Friday, March 30, 2012

John Calipari: A Crooked Cheater or Brilliant Coach?

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'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.  :)


Anonymous said...

great article man.. loved it. now if only you can get the millions of other people who bash this man regulary to read this. tired of hearing about it. look at what has happened at syracuse, indiana, uconn, tennessee, and other programs over the last few years. their coaches actually CHEATED THEMSELVES in trying to get players to come to their respected schools, but none of their wins got vacated, which is BS.. calipari's history.. not so much and they are completely different circumstances. but all i ever hear about is how big of a cheater he is. and i ask how? "well he got two final fours vacated." get the facts people, then talk!! god bless calipari and i hope he wins the big one tonight because he deserves it! and i cant wait to see in about 20+ years win that 2012 championship banner is still hanging in rupp.

Scott said...

Preach it, brother!

You are exactly right when you say that Calipari-bashers simply don't have the facts. And what it really, ultimately, boils down to is just plain old jealousy. I don't think there is a legitimate college basketball fan in the nation who wouldn't be thrilled if Cal came to THEIR school. The jealousy factor is what really drives the whole "Cal is a cheater" thing. Because it sure is hell isn't driven by facts or equal analysis.

sexytex said...

Best article I have ever read!!!! Great job!

Anonymous said...

Kentucky and coach Cal probably paid you under the table to write this article.... you are gonna have to vacate all credits for articles you have written in the 2011-2012 season.... ;-)

Anonymous said...

First and foremost, DeRRick Rose has to R’s in his name.

Secondly, Coach Cal runs a very loose program or else there wouldn’t be such consistent shenanigans wherever he happens to grace the hardwood. As a coach you have a responsibility to be accountable for your actions; whether that is being proactive in doing something bad, or choosing to turn the other cheek, look the other way, or not be proactive when you ought to.

In 2004 Robert Dozier de-committed from Georgia to go to Memphis. Georgia found inconsistencies in his school grades in comparison to his standardized test scores and flagged him. It wasn’t a technicality either; it was something silly like his school grades put in the 4th percentile while his SAT scores put him in the mid-80s. Yet when the Georgia flags him, and he goes to Memphis, the basketball program welcomes him with open arms. Even after the de-commit and the clear signs that another admissions office pointed to, Coach Cal conveniently looks the other way.

With this happening in 2004, let’s just work under the assumption that they were ignorant of Dozier’s situation and they learned their lesson to do their due diligence from that point onward. Oh yeah, but wait…..then there’s Derrick Rose a few years later. So, they had a warning about Dozier and chose to ignore it. THEN, after having a situation like that occur, they didn’t tighten the screws on the accountability of grades and legitimacy of test scores within the program. Again, seems quite convenient.

You really feel like John Calipari has the best track record of turning college players into NBA prospects? I would give the nod to Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, and Jim Calhoun well before Coach Cal enters the conversation. All of them have longer track records, longer lists of successful NBA players, and also happen to work at prestigious universities as well. Majority of Coach Cal’s so-called ‘track record’ includes top-5 prospects that have been one-in-done and off to the NBA. If that’s the recipe for being great at developing players into NBA-players (taking top tier recruits and having them play on your team for one year), than add me to that short list of dignified individuals.

So Kentucky is no more prestigious or storied than the likes of UCLA, Kansas, Duke, or North Carolina. So that kind of takes away the angle of kids growing up dreaming to play for the Blue Bloods. So that leads us to your point about his likability or him being a great coach, and again I would argue that there is no shortage of either of those traits at schools such as Kansas, Duke or North Carolina. Okay, then you’d say, it must be that he’s a fantastic recruiter. But then again, when he was at Memphis he didn’t bring in multiple top-tier recruits in any given year.

