About this time last year (in fact, it was almost exactly one year ago), I wrote a post about John Calipari and the widespread opinion, among college basketball fans, that he is a cheater.
As with my yearly posts on "Taking Christ out of Christmas," this is one of those popular notions that "pops up every year like an old fart wafting up from a basement couch," and thus requires a yearly smack down by yours truly.
Today, I was on a sports forum discussing the Final Four. One of the posters there stated that Calipari is "crooked," predicted that this season will end up vacated when it's all said and done, and implied that there must be something dirty going on, otherwise Calipari wouldn't be able to recruit so many top-level prospects.
There are a number of issues that have to be understood here, and the first is simply the background behind the accusations of Calipari being crooked.
Quite simply, Calipari is widely regarded as a cheater because he has had two different programs, at two different schools, accused, and ultimately convicted, of NCAA rules infractions.
The first case occurred in 1996, when Marcus Camby, then a junior and a soon-to-be NBA draft pick, accepted gifts, including cash and jewelry, from a lawyer in Connecticut who wanted to become Camby's agent when he declared himself eligible for the NBA draft later that year. The story came out, and UMASS was penalized for it by having their NCAA tournament wins that year vacated. They also had to pay a fine equal to the money they had received as part of their tournament earnings - about 150K.
John Calipari, as the head coach of UMASS, was never accused by anyone (either the NCAA, or the people convicted in the case) of having any knowledge or involvement in the situation, and was explicitly cleared of any wrong-doing by the NCAA. Even the lawyer involved in this situation never suggested Calipari had any knowledge of the transactions, despite the fact that the whole reason the story broke in the first place is because he threatened to go to the media after Camby decided not to hire him as his agent.
The second situation occurred in 2008, when the NCAA began investigating Derrick Rose's high school SAT scores. There had been some concern about his academic eligibility almost from the beginning, in 2007, because of some apparent abnormalities on his high school transcript. This was investigated by both the school and the NCAA, and Rose was cleared to play.
At the end of that season, in 2008, the case was re-opened, after the administrators of the SAT (the so-called "ETS") determined that the scores were fraudulent and threw them out. It turned out that Rose's brother had illegally taken the test on his behalf, because Rose, apparently, feared he couldn't score high enough to meet NCAA eligibility requirements. He had failed to meet the minimum score on three previous attempts at a different test, the ACT.
After the ETS threw out Rose's scores, the NCAA used that as all the evidence it needed to retroactively invalidate Rose's eligibility, and thus vacate Memphis's entire season, including its Final Four appearance that year. The NCAA, itself, did not actually investigate the case, but simply relied on the ETS ruling. Since the ETS had thrown out the score, Rose was automatically disqualified because he no longer had a valid SAT.
All of this happened when Derick Rose was in high school. It did not occur under John Calipari's watch, and the NCAA agreed that Memphis had done everything it was required to do in investigating Rose's credentials when he signed on to play for Memphis. The NCAA did not accuse either Calipari or Memphis of any wrongdoing.
How John Calipari can be held responsible for something that occurred with one of his future players when that player was still in high school is anybody's guess.
So these are the two instances that have caused the very common and even fashionable notion that John Calipari is crooked.
As I stated in the article I wrote about this last year, the very accusation itself is unfair. The fact is, there are numerous schools and coaches throughout NCAA basketball history who have had tournaments and/or seasons vacated because of rules infractions. Some of them are even well-known and widely respected, like UCONN's 3-time NCAA championship coach Jim Calhoun, and the widely-loved and regarded Jim Valvano of NC State.
When was the last time you heard someone call Jim Valvano "crooked"? Yet he was forced to resign from NC State amid an investigation into players receiving improper benefits, and, also....wait for it....a player with questionable SAT scores!
So the fact that Calipari is dragged through the mud over this is inconsistency, and selective memory, at its best. The simple fact is that this has happened to numerous schools and numerous coaches, and Calipari himself was never accused, and certainly never convicted, of having any involvement in either of these situations.
Now, with this in mind, there are still two things that many Calipari-haters will say. 1) Where there's smoke, there's fire; and 2) even if he didn't know what was going on, he SHOULD have...it's his program, after all, and thus his responsibility.
On the first issue, I agree that, often times, where there is smoke, there is usually fire. In other words, Calipari has been at the helm of two different programs that have had NCAA infractions and vacated Final Fours; surely there is a common thread here?
In fact, there is a perfectly good explanation for why this sort of thing seems to follow Calipari around: namely, Calipari's ability to attract top level talent to his programs. Think of situations you hear about from time to time when some Average Joe wins the lottery, and then finds himself surrounded by sycophants greedy to get a cut of the winnings. This is sort of what Calipari has to deal with in regards to the high-level prospects he recruits. He manages to secure a lot of talented players and future NBA stars, but sometimes a few creeps come along for the ride too - creeps like crooked sports agents and high school administrators trying to circumvent the NCAA's rules (there was some evidence to suggest that Derick Rose's high school had actually been involved in not only helping him to cheat the SAT, but also in changing grades on his official transcript before it was sent to Memphis).
