Chuck Klosterman wrote an article on Grantland recently that I have been meaning to get to for over a week. Fortunately, the time has finally come to address not just that, but a larger narrative that has been emergent in the media for some time about how bad John Calipari's model of recruiting the best players available is for college basketball.
First of all, let's consider the overall ridiculousness of the premise of this recent media meme. If you were hired as a college basketball coach, what would be your criteria for recruiting players? Let's try to list a few that make sense, in order of importance;
The Death of College Basketball: Wherein Chuck Klosterman says it's so because there are only two possible options
- You want to recruit skilled players that will play well in your system;
- You want young men who will do well in school;
- You want young men of good character;
- You want players that will help you win;
- You want players that will help you represent your university well, and paint it in a good light;
- You want thoughtful, honest, loyal, hardworking kids who will accept your coaching;
- You want players that will sacrifice their glory for that of the team;
- You want players who are going to stick with you, even against their own best interests, so you can win a lot;
There are probably more, but let's just stick with those. Considering #1 there, how many coaches are going to lower that requirement down to, say, number 3 or four? I'm thinking none of them that want to continue in their present job. After that, different coaches may consider reordering them a little bit.
You will notice that Calipari's teams at Kentucky, with little in the way of exceptions, have surpassed every one of these requirements save the last one, and that last one serves only two interests -- that of the head basketball coach and university. That's the only one that Calipari has thrown out the window. All the rest are present in full measure.
You will also notice that I haven't mentioned graduation as a criteria. That's because the basketball coach/teacher died many years ago in major college sports. Coaches no longer teach anything but sports. That's all. They are not hired to graduate players from college any more than a professor or president is hired to graduate players.
Professors are hired to teach students, players or otherwise, most of whom are paying for the privilege to listen to him teach. It doesn't matter to his salary or tenure if any of those students graduate, or drop out, or earn a million dollars coding up Facebook. His job is to stuff young heads full of his knowledge. That's what he gets paid to do, not to worry about whether or not they have the good sense to actually listen to his lectures or attend his classes. The only people these days that seem to be required to even show up are -- you guessed it -- athletes.
College presidents don't get paid to graduate people, either. They get paid to administer the university, raise funds so that the university can build more buildings and spend more money on professors, who unreasonably seem to demand more and more money for their altruistic work of educating the young. They want not just more money for salaries, but more money for their facilities so they can do more with more. University presidents reasonably assume, as do professors, that those who pay money, or get scholarships to come to Kentucky free, want to further their education and graduate. It assumes a rational, disciplined approach to education, although it is very often wrong given college freshman graduation rates overall. [Note to college professors: Please don't be insulted by the sarcasm, it is not really directed at you. I hold you all in very high esteem, personally.]
Have we yet encountered anyone who considers it part of their job description to graduate students? No? Then why should it become the mission of the head basketball coach, who stands under the Sword of Damocles every single year? If he loses, no matter how many players he sends out with diplomas, he is looking for a job, and a lower-paying one at that. So what, prithee, is his motivation here? Further, why is it right for anyone to demand that a coach do something neither the professors nor administrators get paid to do?
The next question is this -- why do universities pay for the educations of scholarship student athletes? Is it to further the academic reputation of the school? Hardly. Athletes who do graduate mostly do so in disciplines that have little impact on the reputation of the school in any academic sense.
So why have college athletics? Simple -- to make money. No other reason whatsoever. The idea of a pure student-athlete who was more dedicated to scholarship than athletics has been only very rarely seen in major college sports outside the Ivy League for more than four decades, and since the Ivy League doesn't offer athletics scholarships, that's the place to go if you're such a person and your parents have the means. So now, suddenly, the fact of students leaving college early for millions of dollars is the death of the sport?
What Klosterman really meant to say was that it just isn't fair to other schools that Kentucky gets so many athletes who are capable of going on to play professional basketball. He doesn't seem to care that Duke gets its share, and UCLA, and North Carolina, and many other schools as well. But lately, UK has been skimming the cream off the top of the talent pool, and even though that pool is no deeper nor wider than it has been in the last 40 years or so, he's worried that somehow, this development will doom the sport.
Klosterman says that Calipari has "professionalized" college sports at Kentucky. That's absurd, of course. What he has done is bowed to the reality that professional basketball is going to be the vocation of the best high school players in the country, just as it has been for the last 40 years or so. He knows that no matter where these guys go, they are not going to stay for four years and graduate. So why not bring as many as possible to UK and play a system that helps prepare them for what they actually want, and intend, to do with the first two one or two decades of their lives after college? Why not help them reach their goals, and by doing so, help the coach and university reach a few as well, namely, keep his job and earn money for the university?
How this can all be morphed into a bad thing takes a remarkable effort in faux reasoning. Of course, it's bad for Kentucky's opponents, but let's face it, it's not Calipari's job to worry about whether or not Vanderbilt or Florida wins or loses. "The good of the game" gets mentioned a lot, but let's be honest, any fan of basketball had to love the quality of Kentucky's play this year -- it has been exemplary. Further, these young men have represented Kentucky with a ton of class. They don't "woof" at opponents, trash-talk them, beat up their own (or anyone else's) girlfriends, get caught drinking or toking underage, flunk out of school, or go out and rob convenience stores with uzis. Instead, they are the perfect example of what a student-athlete should be, both on and off the court, except some of them won't be coming back to college next year.
And this will destroy college basketball? To believe Klosterman, you have to accept a bunch of things that simply aren't true, like the idea that up until now, college sports have been as pure as the wind-driven snow. You have to accept that just because a lot of UK players go professional before the intelligentsia thinks they should, it harms the game, and you have to accept that premise without a single shred of proof. You have to accept that finally, now that UK has won, every blueblood school will adopt their recruiting model and all you will see in the Final Four from now on are Duke, UNC, Kentucky, and Kansas
Memo to Chuck -- if those other schools could have adopted Calipari's model, they would have done so several years ago. Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski cannot do what Calipari does, although Bill Self and Tom Crean probably could, just not with as much credibility.
Klosterman's conclusions are premised upon mostly fake assertions that have lived on as kind of zombies in the world of college sports because us poor humans can't help but long for the simpler time, long past. Times change, and the old ways of four-year players and coming up through the ranks no longer work in this era of near-instant gratification. Now, what brings them in is a clear, reasonably short path to the kind of future that every college promises to it's most diligent through education, but all too rarely delivers -- a quality, well-paid job that opens up limitless possibilities.
It's sad, but true, that many consider this a bad thing. It isn't. It's just change, and change always rubs many the wrong way. This, too, will pass.