Not until he got to Kentucky did the crazy recruiting start. Let’s take a moment to put these three seasons of Coach Cal recruiting into perspective. In the past three seasons Kentucky has received commitments from five top-5 players (that’s one more than Kansas AND North Carolina COMBINED in the past 8 seasons), and twelve top-25 players (the same number of top-25 recruits UNC has gotten over the past 8 seasons and one more than Duke has gotten in those same 8 years). These programs have been juggernauts that have stood the test of time to remain legitimate contenders year in and year out. Kentucky has only recently gotten back to elite status, yet Kentucky has not only surpassed these other schools but blown their recruiting out of the water. Still think your beloved coach isn’t scandalous?

There’s a term that Richard Nixon coined during the Watergate scandal called ‘plausible deniability’ and that my friend, is what Coach Cal has. Just because he hasn’t been found guilty by the NCAA does not mean he’s running a clean program. OJ got away with murder. Just because he is getting away with it, doesn’t mean he isn’t guilty.

Scott said...

I appreciate your comments, Anonymous, although I disagree with you on virtually every point.

In regards to SAT scores and admissions procedures: This is a situation which the school is responsible for. Neither Calipari, nor any other coach in America, has anything to do with verifying grades and SAT scores. This is why universities have admissions departments, and this is overseen by the Athletic Director, not the coaches. That doesn't mean coaches are totally out of the loop, but it is certainly not their responsibility to investigate and verify test scores and high school grades. If the scores are validated by the school, the coach has no reason not to accept them.

In the case of Dozier, the SAT invalidated his scores, so he took it again and the second score was approved by the SAT people, approved by the NCAA, and approved by the school. What else, exactly, would you demand here? Should Cal have STILL kicked him off the team, because there was suspicion about the first test? A high-minded moralist might think so, but then again, a high-minded moralist wouldn't win very many basketball games.

I get your point about turning college basketball players into NBA stars, and talking about coaches like K, Williams, and Calhoun. Taking an average kid, and working with him for 4 years, and turning him into a well-rounded player who has a long and prosperous NBA career is something all those guys are good at. The point I was making about Cal is that he is the best in the nation, in my opinion, at taking advantage of the one-and-done rule.

It's not his rule, and he openly says he doesn't like it, but since it is there, he uses it to his advantage - and he does that better than any other coach. Those guys are gonna go somewhere - they prefer to come to Cal because he has the best track record of converting them into high draft picks.

I never implied that Kentucky is the only storied basketball program in the country. But among the "blue blood" programs, Kentucky is pretty much the pinnacle.

If you want proof of that, take a gander at this:

- Most all-time wins.
- Highest all-time winning percentage.
- 2nd most NCAA championships.
- 3rd most Final Fours.
- Most elite eights.
- Most sweet sixteens.
- Most tournament appearances.
- Most tournament wins.
- Most NBA draft picks.
- Most All-Americans.
- Most all-time weeks in the top 10.
- Most all-time weeks in the top 5.
- Most all-time top 25, top 20, top 15, top 10, top 5, and #1 final poll rankings.
- Most 20-win seasons, most 30-win seasons, and most 35-win seasons.
- Lowest losses per seasons played.
- Most coaches with a championship.
- Most conference tournament championships.

Should I keep going?

The fact is, Kentucky is the most prestigious and storied basketball program in the United States, and yes, players want to come to Kentucky. Add to that the fact that Cal is good at turning around one-and-done players, and that's why he gets so many top picks.

Anonymous said...

This isn't biased writing at all since Scott is from Kentucky which leads me to believe he is anything but a Kentucky fan.

Anonymous said...

So going by your rationale, why is Scott a Chicago Cubs fan? If you think his scope is that narrow--clouded completely by the region in which he has lived most of his life--then you aren't a regular reader of this blog.

Scott said...

Apparently people from Kentucky are disqualified from talking about UK basketball. Of course I am biased. But that doesn't mean I can't fairly analyze facts and evidence.

Anonymous said...

Hi Scott. Thanks for taking the time to write all of this. Unfortunately, as you know, it won't change the mind of a hater or troll because they're not interested in hearing facts or using logic (there's an entire political party based around people like this, I think! ;-) But nevertheless, I'll continue to point open-minded people here for a good history of Calipari so that they can consider the facts before making allegations.

Scott said...

Thanks for the post, Anonymous! Glad you liked it.

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