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March 19, 2012

While it’s true I am a huge football fan, there’s really nothing like March Madness.  If I had to pick one gripe about college football, it’s that there’s no single elimination tournament, no definitive winner at the end of the year.  You see matchups that wouldn’t otherwise happen, and anybody can win.

Well, unless the school is mired in scandal.  I am a big UK fan, and UK is a favorite target for this kind of talk because of 1) their history of success, and 2) how their coach is perceived.  Calipari has taken three schools to the final four, but two of those appearances had to be ‘vacated’ meaning they had to refund the revenue they got from them, and the school (and the coach) doesn’t officially get credit for the wins.

First, when Cal was coach at UMass, the NCAA investigated Marcus Camby and found that he took money and gifts from agents: cash, rental cars, hookers, jewelry, all sorts of stuff.  So Cal and UMass don’t get credit for that season at all.  While that sucks, it’s important to note that the school or the coach were never implicated, and never punished explicitly.  I think that is fair, and it’s not a meaningless distinction, as haters will claim.

I mean think about it.  This was an NBA-bound superstar center.  He was on his way *out* of the school, not on his way in.  If Calipari was indeed crooked, he would have wanted Camby to get schmoozed by boosters and other benefactors associated with the school.  Camby was his first real star.  If Cal knew he was being lured away by those methods, do you think he would have stood for it?

At that time, Calipari was also a pretty easy target.  I sometimes wonder if he just assumed that’s how it always worked with a player of NBA-level talent.  At the time Calipari was a relatively inexperienced but very talented coach.  He had never had a player of that caliber.  Now he has five of them on every team.  If it was an experience or clout issue, I wouldn’t worry about it anymore.

So Cal took off from UMass after eight years and took a job in the NBA, and had mixed results.  After four years he made his way back to college basketball, becoming the head coach at Memphis.

He had a great deal of success at Memphis but in 2008 the school got caught in another scandal.  There were two parts of this one.  One, there was evidence that Derrick Rose and others from the basketball team at his high school had their grades changed.  The other part of it was that Derrick Rose was suspected of having someone else take his SAT for him.  He took the SAT a couple times in one location and didn’t get the required score, then inexplicably took it again in another location and passed.  The NCAA invalidated this score and thus he was ruled ineligible for the season he played for Memphis.  Of course, by then Rose was on his way to the NBA.  Again, the season was vacated and Memphis had to pay back the revenue they got from those games.  Calipari even paid back his contract bonus for reaching the final four, donating it to Memphis’ scholarship fund (most likely because a group of season ticket holders filed suit against him for the whole fiasco, but still).

Here’s the thing.  Calipari is an easy target.  He’s perceived as this slick salesman who promises the moon to naive high school kids and dupes the media with scripted responses and good acting.  Even I cringe sometimes when I listen to a halftime or postgame interview with the guy.  Nobody is actually that nice or gracious.

But you know, if anyone can make good on outlandish promises, it’s Coach Cal.  In two full years at UK he’s had nine players go to the NBA.  And he really is a good salesman.  Crazy as it sounds, five future pros on one team would be a disaster at most places.  He really gets these talented guys to buy into his system.  His teams have success, and therefore his players get to showcase their talent at the national level, and people notice.

That’s why he is able to build these outrageously talented rosters.  Cause if you view college as a mandated stepping stone to the NBA, he’s your best bet, and everyone in the league knows it.  Coach Cal doesn’t do anything dirty or underhanded, he doesn’t have to.  He’s made the best of a bad system.

At his previous schools, the most you could accuse him of is not being suspicious of things that were happening around him.  Most people knew there were some things happening with Camby, and it was awfully strange that Derrick Rose took his SAT at a new location and magically did much better.  He really should have known better.  Or maybe he did and that’s why he didn’t look too closely.

But that won’t fly now.  He’s being watched like a hawk, and so is UK.  Even if he was tempted to buy off a recruit or something, he knows he would get found out.  Things are fairly transparent now, and UK’s dealings with Enes Kanter are a perfect example of this.

What I mean by that is, Kanter received money for playing in another country and then his family, being independently wealthy, paid it back.  This may have made him a professional, and therefore ineligible to play in the NCAA.  Cal decided to recruit the guy anyways, knowing he might not play.  But the point is, all this happened *before* he played, so there was no possibility of wrongdoing.  Coach Cal wasn’t taking any chances, just hedging his bets.  If he can’t play, fine, we have tons of talent anyways.  If he can play, we get another future NBA player on the roster.

I feel like UK is going to take this kind of gamble quite often, and sometimes it will pay off.

 

So anyways, the haters can hate all they want.  He’s not perfect, but he’s not the sleazeball team-wrecker that many basketball fans want him to be.  UK is the Roman empire of college basketball, and for now, they are back on top.

 

Also before I forget, I think it’s hilarious that UK’s NCAA tournament games are in Louisville, Atlanta, and (possibly) New Orleans.  May as well play them all in Rupp Arena!

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