fabulously inside-baseball usernames that, maybe, six people in the room understand. The masses had congregated to “GYERO”—the acronym for “Get Your Ever-lovin’ Random On,” a forum within a forum on CatsPause.com that features tangential conversation from the under-35 crowd of University of Kentucky students and recent graduates—to reminisce at the dawn of a new school year.
It was rather standard chat, understandably marked by levity in the course of comfy times. As of March 31—the day he inked his name to the contract and was handed the keys to the Lamborghini—the Earth, the planets, the goddamn Milky Way spun around Coach John Calipari and his inevitably indomitable college hoops program, leaving Lexington in a state of unceasingly orgasmic euphoria.
He assembled a recruiting class with the star power of a red-carpet premiere. He catapulted an NIT participant to a team magnetizing expectations of a Final Four without coaching a single game. He had ignited—not just awakened, not just enlivened, but straight ignited—a weary fan base that had grown tired of mediocrity not typical of its school.
For his exploits, some of the more irreverent members of GYERO dubbed him “Werepecker” and designed a logo: a mash-up of a werewolf with a chainsaw for a penis. John Calipari arrived at the level of folk hero, decidedly more risqué than Paul Bunyan, within mere moments of his bluegrass welcoming.
But then 11 o’clock struck on this Wednesday night, and the longing remembrances of scantily-clad sorority sisters were interrupted with the flash of a headline.
“Man I hate to hear this probable news,” posted cawoodsct.
“The NCAA Committee on Infractions will release its findings regarding Memphis on Thursday morning and the word ‘vacate’ is included in the report, several sources told ESPN.com.”
“Just great. Here come the flames, dudes,” responded catsJONky.
John Calipari’s association with running amok the rules is hardly news. His staunchest defenders would say that he’s been amid scandal; his stiffest detractors would say that he’s caused it, reddened his hands by it, been embroiled in it. No matter the perspective, two facts remain: 1) Calipari has never been found in violation of the NCAA, and 2) As of August 20, he is the only coach in history to have had Final Four appearances from different tenures wiped from his record, casualties of judgments levied against his employer and not his name.
And now, fair or not, that baggage resides in Lexington, KY.
“What’s amazing to me is that he’s been able to keep moving up despite the fact that this guy is … What’s the saying, ‘If it looks like rat, if it smells like a rat, it’s probably a rat?’” said Geoff Bough, lead editor at FanIQ.com. “There’s a lot of [stuff] trolling around with him and whatnot, and it’s amazing to me that people don’t notice that.”
Calipari has built for himself a seedy reputation that draws a well-defined line between his pro and con factions—in the former rests the supporters of his program, and in the latter lies everyone else. To most who reside outside the sea of blue, his name calls to mind two-faced bastardry, and that includes the once adoring fans in Memphis he not too long ago left behind.
Gary Parrish, college basketball writer for CBS Sports, covered Calipari during his days at the Memphis Commercial Appeal. And he’s quite familiar with the fleeting self-interest and vitriol of observers unearthed by the coach’s career moves.
“I remember when Memphis hired Cal, people around the country would say, ‘Oh, they hired a cheater, they hired a scumbag.’ And Memphis fans’ defense was, ‘He’s never been implicated in anything. You guys don’t know—you’re all just stupid.’ And now, Kentucky hires Cal, everybody in the country is saying Kentucky just hired a cheater, and Memphis fans, the same ones who would defend Cal before, are now calling him a cheater. And Kentucky fans—the same Kentucky fans who called John a cheater literally a year ago or less than that—are now defending him, saying his name’s never been tied to anything, and you just don’t know.”
How could one man invite such flippant lunacy? Calipari has led a polarizing life by trade, more often than not blazing crude trails that have left collateral damage in his wake. He propelled the University of Massachusetts toward the top, but did so with the egregious offenses of star center Marcus Camby—which included the acceptance of cash, jewelry and prostitutes—under his watch, causing the erasure of his first Final Four. He built Memphis into a perennial power during the latter half of this decade, drawing in superstar recruits that would otherwise wind up at college basketball’s flagship schools—Duke, North Carolina, UCLA, Kansas, Indiana, and yes, Kentucky, among a select few others. How he managed to lure such players to a place with lesser name recognition may be a matter for debate. With the vacating of Cal’s second Final Four, however—a result of Derrick Rose’s shady SAT score and the player’s subsequent failure to cooperate with the NCAA’s inspection—that debate may remain moot and little more.
But isn’t that the way it is with everyone else? It’s easy for a detractor to point fingers when something smells fishy, but the gamut of college hoops emanates the stench.
“I’ve had one coach tell me this,” Parrish began. “If the NCAA really went at it balls-to-the-wall and investigated whatever we consider to be the top 25 programs in America—you name the top 25 programs in America, we take the list, turn it into the NCAA, and they’re gonna spend a year investigating all 25—they’ll shut 24 of them down.”
At the very least, Calipari has been close, eerily close, to those who got caught with their hands in the cookie jar. But his pushing the envelope is nothing unique, and yet he’s the one attracting the derision, the public scorn, the taunting from rival fans. He’s the one who has been singled out.
“Does Calipari deserve to be treated in the manner that he is? Relative to his peers, absolutely not,” declared Sporting News college basketball columnist Mike DeCourcy, speaking with emphasis when most of his words are pleasant and even-keeled. “There are people that the media holds in great esteem that are not much different than Calipari, if at all—or who transgress in ways that the media doesn’t bother to worry about.”
One such transgression occurred within the last decade at a school of prowess under a headman of high repute—Duke and Mike Krzyzewski. Former player Corey Maggette fessed-up to taking money from an AAU coach during high school, and the university cited ignorance of the situation, much in the same way that Memphis cited ignorance of Derrick Rose’s alleged academic indiscretion.
