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Kentucky Basketball: Advice to Budding Sportswriters

Those of you who have read this space for a long while know that I must periodically vent my frustrations on a hapless sportswriter just trying to do his job and spew hyperbolic nonsense to interest readers in his article.  Paul Finebaum is today's victim, and a juicier target I can't imagine.  Well, maybe Pat Forde.

Speaking of Pat, and before I get to Finebaum, please consider this piece written last night by Matt Jones of Kentucky Sports Radio.  Matt does not often grace us with 1800-word essays, but when he does, it is usually worth a look, and his latest is no exception.  Just so you know, I can neither confirm nor deny any of the accusations he makes against the media members he takes on because I don't have Matt's sources, but I do think the article is interesting and in many ways, enlightening.

Now, back to the case at hand.  Paul Finebaum writes for the Alabama Press-Register and is generally a pretty good football columnist whom I read regularly.  Unfortunately, his commentary on basketball exposes his lack of interest in the sport, and typically extends mostly to big events or easy targets.  Of course, you know that means John Calipari has got to be high on his list by default.

So today, Finebaum rolls out the rhetorical Howitzer and opens fire on Coach Cal from his southern flank.  I thought it would be fun to examine some of this dreck in the hopes that other budding columnists may learn how not to opine on a subject they know little about.

Finebaum starts out in the most amateurish possible way, playing the Shark card:

It was the inimitable Jerry Tarkanian who said it best. ``The NCAA is so mad at Kentucky, it'll probably slap another two years' probation on Cleveland State.''

Based on the latest news, watch out Cleveland State.

This may look clever, but the equivalence he intends to draw is more eye-catching than the point he pretends to make.

First lesson to budding sportswriters -- when criticizing a coach, never, ever start your column by creating a comparison between the object of your criticism and the most obvious possible equivalent, especially one feigning another point.  Starting your piece with trite, shopworn, and deceptive stuff is never a good way to garner the interest of a reader, and they will notice that a reference Cleveland State never appears again.

Let's see now. This is a coach whose programs have had two Final Four banners vacated because of alleged impropriety -- UMass (1996) and Memphis (2008). Maybe it's a good thing the Wildcats lost in the regional final against West Virginia.

The obligatory set-up.  This is a repetition of the dishonest, abstract charges we have seen for years.  Bored yet?  I know, these people never seem to learn.  Don't worry -- it gets much more interesting in a minute.

Note to budding writers:  It's dishonest to use abstracts like this without fair exposition.

Does anyone care? Does it matter to Kentucky fans, to the SEC or even to the NCAA? Does it matter that everywhere Cal goes, a stench follows that is harder to scrub away than the oil sludge currently crashing into the Gulf beaches courtesy of BP.

Ah, here we go.  Now we get to the sanctimony, the profession of shock that anyone in Kentucky could possibly want such a coach.  Note the use of the word "stench" and the clever allusion to the gulf oil spill that is worthy of a college freshman.

Note to Mr. Finebaum -- of course we care at UK.  No team likes to have writers like you create Pharisaical articles condemning our school and our coach.  Not only do they litter up the Information Superhighway, but they actually confuse a few wretched souls who cannot think for themselves.  Calipari, of course, is clean of NCAA violations, or even any accusation of an NCAA violation.  And this makes him dirty?  Really?  Who knew?

Note to budding writers:  Don't ask stupid questions like this, even rhetorically.  It invites scorn and derision, and if you are going to do that, hold it until later in the piece.  By all means, avoid stating opinions as though they are facts.

So Lee Todd, the UK president, and Mitch Barnhart, the buttoned-downed and beleaguered athletic director, did what any desperate duo would do in the era of big-time athletics -- they sold their souls and hired Calopari. [sic]

Who did they sell their souls to, pray tell?  "Calopari?"  I mean, that must be the case, because surely "Calopari" is in league with the Devil, if not Old Scratch himself made flesh. 

Man, that contract sure was costly -- $4M a year plus two souls.  And we didn't even get a Final Four out of it -- talk about your all-time backfires.

Note to budding writers -- a spelling error is not the end of the world, but prepare to take some heat if you make one.

Not only was Todd important in reference to Cal's hiring, but as UK's president he may have been motivated by something else -- his position at the time as incoming president of the SEC. That is a critical post since he is the go-to person for the league office in all matters. And what was going on contemporaneously to the hiring of Cal? How about the SEC negotiations with ESPN and CBS for its new 15-year, multibillion-dollar television

Okay, so let me get this straight -- Kentucky hires Calipari because Lee Todd is about to become president of the SEC, and negotiate a deal with ESPN and CBS, which was mostly about ... football! 

That's right, Paul, most of the value the SEC brings to the game is football, not basketball.  So why would this be a motivation for Todd?  For the love of God, man, everyone in the universe not named Paul Finebaum gets the fact that Kentucky is the only school in the league that matters nationally for basketball, no matter who the coach is.  And Dr. Todd's hiring of a controversial coach is supposed to increase Kentucky's value?  If you have a point here, it goes AWOL. 