The simple fact is, when you have that kind of star power, all sorts of underhanded people like to creep out of the woodwork to get a cut of the pie - and they don't care at all, of course, for NCAA rules. And you can hardly blame a coach for not being able to fully control all possible scenarios with all players all the time. Calipari has had exactly two bad seeds in 25 years of coaching. That's not a bad track record at all.
On the second issue - about how Calipari SHOULD have known something was up: I tend to waffle on this one. On the one hand, I can understand this argument. It's Calipari's program, so it's Calipari's job to make sure it's clean. But on the other hand - as I said above - it's ridiculous to think that a coach can keep full control of every possible scenario with every player all the time, particularly when that coach routinely attracts top level talent, who bring with them a lot of baggage and sycophants. Calipari, for instance, is not involved at all in the admissions process of his university - neither is any other coach. Thus, if Derick Rose got into Memphis on shaky academic grounds, that's hardly Calipari's fault. Schools have liability and culpability in these scenarios too.
The fact is, in the case of Memphis in particular, that program - and thus, that school - has a long, and even sordid, history of NCAA rules violations. They had a coach in the mid 1980's who not only got fired amid an NCAA investigation, but also got brought up on federal charges of tax evasion, and ended up spending time in jail. Memphis had to vacate their tournament appearances for five straight years, from 1982 to 1986, and were actually lucky to avoid the so-called "death penalty" - the shutting down of the program. As it was, the program basically remained in shambles until Calipari arrived some 20 years later.
Perhaps we can agree that Calipari needs to be more discerning in who he recruits; perhaps we can agree that he has learned a tough lesson about keeping a careful eye on what his players are doing and in promoting a spirit of compliance with NCAA rules among his players and recruits. But ultimately, I can't find any reason to level vicious attacks against Calipari and call him "crooked."
But what about this common argument - stated by the above-referenced sports fan - about how Calipari manages to attract so many top level recruits? Surely there is something going on under the table, right?
Well, of course, this whole statement is just wild speculation. You might as well say that the New York Yankees only manage to get all the best baseball stars because they are providing them with prostitutes and cocaine every night. The fact is, there are a number of obvious reasons why Calipari can attract so many high-level players.
1) Calipari is particularly skilled in turning young athletes, with high-level potential, into NBA stars. This gets into the whole "one-and-done" debate that rages every year in NCAA basketball. Calipari has said openly that he does not like the rule, but the rule is there, so he does what he can to work with it. And the simple fact is, he does it better than anyone else. Highly-touted high school basketball players want to play for Calipari, not because he is paying them, or doing anything else illegal, but for the simple fact that he has the best track record for turning these guys into high NBA draft picks and future NBA stars.
2) Calipari is a good coach. Say what you will about Calipari's personality or personal history, but there is simply no question that Calipari is a top-level coach. He has taken three different teams to the Final Four. He has taken a Kentucky program to the Final Four two years in a row, when it had failed to reach that position for the previous 12 years under two different coaches. He is, quite simply, one of those coaches that has that "special something" that draws out the best from his players. During the 2010-2011 season, for instance, his star center was declared permanently ineligible by the NCAA. With virtually no one to fill the spot, Calipari took a bench-warmer named Josh Harrellson, who had virtually never played, and turned him into a star, making him one of the certifiable "feel good" stories of the season. He is now under contract playing for an NBA team. Basketball players want to play for coaches that can do things like this.
3) Calipari has charisma and is likable. His players clearly like playing for him. I used to always wonder how Bobby Knight could recruit anybody to Indiana, because who, in their right mind, would want to play for such an insufferable jerk? The point, of course, is that Calipari is a personable and charismatic person, and people like playing for him.
4) Finally, at the present time, Calipari is the head coach of UK. UK is one of the "blue blood" programs of NCAA college basketball. Kentucky fans would certainly argue that UK is the premiere college basketball program. The Kentucky Wildcats are basically the New York Yankees or Dallas Cowboys of college basketball. High school basketball players dream of playing at a program like UK. If you were a top-level high school recruit who could go virtually anywhere, would you choose Cornfield State, or a place like UK? You'd probably choose UK, and it wouldn't take any underhanded recruiting by Calipari for you to make that decision.
All these things together, plus half a dozen more that I've omitted, are the reasons why Calipari is able to attract such a large number of top-level recruits. It has absolutely nothing to do with any illegal or unethical activities.
Now, having put this issue to rest again for another year, I can sit back and watch UK play UL in the Final Four on Saturday, and be at peace with the world. :)