Duke got off scot-free.
“You look at those two cases—I know the details are different, but the endgame is exactly the same—according to the NCAA [regarding Memphis], if you play an ineligible player, you vacate the wins. That’s what they told Memphis,” Parrish said. “It’s the opposite—literally the opposite—of what they told Duke.”
“If the NCAA would’ve applied its rule to Duke in 1999 the same way it applied its rule to Memphis in 2008, Coach K would have a vacated Final Four on his record. There’s no getting around that. And yet they simply didn’t apply the rule, and so Duke is a clean program, and Memphis is a dirty program. I think that is an issue that can’t be highlighted enough.”
The NCAA has had an accountability problem for as long as fans and journalists have observed its perceived bias, but also for as long as coaches have been willing to challenge its decisions. In the 1970s, Jerry Tarkanian was one such man, taking the organization to court over claims that his right to due process had been disregarded by its ruling that he be suspended two years for violations that occurred five years before he took the reins at UNLV, the affected school.
ESPN writer Tom Farrey balanced the perception of the NCAA’s investigative old guard in a November 2002 story:
“They were the good guys, these lonely agents of virtue, or at least truth, who with their pens and pluck documented the payoffs and misdeeds of those who would corrupt the most noble aspirations of college sport.
“They were the bad guys, snooping around where they weren’t invited, supposedly putting words in people’s mouths with their untaped interviews, threatening the eligibility of athletes unless they talked, trashing the careers of talented coaches with their hearsay evidence.”
When Tarkanian’s case prevailed, the latter view won with him. And it’s a slant that has lasted to this day—that the NCAA picks and chooses its fights, allowing some who skirt the rules to exist without punishment while flexing its muscle toward others. It’s a selective organization—inherently biased and fallible, but likewise incapable of wrapping its arms around every problem and every controversy spanning the breadth of its purview.
Its definition of “the buck stops here” has become clouded in recent days, and it has indirectly served to further tarnish Calipari’s reputation, perhaps undeservedly. Sure, it will put its foot down on occasion, but only when blame can be laid at the feet of something outside itself. In the case of Derrick Rose—a player the NCAA Eligibility Center OK’d upon seeing the same academic information Memphis saw when the school admitted him—the NCAA retroactively said its mistake was not its fault, and the price paid was passed on to the school.
“[The NCAA] did not want the buck. They clearly did not. They can say that they didn’t have access to the information that the ETS (Educational Testing Service) had invalidated the score, but neither did Memphis. Memphis didn’t know that the player was ineligible. So why would you punish them?” DeCourcy asked. “The players who played with him, the coaches who coached him, the university that employed the coach—they didn’t know either. Yet they’re being penalized. I don’t see how that works.”
Perhaps the NCAA would have to acquit itself if it were subject to more than mere public scrutiny. “Who polices the police? That’s the problem. They can pretty much do whatever they want,” Bough said.
So, yes, maybe the NCAA holds a double standard as it relates to its handling of John Calipari relative to its handling of Mike Krzyzewski and the institutional fixtures who lead the sport’s traditional powers. Or maybe there’s something else—maybe the NCAA doesn’t measure Memphis and UMass with the same yardstick as it measures Duke. Now that John Calipari is in the big leagues, maybe the very name ‘Kentucky’ and the perks that accompany it will shield him.
“The knock on Pete Carroll at USC [football] is that, OK, he’s paying all of his players to show up. But it’s like, ‘success breeds success.’ There comes a time when you can basically pick and choose who you want, or you have people knocking at your door,” Bough started, noting the Trojans’ absurd success that has seen them to seven consecutive BCS bowl games. “When Cal was at UMass and Memphis, he didn’t have that […] Now that he’s at Kentucky, it will probably be easier for him to recruit the kinds of guys he would’ve had trouble recruiting [before].”
The argument in defense of Kentucky’s beleaguered coach is a similar tune. You know the old Calipari? He’s out. The new Calipari—the one with that Lamborghini, the one who can speed past the competition without having to cut corners? That’s the guy now.
“If I’m a Kentucky fan, here’s what I tell myself. All those things tied to Calipari, like Marcus Camby at UMass and Derrick Rose at Memphis, happened because Calipari was trying to win at third- and second-tier programs, respectively,” wrote Parrish’s CBS Sports colleague Eric Kay in an email. “With the resources now at his disposal (private planes, tradition, a BCS conference), I’d like to think Calipari can play things by the book. He doesn’t have to fudge and look the other way on shady ballplayers.”
And so hope continued to simmer in Kentucky on that Thursday morning, August 20, no matter the thoughts of others or the trepidations beckoned by the knowledge that the coach had been a part of mucky situations during his first two college head coaching stops. GYERO was willing to say its bit and move on.
“It sucks I guess that we have to listen to the whole vacated argument, but no one of note can really argue anything other than the fact that Cal is a little shady when it comes to recruiting. Newsflash: Every coach at a big-time program is shady,” wrote one. “There is no rhyme or reason to anything the NCAA does. It’s ridiculous,” wrote another. “I don’t really care anymore about Cal’s deal at Memphis.”
Is it denial? No. It’s reality, the grasp of Kentucky’s place in college basketball—that it will soon be a behemoth again, and as to how it will get there, no questions asked.
“Don’t try to pretend that John Calipari is misunderstood. Don’t try to pretend that John Calipari is any different from the guy you ridiculed and criticized yourself six months ago. Just enjoy that he’s gonna get great players, and win a whole lot of games, and keep your fingers crossed that it doesn’t blow up,” Parrish said.
In the meantime, there was pressing conversation to revisit as the noon hour approached.
“Bid Day/White Dress Day was always a tease. None of the new girls would ever actually ‘get down’ until well into September …”