Friday, April 01, 2011

Is Coach Cal a Cheater?

John Calipari, head coach of the UK Wildcats, is perhaps the most hated coach in all of men's college basketball.  Go onto virtually any article about the Wildcats on or, and there will always be "Calipari haters" mouthing off about what a dirty cheater he is.

These two comments, for instance, were made recently by posters in the Sports forum on a messageboard I frequent:
John Calipari is as crooked as a college coach can be. The last two colleges he's coached have had serious violations and sanctions. Somehow the NCAA lets him continue to coach and punishes the team after he conveniently leaves.
Agreed. The worst kind - a cheater who weasels his way out.
For those who don't know, this is based on the fact that the two previous teams he took to the Final Four - UMASS in 1996, and Memphis in 2008, had their tournament victories that year vacated (that is, stricken from the official record) by the NCAA because of infractions by star players - Marcus Camby for UMASS, and Derrick Rose for Memphis.  Camby turned out to have received gifts from an agent - a big NCAA no-no - and Rose had falsified his college entrance scores.

In both of these cases, Calipari was cleared by the NCAA of any wrongdoing.  In fact, he was never even suspected of wrongdoing by the NCAA, because there was absolutely no evidence to suggest he had anything to do with it.  In the case of Derrick Rose, the NCAA had actually investigated his test scores and cleared him to play, only to change their minds later.

I've said before that if Calipari was guilty of anything, it was only in not being aware of what was going on.  But that hardly makes him the most crooked coach in college sports.

The fact is, it is simply fashionable to hate Calipari.  Why Calipari?  Well, I'm not sure, other than he's been extremely successful and is hands down the best recruiter in the nation.  When you have that kind of success - particularly on the recruiting front - people just make assumptions.  I actually had a negative impression of him myself before he came to UK - but after he arrived, I did a little investigating for myself, and was forced to change my opinion because I realized it was neither fair nor consistent.

The fact is, there have been no less than 38 NCAA Division I coaches who have had tournament appearances vacated.  Calipari has had two.  But well-regarded coaches like Jim Calhoun and the beloved Jim Valvano are on that list too.  Valvano, in fact, had not one, but three tournament appearances vacated during his career.  But he won a heart-warming championship as an underdog in 1983, and later heroically fought cancer and established a prominent cancer research foundation, so no one ever mentions his vacated tournaments.  Jim Calhoun not only has had a tournament vacated, but was also sanctioned this year by the NCAA and will have to serve a 3-game suspension next season for not fostering an "atmosphere of compliance" with NCAA regulations.  

Another figure on the list who has had 3 tournaments vacated is Steve Fisher - who won a championship with Michigan in 1989.  This year, he got a lot of positive press for taking San Diego State into prominence and a deep tournament run.  But he's not a "big name" coach, so no one pays any attention.  Certainly no one is calling him the most crooked coach in America.  

Other prominent coaches on the list are Steve Lavin, currently of St. John's, the highly-respected Lute Olsen of Arizona, and Eddie Sutton.

The point here should be clear.  A lot of coaches over the years have had tournaments vacated, including several current coaches.  Steve Fisher of San Diego State has the most of any current NCAA Division I coach - and the tournaments (including two Final Fours) he vacated with Michigan in the mid-1990's involved not just one player, but 4, and he ultimately was fired for his own involvement.  Joey Meyer, formerly of DePaul, has the most vacated tournaments, with four straight from 1986 to 1989.    

I said it already, but it bears repeating: it is simply fashionable to dump on Calipari.  He's prominent, he's highly successful both in coaching and recruiting, and his 2008 Memphis program is the most recent one to have a tournament vacated.

For people who don't know any better, or who just need a reason to hate the Wildcats (hey, when you're the best, a lot of people aren't going to like you), the facts of the matter don't really matter much at all.


Anthony said...

Great editorial. I read an article recently about this topic and how Jim Calhoun is really dirty and he is an a-hole too. I wasn't so sure about Cal in the beginning either but now that I understand some of his philosophy of recruiting and coaching he makes total sense. And yes it is just damn annoying to the coaches with less than average charisma to be continually beat on the recruiting trail. It's easier to malign than step up your game.

Anonymous said...

Did you read the article on Calipari in SI last week? The Joe DiMaggio story was killer, but the one on Coach Cal was insightful. What they pointed out is that Calipari has figured out how to make the "one & done" era of college hoops work for him. And everyone's jealous about the talent he is able to recruit, then turn into skeptics about how there's no possible way they would come w/o shady incentives. He admits to using certain tactics never used in recruiting before, but none of which are in any way sanctionable, or else they would have already nailed him.

As for tonite ... c'mon, it was JUST Marcus Camby. Get over it.

Go Cats! And go Butler!