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Kentucky Basketball: "Is it worth it?"

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Kentucky fans have been bombarded over the last year with article after article condemning Kentucky Wildcats coach John Calipari.  Calipari continues to do what he has done for the last several years at Memphis -- recruit and coach at the highest level in college basketball.  Guys like Roy Williams are lauded for that kind of success -- Josh Pastner and Lorenzo Romar as well.  But not John Calipari, because apparently, a ton of self-styled experts just know that Calipari is doing "it" the Wrong Way.

What is the Wrong Way?  That, my brothers and sisters of the Big Blue Nation, is $64,000 question.  In general, it seems that the Wrong Way essentially boils down to, "whatever Calipari does," even if other coaches are doing exactly the same things in exactly the same way.  You see, it's okay when other coaches do whatever "it" is, but whenever Coach Cal is brought into the equation, "it" becomes somehow unethical or "greasy."  Has anyone but me noticed that "greasy," which was formerly considered a ethnic slur when applied to Americans of Italian descent, has now become acceptable in polite company when referring to John Calipari?

But that isn't the end of it -- if only it were.  Comes now rumors of coaching jobs all over the NBA, from the least to one of the best to everything in-between, wanting to rip Coach Cal away from his new Kentucky home after only one year of service and after signing two of the best recruiting classes in recent Kentucky history.  This is the same NBA, mind you, that kicked Calipari to the curb a few years back, the details of which are unpleasant to read.  Of course, there are a ton of NBA coaches who get the shaft -- that's just part of the way the league operates. Vinnie Del Negro could certainly tell a tale or two about that, and is already reportedly half way done with reading Calipari's Bounce Back.

Coaching in the NBA has to be one of the most tenuous and uncomfortable jobs on the planet from a job security standpoint.  Fortunately, it does pay pretty well. 

Did you hear all the Twitter-pap Tuesday night about Cavaliers coach Mike Brown?  Calipari was reported to be "hovering" around Brown.  The image of a buzzard circling road-kill comes immediately and I'm sure intentionally to mind -- just waiting, patiently and mockingly, for the Cavs to kick coach Brown to the curb so the Evil One can feast on his ruin and save LeBron from the depredations of free agency.  Is this what we've come to?

So it's time to ask the question, Big Blue Nation -- is it worth it?

I think it's a fair question, and I expect a few answers from Kentucky fans in the negative.  That's okay -- no coach enjoys 100% support from the fan base, and Calipari is no exception.

Certainly, Coach Cal has is issues, but unlike most of his detractors, I'm going to touch on the ones that are actually germane, not the fact of his two vacated Final Fours.  Those errors were made by others, and Calipari is just a convenient figure to blame.

First of all, the grades issue.  This is only a big deal if it continues to be a problem, but let's be honest -- the optics of it are very poor, and optics are really important in college basketball, especially when the coach is controversial, no matter how frail the facts of the case supporting the controversy.

Then, there is the one-and-done thing.  Reasonable people may differ on this issue, and it's hard to attack the fairness of those who raise it.  I have said before that the academic mission of universities runs contrary to sports programs, especially the so-called "revenue" sports.  In a purely academic sense, fielding a sports team makes little sense, since it contributes only marginally more than intramural sports to the rounding of an education, and arguably detracts from a student's ability to apply himself to other, presumably more valuable academic pursuits.

There are other things, too, in Calipari's past that justify some suspicion and disapproval, like the "package deal" situation which Coach Cal (among others, to be fair) employed to secure the commitments of recruits.  Convincing leftover players from the Gillispie era who did not fit Calipari's notion of a scholarship athlete at Kentucky to leave was another controversial action that has drawn censure, even from your humble correspondent.

But all these things do not justify the current level of wrath and derision aimed at Calipari, in this writer's opinion.  Even so, Kentucky fans are left to take the brunt of it, and asked to defend their fanhood over and over again in the light of this lengthy, if factually feeble indictment.

What have Kentucky fans received in return? 

  • Immediate return to national relevance in college basketball;
  • A continuing stream of highly skilled players with the promise of many more to come;
  • A #1 (however brief) ranking, with the promise of much time in the top ten from now on;
  • An Elite Eight appearance in Calipari's very first year with a freshman dominated team;
  • A ton of national interest and press;
  • Some very good basketball;
  • The name, "University of Kentucky" on the list of every major basketball recruit in the nation every year;
  • A man who seems to value the Kentucky brand a great deal more than his recent predecessors;
  • A man who understands the Kentucky coaching job better than any basketball coach in modern history, even Rick Pitino;
  • A tireless advocate for the University of Kentucky;
  • A humanitarian who has helped Kentucky causes, raised millions for desperate Haitians in the middle of the basketball season, and has shown us the right way to treat people as a public figure.

And this is not all, but this article is getting long -- you get the idea, I hope.

So I ask you again:  Is it worth it?