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John Calipari -- Myth, Legend and Fact

Over and over again, we have seen and heard commentary from sportswriters, opinion writers and broadcast journalists and editorial boards about John Calipari's fitness to become the 22nd Men's Head Basketball Coach at the University of Kentucky.  As we all know, everyone who is anyone has some kind of opinion about Calipari, his past, and his possible future.  What I will be doing in this multi-part series is looking at some of the questions that surround Coach Calipari, how those questions square with the available facts, and what all this may mean for the University of Kentucky.

First of all, a disclaimer -- I am a Kentucky partisan, and as such am predisposed to favor UK and, by extension, their hiring of John Calipari.  I do not represent myself as an objective or unbiased source, although I intend to try very hard to be fair and objective in this series.  The purpose of this exercise is not to defend the indefensible or ignore the unethical.  However, I do think it is important to try to address the constant stream of negative commentary that has cropped up around the country regarding coach Calipari and test it's validity against what we actually do know.

This first part will be focused on the incident most often cited as a reason that Kentucky fans, school supporters and administrators ought to be concerned about -- the incident involving Marcus Camby during John Calipari's time as head coach of the University of Massachusetts Minutemen.

The story you will hear in the media goes something like this:  "After taking UMass to the Final Four, it was revealed that Marcus Camby, Calipari's star center, took money, clothes, jewelry and the services of prostitutes from two sports agents while at Umass.  But neither Calipari nor UMass were punished by the NCAA."

The implication of this is clear -- Calipari's proximity to a major NCAA scandal implicates him in that scandal in the minds of many.  The complete story, at least as much of it as is ever likely to be told in detail, may be found at the Sports Illustrated site.  It is a tale just as sordid as you would expect, and it's easy to understand why some in the sports media point to it whenever John Calipari's name comes up, despite the fact neither Calipari nor UMass was implicated in the investigation.  It is pretty unusual, in fact, for the school not to suffer some sort of sanction when a player is involved in a scandal like this.  UMass partisans would obviously tell you that having their Final Four erased and all the wins that Camby participated in vacated was a serious punishment, and indeed it is, but it could have been much worse.

So is the UMass scandal a valid criticism of Calipari, a cautionary tale for Kentucky?  Yes and no, in my opinion.  No, in the sense that it is clear from the NCAA investigation that neither UMass nor Calipari had any knowledge of the situation.  Camby was apparently very careful to conceal his Golden Geese from the public, at least careful enough not to raise any red flags with the coaching staff or university.

But the other side of that coin is that when things like this happen under the nose of a coach who is supposed to be intimately involved with his players, you have to wonder why Calipari did not suspect.  I'll be the first to admit that I am not a suspicious person, and it's pretty easy to get things past me.  But Calipari is in a business where everyone is trying to get a leg up on everyone else, and he has thrived in that world.  Surely there must have been something to make Calipari suspicious -- friends bedecked in finery or jewelry, the odd gold chain or nice wristwatch -- something.  Even if there was nothing, a more engaged or experienced coach may have been able to glean that Camby was up to something not quite right, and would have watched a player who was sure to attract seedy and unethical characters more closely.

The counter argument to this is that this was Calipari's first NCAA head coaching gig, and his success came very rapidly.  He had not yet been properly initiated into the devious ways of street agents and hangers-on, and Camby was his first real star.  Taken in totality, it doesn't seem a stretch to suggest that Calipari was not really looking for anything nefarious, where a more experienced coach most likely would have. Inexperience, in my mind, is a solid defense against the, "why weren't you paying more attention" argument, if not quite a dispositive one.

The fact that no such situation has come up since despite numerous NBA-quality players moving through Memphis seems a testament to the idea that this lesson was learned by Calipari, and learned well.  I tend to take the opinion that hard lessons learned are the best kind, because they stick.  Calipari dodged a metaphorical bullet at UMass fired at close range with a large-caliber weapon.  A similar situation at Kentucky would be more like trying to dodge a nuclear bomb than a bullet.  His near-miss at UMass is likely to be invaluable to helping him avoid a recurrence of another silent scandal at Kentucky.  A net positive?  Arguably so.

But as I said, I am a Kentucky partisan.  Your mileage may vary.