clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Kentucky Basketball: The Big Blue Nation Comes to John Calipari's Defense

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

I much prefer this picture of Coach Cal to the one Rob Dauster of NBC Sports used in his article today.
I much prefer this picture of Coach Cal to the one Rob Dauster of NBC Sports used in his article today.

Rob Dauster of NBC Sports had a blog post today that, to put it mildly, has the Big Blue Nation in an uproar on social media, particularly on Twitter.

Dauster's story features the headline, "Sleaze is alive and well in the recruiting world" and featured a picture of Kentucky coach John Calipari just under the headline. The clear message? Calipari is Sleaze Exhibit A.

Normally, Dauster writes thoughtful and fairly interesting articles, and this one was in response to the obligatory "recruiting is so sleazzzzzzy!!!" piece in USA Today -- you know, the kind we get every single year at this time? But along with Calipari as the photo and "sleazy" in the lede, this paragraph has doubtless drawn some ire:

It’s a thought that has crossed my mind many times. I don’t spend nearly as much time in recruiting circles as lot of the more well-known writers and I’ve heard numerous rumors about Recruit X getting Y amount of dollars from Coach Z. I’m sure there are guys out there that can detail you precise figures for all of the transactions that have occurred over the last decade. How much did OJ Mayo get from USC? Why is John Calipari cornering the market on the blue-chip recruit? What amount of money did it take for Adidas to keep Shabazz Muhammad in the family? [My emphasis]

One of these three things is not like the other two. John Calipari himself explained why he has "cornered the market" in the very USA Today article Dauster links. The other two things are clearly illegal, but is "cornering the market?" Only if you are subject to the Sherman Anti-trust Act, and I don't think that applies to Coach Cal.

Naturally, the Big Blue Nation responded, and somewhat understandably so. I've known Dauster a long time through his work, and he is not a hater of Calipari, although I would criticize him mildly for including Calipari's success along with two other examples of illegality. As a blogger, though, I can easily excuse that -- we all get criticized for inferences we didn't necessarily mean to draw. As to his selection of pictures, well, I like mine better.

To his credit, he also cites some relevant facts in the Maryland Terrapins - Kentucky Wildcats recruiting battle over Aaron and Andrew Harrison, although they are probably not nearly the factor that his narrative would have us believe.

Here's a few examples of many angry responses. Note that I don't really agree, I just present them as an example:

But I really like this one from Mike Miller of NBC Sports:

Are Wildcats fans being a little defensive? Yeah, but hey, I resemble that remark, and from any rational viewpoint, the outrage is somewhat justifiable. The article does look a little bit like an attack, even though I'm pretty sure Calipari wasn't the intended target, but "sleaze" in general. Sadly, for many, Calpari is the poster boy for that word. Yes, that's unfair, but since when was life fair?

Here is the only mention of Calipari in the USA Today piece, almost at the very end:

No coach in the modern era has had more success recruiting elite prospects than John Calipari, who has also fought the perception that his longstanding relationship with influential power broker William Wesley helped him land top-rated recruiting classes at Memphis and Kentucky. Wesley often sits in the stands behind Kentucky's bench and at times was given access to the Memphis locker room when Calipari coached the Tigers.

When asked if the presence of third-party recruiting influences has become more common, Calipari said: "If I were where I used to coach, it probably would be more of an issue for me, you know what I'm saying? There's always been more than just the high school coach or the kid you're talking to in recruiting to figure out who is who. I'm at Kentucky now. When I was at Memphis and Massachusetts, it was a lot harder than it is now. Fifteen NBA draft picks the last three years, it's gotten easier."

You can see here that this is straight reporting. The reporter, Eric Pisbell, didn't accuse Coach Cal of sleaze, or imply he was doing anything wrong. He pointed out, quite accurately, that Calipari's relationship with William Wesley is perceived to be somehow a linchpin of his recruiting success. That's nothing new or shocking.

Prisbell then asks Calipari about the effect of third-party recruiters, as Wesley is commonly suspected of being for Coach Cal, and Calipari gives him a straightforward answer that makes a lot of sense (as well as answers Dauster's question in the paragraph I quoted above). There is no rational doubt it is easier to lure players to UK than to UMass or Memphis --even Calipari's harshest critic would admit that. And after 15 draft picks, it's a whole lot easier.

Calipari wasn't asked, and did not deny using third-party recruiters, even though you and I might think it would be an obvious thing for Prisbell to ask. Prisbell's article has some things worthy of criticism as well, but not so much of what he wrote but what he was told by others. Take this for example:

"A lot of people have lost players," Izzo said. "And I am not saying that cheating is 80 percent of the game. It's probably 20 percent. But it's probably 70 percent of the top 20 percent [of player recruitments]. College basketball is a business. This [recruiting] is a business now because it leads to ours."

This is the kind of comment that a coach has no business making without something to back it up. It is completely passive-aggressive, and nobody, especially a coach in Izzo's position, could make a reliable estimate like that. This is very similar to the reporting in the Chicago Sun-Times about Anthony Davis' father hunting hundreds of thousands of dollars for his signature on an LOI -- damning, unsubstantiated and based on hearsay and speculation. Some might claim Izzo is in a position to know, but I very much doubt that.

Whether Izzo is right or wrong in his percentages, there's no doubt that there is cheating in college basketball recruiting, especially among the best players -- this is not news. In fact, this entire article is not news, it's simply a story about something we all are well aware of. We've seen its ilk before, many times, usually once or twice a year, and it always draws the requisite outrage, like Dauster's post.

But there is a bottom line here that nobody is willing to admit, or even say. The NCAA cannot police the process more than it does primarily because it doesn't want to. It can and does act when it gets reliable information, but many, especially guys like Dauster, fail to realize that probably not even federal law enforcement could act on this problem effectively, and they have subpoena power, which the NCAA does not. There are too many people involved that can't be directly connected to each other except by general association -- a Constitutional right under the First Amendment. Everybody involved in the recruiting game has money, or has friends with money, or has friends who have friends with money. Anything, and I mean anything where this much money is involved is going to contain corruption.

In the end Izzo, probably inadvertently, gets it right:

"It's just sad," Izzo said. "I don't see any way of stopping it, unless everything is curtailed and AAU basketball goes under USA Basketball. It just seems like they can't take on that animal. So everyone makes money off basketball."

Everybody. Including the NCAA, and Izzo, and Calipari, and... well, everybody. How much motivation does the NCAA really have to bust the cheaters and deprive the college game of great players? Suppose that all 70% of the top 20 recruits, whom Izzo claims are on the take, got busted. Would that actually mean more or less money for the NCAA? I'm thinking less, and I'm thinking they're well aware of that, and that awareness matters.

Is the NCAA deliberately looking the other way? No, I doubt that, but they spend an awful lot of time explaining that it's an impossible job. And one other non-basketball example -- Cam Newton -- simply bolsters the argument.

If you showed me the three famous monkeys with their various senses blocked, and said they might have something remotely in common with Indianapolis, I would probably agree. As Izzo suggests, the money train is what its all about. The NCAA won't let you cheat in broad daylight, but if you stick to the shadows, it becomes an intractable problem for them that is given much hand-wringing and many speeches, but precious few dollars toward stricter enforcement.

As far as the NCAA are concerned, the tougher it is to catch cheaters, the better for them. See, ignorance can be bliss -- and lucrative, too.