College Basketball: The New Reality Calipari Embraced Early Is Beginning To Dawn On Others

Frederick Breedon

You can't live in the past forever, and college coaches are finally beginning to admit that to themselves.

Michigan St. coaching legend Tom Izzo tells ESPN's Dana O'Neil that today's basketball players, particularly the ones winding up at Kentucky, are missing a lot by leaving early:

"There's no question that the Kentucky phenomenon -- and it is a phenomenon -- has changed it, and the funny part is, John doesn't even like it,'' Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "But it's a factor. Every kid thinks he's one of them, and there are only 30 first-round picks. Sometimes, I almost feel sorry for kids. They're worrying about the goal and forgetting the journey, and the fun is in the journey. ''

I think coach Izzo is absolutely right, but unfortunately, that's the world we live in. Rather than let it control him, Coach Cal has decided to make that somewhat unfortunate tendency work for him.

Eamonn Brennan goes even further, noting that Sean Miller raises a point that he was unprepared for:

"In general terms, you have to be careful at times when you're talking about getting a degree," Arizona's Sean Miller said. "It could be taken as an insult I'm not good enough or my player or my son isn't good enough to leave early. Is that every situation? Of course not. But you have to be careful."

Did Sean Miller just blow your mind? Because he blew mine. Of course the NBA looms large over any recruiting interaction between high-profile college coaches and high-profile high school stars. To some extent that has always been the case. As Dana notes, that attitude has only accelerated in Calipari's wake. But we've actually gotten to the point now where a college coach has to be careful not to promise a recruit's family a college degree because it might be perceived as a diss. "You want my son to stay in college long enough to get a degree? How dare you!"

I don't know why this should surprise him, and we haven't gotten to this point all that recently. This was an issue as long ago as 2007, and it's perfectly natural for it to develop into something like conventional wisdom. I do agree, however, that it is an "...indictment of many things..."

But contra Brennan, I don't think the promise of a degree has become an "insult." It's merely become a very small part of the overall package, and while that may really (and quite justifiably, too) grate on the nerves of educators, we have to come to grips with reality. Emphasizing education can be a negative now because parents and kids have rightly concluded that the NBA is a far more lucrative career than any educational choice can provide. As such, it's natural to be offended if a coach won't own up to that reality.

Calipari figured that out years ago, and now suddenly others are beginning to acknowledge the unspoken, and sometimes unspeakable truth that a college education isn't as valuable as so many have claimed, especially when competing with a professional sports career. Professional sports is generally played within a very narrow age window, and a college education can always wait until later. The fact that parents and kids are fully aware of this reality, and the reluctance of many college coaches to embrace it rather than talk up education as an automatically better outcome is naturally meeting with skepticism -- as it should.

What we have here is a triumph of reality over romanticism. For many, a college education is a way out of poverty and into a good life. For others, it is merely a shingle to point to that winds up having nothing to do with their life's work. To high-level athletes in professional sports specialties, it can represent a failure to achieve, rather than achievement itself.

You may think that sad, but it isn't. We just can't seem to admit to ourselves that higher education really isn't for everybody, but most top-tier athletes came to understand this quite a while back. What we are seeing now is the rest of the world beginning to catch up with them.

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