Note to budding writers -- don't create conspiracy theories unless they are meaningful to somebody.  Even if this were true, make sure at least some segment of your audience would care.

Does anyone at UK care about anything other than winning? Does anyone at UK want Cal to recruit future Rhodes Scholars or future lottery picks?

I don't know, Paul, does Alabama care about anything other than winning in football?  Florida?  Georgia?  Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think that's the idea behind having a sports program, regardless of the sport.

In answer to your second question, I'm going to go out on a limb here and say, "lottery picks."  It may have escaped your notice in many years as a sports columnist, but no athletics program in the SEC, or most of Division I, recruits Rhodes scholars.  They leave that to the academic people, and rightfully so.  An athletics scholarship, unsurprisingly, is mostly about athletics, not academics. Do we want the kids to do well in school?  Absolutely, but when they don't it isn't really a surprise to anyone. 

I know it is probably news to you, but UK just recruited Brandon Knight, who has a 4.3 out of a possible 4.0 GPA.  How does that work?  Beats me, but that's the way it is, and where I come from, that is a straight-A student (some might say A+).  He will likely enter UK just short of an academic sophomore.  How many other SEC  football or basketball recruits compare to that?  Very few I'm guessing, and if any, they are mostly at Vanderbilt.

Knight probably won't wind up a Rhodes scholar, though.  Not because he lacks the intellect, but because Rhodes scholars don't get paid millions of dollars a year like NBA lottery picks do.  Economics, Paul, economics.

Note to budding writers:  If you are going to impugn a school like this, make sure there isn't an incoming freshman who makes you look stupid. 

``We've got seven,'' Todd said. ``We want more.'' He was referring to the number of NCAA championship titles the school has won. He uttered all the mumbo jumbo about doing it the right way.

But Todd knows what moves the needle in Kentucky and it isn't the number of Phi Beta Kappa keys handed out on lazy spring days. If Todd cared, he wouldn't have strained his neck looking the other way as Cal brought in his first recruiting class.

This is the first honest thing Finebaum writes, although not in the way he intended.  This could be written about every university president in the SEC, and most of Division I as well.  Everybody intends to do it "the right way," and most everybody tries.  But almost everybody fails.

Finebaum is also correct in his second paragraph, but why this should trouble him, nobody knows.  Any honest examination of college athletics will find few programs loaded with athletes belonging to Phi Beta Kappa, and nowhere should anyone suggest that failure to achieve that distinction prejudices their education at all. 

But Finebaum needs an ox to gore here, and Kentucky is an easy target because of last year's poor academics in basketball.  He doesn't mention this, but that's what he's trying to allude to.  It's just clumsy and obtuse.

Note to budding writers:  Just say what you mean, even if it takes you a while to get there.  Don't count on the cleverness of your reader to figure out a reference to something you probably wouldn't otherwise care about unless you are trying to go all literary or appeal to a known interest in a segment of your audience.  Finebaum gives you a great example of what not to do here.

Of course, playing dodge ball with the NCAA is as much a part of the tradition of the Bluegrass state as thoroughbreds and distilled bourbon. The NCAA shut down Adolph Rupp's program in the early '50s for one season because of violations discovered during the infamous point-shaving scandals. The doors to the basketball program were nearly closed again in 1989, when the school got slammed for academic fraud and paying recruits.

This is, unfortunately, true, and a fair inclusion.  I include this only to point out that if you are out to criticize Kentucky, it is always fair to include a paragraph like this.  No fan of Kentucky likes to be reminded of these facts, but it is difficult to criticize anyone for doing it.  These facts are germane to his criticism, and fully accurate.  Finebaum has the chops to say this, as well, since he has exposed a couple of Alabama violations over the years.

Note to budding writers:  If you have special credibility in one area, don't be afraid to put it out there.

Kentucky is laughing all the way to the bank -- as always. Cal knows the headlines will fade. He remains the biggest thing to hit Kentucky since Colonel Sanders. And another thing seems pretty certain. He'll win UK a national championship over the next few years and then leave. Probably, as the NCAA vacates the title and the banners once again come crashing down.

Yes, Paul, we are.  Laughing mostly at scolds like you who, without a shred of actual evidence, are able to reach all the conclusions you wish the NCAA had, but could not for ... well, lack of actual evidence.  You didn't bother to do even cursory research for this column, and yet you spend valuable resources writing something that is of no value whatever to anyone.  You plow no new ground, you make no new revelations, and you don't even bother to be original in your criticism except for a conspiracy theory about Dr. Lee Todd that is absurd on its face.

But thanks for giving me something to mock.  Value of a sort, I suppose.  And I'm sure the budding writers learned a lot.

Note to budding writers:  Columns like this are not good for your reputation.  Avoid them if you can.